Sometimes anger isn’t what it appears to be!

Well, it’s 2006, and the off-season is in full swing. But a change in the calendar does not, by itself, eliminate psychological burdens you might have carried with you from 2005. One of the emotions that people sometimes hold on to—day-to-day, week-to-week, year-to-year—is anger. We don’t like to admit it, because many of us have been convinced that anger is somehow evil—anger means confrontation, and all confrontation is bad, right? Wrong!

The value of confrontation depends totally on the circumstances. If somebody does something wrong, and if saying or doing nothing about it will be harmful to your well being (or the well being of someone important to you), then avoiding confrontation is foolish.

Consider, for example, that somebody gets credit at your job for an important project that you actually did. Do you just humbly swallow it and say nothing, or do you let the appropriate person know that you, in fact, did the job? The answer, even if difficult, is obvious. Any other choice will result in a festering resentment that will affect your future work and your overall peace of mind.

The way you confront a situation has a lot to do with how well you accept the need to confront. While it might seem sensible to deal with a family member by saying, ‘You idiot! How could you do that?’ it probably makes more sense to say something like, ‘I’m really concerned by how you handled that. Please tell me what you were thinking.’ If your goal is to reason and persuade, then it makes sense to communicate in a reasonable way. If the person you’re confronting can’t be reasoned with, then don’t bother. It’s a waste of time.

Occasionally anger is nothing more than a feeling. People who act blindly on these feelings can hurt themselves and others. This is why anger gets a bad name. But it’s not anger that should get the blame; the problem stems from the way the person handles—or mishandles—that anger.

Rational anger (based on facts and logic) is a correct and appropriate response to an injustice. The facts and logic may be debatable, but at least there’s some kind of reasoning behind the feeling. To not be angry would be to deny the reality of the injustice. There is no virtue in denial, long-term resentment and bitterness.

So the question becomes: What do you do with the anger? Do you take suitable action, in proportion to the small or large injustice? Or, do you determine that, for various reasons, it’s not worth it, and let it go? Facts and reason must be your guide.

Sometimes we experience what psychologists call ‘displaced anger.’ Displaced anger occurs when you express anger in one situation when you’re really angry about something entirely different. A mother blows up at her son for leaving his toys on the floor. She’s understandably irritated about his oversight, but it’s not the toys on the floor that are making her feel explosive with rage. It’s something else; something going on in her marriage, her work, or whatever. The point is that we’re not always angry for the reasons we immediately feel we are. Long-standing anger that doesn’t get addressed or expressed will latch itself on to some person or situation entirely unrelated to the anger. ‘Anger management’ psychotherapy (when explosive rage has occurred in inappropriate situations) can help an individual understand why he or she is really angry. If your reaction to something is clearly out of proportion to the situation, chances are good that you are, in fact, angry about something else.

Hurt feelings, masking themselves as rage or irritation, are another major source of anger. For example, a parent’s disappointment in her child’s behavior or performance in school might really be feelings of hurt. Why? Maybe she feels she has put effort into raising the child properly, and this is the thanks she gets. Most parents know this feeling, and the hurt comes out as anger. But, instead of blowing up at the child (something that rarely accomplishes much of anything) the parent should consider telling the child how hurt or disappointed she is.

Anger, masking itself as hurt, frequently plays out in marital and romantic relationships. The classic example is a feeling of betrayal, resulting from an affair or some other major disappointment by a romantic partner. People who feel hurt and betrayed lash out. ‘Hell hath no fury’ not only applies to ‘a woman scorned,’ but also to any person who, deep down, is more hurt than angry. I have seen this play out in prolonged legal battles, hateful diatribes, nasty emotional exchanges and even, at times, physical violence. These expressions of anger, as vicious as they can be, are often nothing more than expressions of hurt. An experienced anger management psychotherapist can help an individual separate the feelings of hurt from the feelings of anger.

As if anger were not complicated enough, human beings make it even more complicated than it has to be. If people better understood how anger can be displaced or even disguised by the mind, there would be less verbal, emotional and physical abuse. Psychological help is worthless unless you’re first willing to acknowledge that maybe you don’t know the true causes of all your emotions. Stop and think about how you feel and why you feel that way. Insist that angry loved ones do the same. The results may surprise you.