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Understanding anger

19 April 2021

Understanding anger

Using a misunderstood emotion to rebuild lives and relationships

Words Karen Lattouf

I think anger would have to be one of the most misunderstood of all emotions. Anger often gets a bad rap. Most people try their hardest to avoid it, only to have it build up and, before you know it, the volcano has erupted.

Things get said that we don’t mean. Yelling might happen. Other kinds of lashing out occur, and we feel justified in it all because something happened that we don’t like, or that is unjust, hurtful or minimising.

Other people ignore, suppress and internalise anger, only to have it come out other ways that aren’t helpful. Doors get slammed. Eyes are rolled. Sarcasm becomes a slippery art, allowing the person to say what they really wanted to say, but ‘didn’t mean’. Or the dreaded silent treatment – shutting people off, either to let them know that we’re not happy with them or to prevent a bigger volcano happening. Or both.


These descriptions of anger are only part of the story, though, and show the negative behaviours that are associated with this emotion. Anger is a response to injustice, hurt or a wrong that has been experienced. We can be angry at circumstances, at experiences and at people. Anger is often called a negative emotion, but anger is neither negative nor positive on its own. It is a response to something, just like any other emotion: fear is a response to danger, happiness is a response to something pleasant, sadness is a response to loss. You get the picture. But, somehow, anger has been labelled and demonised and seems to have become the emotion that nobody wants.

In addition, anger is also probably seen as negative because very often, people act in unhelpful ways when they are angry, reacting to the pain, hurt, injustice or the affront of what has happened. We’re human, right? We hurt, we suffer, we don’t like being treated badly. The problem is that things escalate when they’re not handled with wisdom, care and restraint, and relationships suffer.


There are ways to be angry that can actually be helpful. The Bible encourages us to be angry in such circumstances, but not to let anger lead to “sin” or “fuel for revenge” (Ephesians chapter 4, verse 26). This is interesting because many people might believe that being angry isn’t okay at all. Hey, even Jesus got angry, showing his anger in ways that many of us wouldn’t think was okay when he turned the tables over in the temple. There is a place for anger, however, and it’s wise for us to learn how to express and use anger well.

Unhelpful anger focuses on punishing the offender, and helpful anger focuses on the offence. There’s an important distinction here – anger that focuses on retaliation and retribution toward the offender really only makes matters worse, and we begin to see the person only in terms of the offence. We define them by the hurt we feel, and it turns into an escalation of hurt, outburst, poorly chosen words – or an escalation of powerful and painful silence.

Anger that focuses on the offence, on the other hand, helps us to be more objective, and enables conversation about what happened, how it hurt us, what we’d like to be different, and how we can work together to achieve that. It recognises that there is more to the person than the offence they caused us. This wise use of anger doesn’t minimise the effect of the hurt on us, but is able to speak about it in a way that values us both, the relationship and our dignity and respect.

So, if the Bible tells us not to “sin” or seek revenge when we are angry, what are we meant to do? A quick Google search of ‘How to deal with anger’ will provide a wide range of helpful tips and tools to use to help us get started.

Some of these include:

  • Breathe – take some time out in the moment in order to calm down.
  • Be aware of how anger affects you – do you feel it in your chest? Your stomach? Does it cause you to raise your voice? Or retreat?
  • Be aware of how you act when you are angry, and how those actions affect others.
  • Think well – what is happening here? What is causing my angry response? What contributes to this? Do I have all the information I need, or am I making lots of assumptions.
  • Take time to hear the other person out, as well as asking them to hear you.
  • If you are both very heated, agree to have a break and make a time to come back to the conversation when you are both calmer.
  • Do what you can to retain a sense of goodwill toward the other person, and don’t define them by this harm that they have caused you.
  • If you feel unsafe when another person is angry with you, or if you feel that your anger gets out of control, seek some professional support that can help you navigate this and make good decisions for yourself.


    Of course, if another person’s anger, or your own, puts you in any physical danger, seek emergency assistance immediately.

    Even Aristotle, the ancient Greek philosopher, understood the complexity of anger:“Anybody can become angry – that is easy; but to be angry with the right person and to the right degree and at the right time and for the right purpose, and in the right way – that is not within everybody's power and is not easy.”

    Well, Aristotle, it might not be easy, but it is possible!

    Karen Lattouf is a leadership development specialist for The Salvation Army Australia.


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