Anger is a normal, valid, and often adaptive response to frustrating situations; not the demon it’s often made out to be. But anger–even righteous anger–can quickly become self-destructive if not processed carefully.
In this guide, we discuss where anger comes from, how to understand your own anger, and how to use anger as motivation for healing. Healing from anger is very different from ignoring or stuffing it down.
Additionally we want to note that while this article may also apply to feelings of anger in everyday life, anger at systemic injustice is a different story. It shouldn’t be on you to manage these feelings; the pressure is on the entire system to change.
We will stop being angry about injustice in America, especially toward Black people and POC communities, when there is fundamental positive change toward equality and fair treatment.
The function of anger
Negative emotions signal that a change is necessary. In whatever way we can, we want to change our lived experience to decrease the sadness, frustration, loneliness, or anger that we feel. Most of these negative emotions trigger an avoidance response, meaning an increased motivation to escape obstacles or situations. Anger, on the other hand, triggers an approach response, meaning an increased motivation to face and overcome obstacles.
Because of anger’s motivational capacity, anger is often a useful emotion that results in:
- increased effort toward reaching goals
- increased investment of time and money
- increased drive to change other people’s behavior
As such, anger serves to catalyze individual and societal change. Without anger, we would be more passive people, missing a key driving force toward improvement.
When anger becomes self-destructive
However, when we are unable to use our anger to make changes in our life or the world, it internalizes and begins to tear us down from the inside out. Anger, which starts as a driving force for external change, becomes a lingering internal emotion that only frustrates and hurts. Unfortunately, Black and POC Americans may even experience the intergenerational impacts of internalized righteous anger and frustration. (This even holds true in colored communities across the globe, for example, folks of Aboriginal descent in Australia)
Here are some of the signs of more serious issues that can occur when anger remains unprocessed:
- you feel frustrated, lost, and stuck
- you feel your anger is out of control
- your anger damages your relationships
- your anger leads you to do or say things you regret
- your body hurts after you get angry
- you regularly feel like you’re going to explode
In these cases, your held-in anger is unleashed on your own wellbeing, escaping by unproductive outlets that will do nothing to change the root cause of your frustration. The combination of negative consequences and a lack of positive changes can further increase feelings of anger, creating a destructive loop. To break the cycle and get back to the root of your feelings, anger must be reflected on and processed.
The biggest tip for harnessing righteous anger: use it to motivate healing
Use it to motivate healing.
When you’re the victim of injustice, anger can be used to self-motivate. If nobody is going to treat you how you deserve, you had better learn to assert your boundaries, understand your own needs, and advocate for yourself. These are all aspects of more general emotional healing that can help put righteous anger to use.
In reflecting on infuriating circumstances, pay special attention to your desired outcomes. Start with outcomes that relate to your personal wellbeing. In the wake of large-scale injustice, your ultimate goal is systemic change, but talking about your anger might bring you the peace you need to continue fighting. Letting things out and processing tough emotions may help you cope with your anger, while you work toward the change that can heal it.
Lastly, do not let your anger compound by getting frustrated with yourself for feeling the way you do. People tend to think hiding their anger is the right thing to do; but when you’re angry at objectively unfair and biased treatment, anger becomes a tool for creating change. Anger is normal and understandable, and it can confirm a gut feeling that you’re being mistreated.
To channel intense feelings, embrace your righteous anger as a motivator, and as the antidote to gaslighting.
NPR provides a list of ways to channel righteous anger into productive change, here.
“As discussions about police violence and systemic racism continue, African American leaders say it’s crucial for people to find a way to safely process both historical and current events and get help when they need it,” according to this article. And Black mental health leaders are actively working to create healing spaces to turn to in these threatening times.
Remember to give yourself patience and time — processing anger isn’t easy or simple. Especially not when it’s so deeply justified. No justice, no peace.