Why this matters
Anger can be triggered by many things. Basically, anger is a reaction to a perceived or actual injustice. We may believe someone has harmed, or threatens to harm, ourselves or someone we care about. Harm in this case refers to physical harm and to psychological or social harm, like hurting our pride or attacking our reputation. In merit-based environments like the workplace, real or imagined threats to others’ perceptions of us can result in anger. They may be threats to our reputation, trustworthiness or reliability.
Anger is a normal reaction to something that seems unfair. Being able to identify and address something that’s unfair is the healthy purpose behind the emotion of anger.
The challenge with anger is managing how we feel and behave when we experience it.
It’s helpful for us to try to fully understand anger to deal with those who are experiencing or causing it.
It’s important to understand the characteristics of anger when managing them:
- Assumptions: anger can relate to something that happened and to our speculations and assumptions about people or situations. For example, sometimes we become angry when we simply assume others have hostile intentions toward us.
- Thoughts: those associated with anger may include blaming or judging. For example:
- “They made me do this, so it’s their fault.”
- “She’s so selfish.”
- “He shouldn’t have done that.”
- Exaggeration: angry thoughts can have a greater impact when they’re worded or imagined in extremes. For example, “My whole project is ruined” or “They never get it right.” Each of these are likely exaggerations in the same way “you always” or “you never” are often not true.
- Negativity: anger can get more heated when people dwell on negative images and thoughts about the situation or event. Focusing your attention on unresolved anger can be like fanning the flames of a fire.
- Passive-aggressiveness: people may express anger passively through sarcastic or purposefully vague remarks. Passive-aggressiveness tends to occur when we feel unsafe to openly express anger. This can happen when we’re angry with an authority figure, like a boss, parent or teacher.
- Rage: some are unable to manage emotions when angry and may become verbally or physically aggressive or violent.
- Compounded anger: a previous incident may fuel anger. Any angry reaction may seem out of proportion for the current situation. It might be related to past incidents or experiences. For example, someone who’s been teased repeatedly in the past may seem to overreact to seemingly mild mocking.
It’s also important to understand anger can be accompanied by involuntary bodily changes that would allow us to attack others or defend ourselves against threats. The experience of anger varies from person to person, but generally involves physical responses like:
- Increased blood pressure – causing raises in skin temperature and flushed skin
- Rapid heart rate
- Teeth grinding or clenching
- Increased energy and restlessness
Anger can trigger a surge of energy that causes us to behave more aggressively. We might:
- Pace around
- Slam doors
- Snap at others
- Yell or say nasty things intended to hurt
These factors can escalate anger to the point where they’re a significant threat to mental health and psychological safety.
Explore and reflect
The examples below show situations in which anger can affect the way we think of ourselves and the way we act. Notice how our actions might be different when our thoughts are different.
Your mother keeps interrupting you while you’re trying to say something important.
“She thinks she already knows what I’m going to say.”
Raise your voice, speak in a stern tone and make sarcastic remarks.
“She’s anxious and perhaps worried about what I may say.”
An employee doesn’t do her work as you’ve instructed.
“She’s trying to undermine my authority. She wants to embarrass me in front of my co-workers.” (They assume hostile intentions.)
Glare at the employee, try to assert your authority by speaking louder and in a stern tone. Look for this employee’s weaknesses.
“She may be unclear about what she needs to do. I’ll speak to her privately and see if I can clarify.”
A young woman is convinced others favour her best friend.
“They like her more. They won’t appreciate me no matter how hard I try or how much I do for them.”
Become silent and disengaged when spending time with these friends. Put less effort into the friendship or give up on trying to fit in.
“I value the relationship I have with my best friend – it’s okay if everyone else likes her too.”
A person is running late for an appointment and is waiting longer than expected in a store line-up because a new customer service representative is being trained.
“What a time to train a new person. The store management should know this is the only time working people can run errands. I can’t get anything done.” (They’re thinking in extremes.)
Become visibly impatient, glare at everyone at the counter or make derogatory comments about the employees to others in line.
“Unexpected delays are frustrating, but everyone has to learn sometime. The best thing is to figure out whether to come back to the store later or let those waiting for me know I may be late.”
During a practice, a teammate makes a casual remark that sounds like a derisive comment about another member of the team.
“He’s making me look bad. I have to stand up for myself and confront him aggressively on this or I’ll lose face.”
Think of a good “comeback” remark, glare at the teammate or become sarcastic with them for the rest of the practice.
“The others know he can be abrasive… his comment reflects more poorly on him than on me.”
A manager needs to push back target deadlines because an employee couldn’t deliver their part of the project on time.
“They’re not even trying to be efficient. They’re so useless and lazy.”
Talk to the employee in an irritable tone or mock them in front of their co-workers, saying things like “We’ll see how long they take this time.”
“They’re overloaded and struggling with their own work demands. I should see if there’s a way I can help.”
Although verbal or otherwise outward expressions of anger may give short-term emotional relief and the satisfaction of revenge, the long-term consequences can be dire. We should try to understand how others might feel in touchy situations. This can help us detect and moderate unhealthy, anger-based behaviours before they cause too much damage. It’s helpful to be mindful of angry thoughts and ways to reframe them.