We typically view anger as a negative emotion that we want to get rid of as fast as possible. Anger can feel like losing control, or like we’re letting someone get the better of us and keep us in a negative emotion.
And those are real aspects of anger.
But anger can also be covering up feelings of fear, betrayal, pain, grief, and other complex emotions that we won’t fully process if we don’t let the anger pass through.
In my course, participants classify themselves as a character type common to games, like a Druid, Wizard, or — most applicable to this blog — Barbarian.
The Barbarian, in a gaming context, is a character with brute strength, a fierce fighter that can go into a rage mode and take down strong enemies.
The adaptation for my course is someone who fights back against an abusive person, and who may shut down and walk away from relationships at the first sign of conflict because at the first sign of anger, they feel out of control like they did in a past traumatic experience.
The Barbarian’s recovery into a more healed version of themself with healthier boundaries and communication will rely on processing of the trauma behind their rage and anger.
But anger only controls us and keeps us from healthier relationships when we don’t understand what it’s doing: trying to protect us.
What is your anger protecting you from?
Anger is like a protective fire around you. Guilt, shame, fear, grief — they all burn up before they can touch you and hurt you. That’s what your anger wants to do for you.
We tend to try to rush it, to get away from anger, because it’s uncomfortable to sit in a negative emotion. We want to be happy and cheerful and calm and totally okay. But sometimes we’re not okay!
Let yourself feel angry for a few moments. Feel where the anger settles in your body. Talk to it if you’re so inclined — “Hey anger, I know you’re pissed about the neighbor being super loud. It’s very annoying.”
By paying attention to your anger, you might notice patterns. If you get angry very easily, multiple times a day, that irritability might be a sign that your mental health is suffering from stress or anxiety.
You might also notice that the anger dissipates and has a deeper feeling underneath. This is the feeling that anger was trying to protect you from.
I feel angry at my abusive ex-husband. He messed with my head for years, controlled me, took credit for my achievements, and exhausted me with mental gymnastics that left me too burned out to realize what was even happening. I am ANGRY about it, and that anger is justified. A person deliberately harmed me for years of my life, and harassed me after I left the relationship.
But under the anger is a series of more complicated feelings.
Grief for the forever marriage I thought I had built. Grief for the baby I never had and never will. Grief for the mother-in-law I lost. Grief for the cats I left behind.
Betrayal and pain that someone who said he loved me was actually harming me and making me feel crazy when I tried to communicate. Confusion as I wonder if any of it was ever real. I feel used.
Disappointment in myself that I didn’t see it sooner. I have a lot of compassion for myself here. I couldn’t have seen it any sooner. He was textbook in his technique, and with a history of abuse I was a perfect target. I wish I could wrap my former self up in a huge hug and tell them that it’s not their fault. (I guess I can! Self, it is not your fault. I love you so much.)
Tired. I feel tired when I think of everything I went through in that marriage and to escape it. In the first year after I left, I talked about it a lot. In the second year, sometimes I’d start telling a story about something he did and I’d just stop, because I was tired of giving him the space in my mind. He made me tired, and I’m still tired, but I’m getting less tired.
All of these emotions and feelings are underneath the anger, once I let it burn bright for a moment and fall away.
What’s your anger language?
Just like love languages, attachment styles, and apology languages, the way people express their anger varies from person to person and can cause conflict when people’s expectations don’t line up.
The Slow Burn
A Slow Burn type takes a while to talk about their anger or process it. On the plus side, this means that when they do bring it up with the subject of their conflict, they can approach having sat with their feelings for a while. However, if they don’t actually do the work to process and work out their feelings, they might just sit on this anger forever and will eventually need to let it out. And that might not be pretty.
If you’re in a traumatic situation, you might not even realize you’re angry until time has passed and you are in a safer situation. I had one very calm breakup and was surprised to find my self absolutely pissed at that ex after I had been gone for about a year. It took me that long to feel safe enough to feel all the feelings.
The Short Fuse
The Short Fuse is someone who goes from stimulus to expression very quickly. On the plus side, this can mean that they don’t shy away from talking out a problem right away. But they may not have time to feel all their feelings and might get more angry if their partner isn’t ready to talk it out yet.
People tend to have a shorter fuse when they are under more stress in their overall life. Even if your main anger language is something else, sometimes we are all the Short Fuse.
The Flame Stoker
The Flame Stoker seems to embrace anger and conflict, firing off snappy comebacks and personal attacks to provoke the person they’re talking to. This anger style is usually symptomatic of a highly stressful and traumatic life.
A Flame Stoker likely grew up in a family in which anger was the most common emotion displayed, and they may have been bullied at school and home. To stay safe, they had to be ready to be on the defensive at a moment’s notice.
Without a model of healthy anger management, they are still stuck in old patterns. The Flame Stoker would benefit from therapy to process the ingrained trauma patterns and anger outbursts so they can achieve healthier communication when they feel threatened or angry.
The Candle Snuffer
The Candle Snuffer tries to blow out their anger as soon as they feel it, leaving a residual smoke puff of unprocessed emotions. This type of person doesn’t want to feel anger because it’s uncomfortable, so they try to suppress and ignore it.
They may have had to walk on eggshells in a traumatic home or relationship due to a parent or partner’s explosive outbursts, so they never were able to express themself without a healthy model.
The Candle Snuffer is the sibling to the Flame Stoker, both raised in unhealthy dynamics without an example of how to be angry in a healthy way.
The Hearth had a healthy, securely attached childhood — or has been through a ton of therapy and processing work to get here. The Hearth lets anger gently burn and allows it to illuminate the conflict and other feelings underneath. The Hearth treats anger as a functional emotion rather than anything to be controlled or tamed.
Note: If you act in aggression (hitting or yelling at a person, animal, or object, throwing and breaking things, etc), consider seeing a therapist about anger management ASAP, because physical or verbal aggression is abusive.
Journal prompts to process anger
Because anger can be tough to sit in and feel all our feelings about, journaling can be a helpful way to process the anger itself and the feelings underneath. Try these journal prompts to dig into something you feel angry about.
- What is my anger language? What are examples of the ways I have handled my anger in this way before? Do I use my anger language in a healthy way or an unhealthy way?
- What is my anger about this situation protecting me from? What’s underneath?
- Where does my anger sit in my body? Does it have a color or temperature? Does contextualizing it this way make those feelings change?
- What were my parents anger languages? How did we handle anger as a family?
- What have my romantic partners’ anger languages been, and did I have healthier relationships with certain types of anger language partners?
- Have I felt this particular kind of anger before, in my past? Think back to other times in your life you felt like this. Is there a repeating pattern in my life?
Level Up Your Boundaries
Curious about what type of character you might be? You can reserve a spot for the next Level Up Your Boundaries course and find out in March! Check out the course page for more details about how you can become your own hero and level up the way you handle your anger, boundaries, and overall communication.