Anger is Our Check Engine Light
I see a lot of anger in my counseling practice, which is good. Anger is like the ‘Check Engine’ light on your car’s dashboard. It lets you know something is wrong, but it doesn’t tell you exactly what. To find out, you have to lift up the hood and poke around a little. Anger is like that—it’s your emotional idiot light—and that’s where the good can come from it.
When working with individuals or couples, what I find is that figuring out what’s behind the emotion can be very useful for finding out what’s really going on. Anger is our first emotion. It’s what we default to when we’re frustrated or scared, anxious or overwhelmed and, sometimes, even depressed. Looking past it, and figuring out what’s behind it, is when the real therapeutic work begins. This is true in individual counseling, but especially true when it comes to couples counseling.
Anger is very basic. It’s connected to our survival instinct. When we feel threatened, we react because we are trying to protect ourselves, or something or someone we value. When we come into conflict with another person or with our partner, it’s pretty normal to express ourselves angrily sometimes because we are defending something that’s important to us—our relationship with a co-worker, family member, friend or loved one. We often view it as negative because we associate it with aggression. When we have the opportunity to recognize it for what it’s really representing, and use it creatively to promote some kind of positive change, it can be very beneficial.
When we express our anger, it’s the emotional idiot light that says, ‘This is important. Pay attention!’ It sends a signal to whomever we’re dealing with that something’s not right, but we aren’t quite able to express it. When I see anger come up for an individual, or with a couple, the first thing I ask is, “Why?” Not “Why…” as in “Why are you angry?”, because that’s the kind of question that gets a blank look, but “Why is there anger here—what’s really going on?” When that chance to stop and think about the anger is offered, people are often amazed to discover that they aren’t actually angry, but struggling with fear, resentment, shame or some other toxic emotion.
Anger mixed with toxic emotions increases negativity, which often causes us to respond negatively. That’s when things get ramped up, and simple disagreements or minor conflicts turns into something bigger. Anger is healthy, and when we can recognize it as a signal that something else is going on, it can be a helpful tool for sorting out the real issues and moving on to better communication and healthier relationship.
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