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Anger Management Files: Corrupt vs. Clean Anger

Anger gets a bad rap in our culture. And it’s understandable. Many have done destructive acts in a moment of rage that either damaged property, relationship or even ended life. But anger in it of itself isn’t the problem. Like any emotion, anger can be directed either productively or destructively. Believe it or not, it is your choice. If you find yourself constantly on the verge of a "blow up", then something's wrong. If anger is the most frequent emotion experienced, I call this corrupt anger. It’s corrupted because a person should be experiencing an array of emotions rather than mostly anger. More than likely, there is an underlying emotion below the anger that needs acknowledgment and appropriate expression. That underlying emotion might feel threatening or unstable, so rather than get in touch with that emotion, anger erupts. Clean anger is an appropriate response to displeasure and acts as a positive motivator for change.


If you experience corrupt anger, maybe it’s time to explore what might be going on "underneath". When I was newly married, my short fuse ignited often. My poor husband had no idea what he was in for. My tolerance level for frustration bordered on the non-existent. Once in a fit of anger, I chucked my wedding ring at our kitchen window and put a big crack in it. Because we were barely making ends meet at the time, it took a while to save up enough money to replace the window. That crack stood as mute testimony of my out-of-control rage. I wish I could say that window was my only casualty, but it wasn’t. Eventually we had a heart-to-heart chat about my outbursts. Clearly I needed help. Through intense soul-searching and targeted therapy, I came to terms with the underlying issues that fueled my anger. One of the big take-a-ways from that exploration was unresolved grief over childhood issues with my dad. Once that was uncovered and dealt with, my anger subsided. As a result, my window-cracking days are over!


When properly channeled, anger is clean and can be a positive motivator for change.


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Anger management is not about eliminating anger all together since anger lets us know we care about something that needs our attention. When we are in control of our anger rather than the other way around, it informs what we focus on to correct something out of alignment. Clean anger provides the motivation we need to act so that whatever is amiss can be remedied. Mature relationships can handle expressing and hearing displeasure in a meaningful way that prompts dialogue and mutual solution-seeking.


But corrupted anger garbles the message and frequently covers up for other emotions like hurt, rejection, loneliness, grief, or fear. It's important to get to the root cause of your corrupted anger, deal effectively with what you find, and then you experience freedom. From there, you also learn to express anger in appropriate ways that preserve relationship. 

If you have trouble containing your anger in the moment, then you first have to practice strategies to diffuse the rush of energy that anger brings. Some options to consider are:


  • Remove yourself from the activating event/person. A change of scenery usually helps deescalate the emotions so that you can clear your head and think productively about next steps.

  • Redirect your energy towards something that won’t harm yourself or another person. Go for a brisk walk, run, or other exertion to expel the energy buildup; tear up a piece of paper slowly; use artistic expression like paint, clay or other medium to express the underlying feelings; journal (see exercise below).

  • Process with a trusted other. Talk out with an objective 3rd party what you experienced to explore your thoughts. Word of caution on this one: be careful not to just vent excessively to friends. When someone vents without proper reflection on their part to manage anger better, friends become resentful of being used as an emotional dumpster.  


For further reflection, you can do the hard work of exploring roots of your anger flare-ups. A good starting place if you have anger issues is the following brief awareness exercise :


  1. Just the Facts: write down a situation when you felt your anger get out of control. Include all the people involved, the setting, and any relevant details or background.


  1. Expectations: what were all of your expectations for that situation? include what you were expecting from the others involved, yourself, and the environment. For example, if you were waiting in line at Starbucks, you might have reasonably expected to wait 5 minutes for your order, you expected the barista to make the right coffee, and you expected to enjoy your drink.

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  2. Feelings: think about all the feelings you experienced when your expectations weren’t met. Were you frustrated at yourself or someone else? Did time constraints make you feel anxious? Did someone say something offensive? Did something profoundly unfair happen and you felt helpless to right the wrong? If you need ideas for feelings, do a quick internet search for Feelings Lists to get ideas.


  1. Damages: how did your out-of-control anger affect you, others, or the environment? Did your actions cost you something in terms of money, relationship, your own peace of mind, or physical damage to someone/something?


  1. Alternate Ending: how could this have been handled differently? What could have changed the outcome? What did you need in that moment that you didn’t have? How can you prepare for next time?


Finally, practice self-compassion. Doing an exercise like this for the first time might frustrate you if you’re not accustomed to identifying underlying feelings. You might judge yourself for “doing it wrong.” It’s okay. If you took a stab at this, then you’re on the right track. If this exercise isn’t a helpful format for you, then try something else. The internet has an abundance of resources. More importantly, reach out to a trusted partner to share what you discovered in doing this or any other exercise designed to increase your insights. And remember that change happens incrementally. You’ve developed habits of behavior over time. If you are aware you need to alter how you approach disruptions in general, it’s going to take time, patience, and practice to lay down new patterns.


Clean up your anger so it does what it was designed to do: get your attention to make productive changes. If others around you have commented on your anger or if you’ve become aware that it’s the most common emotion you feel almost daily, it might be time to seek professional help. Don’t try to just go it alone. If you need someone to help you do this, you can contact me for a session and we’ll work together to eliminate corrupted anger from your life.


Christine Lister, LMFT helps others find relief from corrupted anger, excessive anxiety and other mental health ailments. Use the contact feature of this website to find out more information about scheduling an appointment.

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