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Anger has gotten a bad reputation. Type the word into Google and your top hits are most likely about how to reduce or manage it. A typical headline? “Controlling Anger—Before It Controls You” (from the American Psychological Association, no less!).
For one thing, anger and violence are often equated. “In historical depictions of the sin, the link is tightly and quite literally drawn,” writes Simon M. Laham, Ph.D., in “The Science of Sin: The Pathology of the Seven Deadlies (and Why They Are So Good For You).” Moreover, studies have shown that anger can negatively impact our health, increasing our risk, for example, of cardiovascular problems.
But anger isn’t the same as violence. “Anger is an emotion, while aggression is a behavior,” says Sally D. Stabb, Ph.D., professor of counseling psychology at Texas Woman's University and co-author of “The Anger Advantage: The Surprising Benefits of Anger and How It Can Change a Woman’s Life.” “They are not the same and don't have to go together. You can be furious and do nothing, for example. Or you can be aggressive with no anger whatsoever, such as when someone is assaulted or their house broken into to get their money or valuables. This means when you are angry, you have a broad spectrum of actions available to you and you get to choose what you do with your anger.”
And the effects on our health aren’t negative in the cut-and-dried way that’s been advertised. It’s partly a matter of parsing what we mean when we say “anger”—there are many different shades. As Timothy W. Smith, Ph.D., notes in “Anger, Hostility and the Heart,” hostility is very different from anger and has quite different repercussions, but many studies have failed to distinguish between the two.
More importantly, studies have shown that one of the unhealthiest parts of anger comes not from feeling it, but from suppressing it—that is, pretending you’re not pissed off and avoiding expressing the emotion. “Repressing anger may lead to psychosomatic symptoms—like headaches, but that's just one example—or to depression,” says Stabb. “There are times when it makes sense to temporarily set your anger aside—you may not want to lose your job by exploding at your boss—but that doesn't mean a woman should ignore what her anger at work is telling her and make reasoned choices about what to do with her anger.”
In fact, suppressing anger can not only harm us, but in certain circumstances, controlled anger can also be a pretty helpful emotion. It alerts us to harm, wrong-doing and unfairness, like the anger at work that Stabb mentions. “Anger has evolved as an emotional gauge of injustice,” writes Laham. “When we see the rights of others trampled or someone get harmed, we get angry.”
And if we’re aware of injustice—toward ourselves and others—we can start working to create change. “Appropriate anger expression allows us to state our needs, to indicate to important others when boundaries have been crossed or when we have felt betrayed, insulted or treated unfairly,” Stabb says. “Anger can motivate us to leave or change bad situations.” (The caveat: If you frequently have feelings of anger—because you often feel slighted or not in control—that could signal a cognitive distortion, meaning having rigid, inflexible ideas that color the way you interpret the world, which needs to be worked on.)
In a 2004 study, Deborah L. Cox, Ph.D., an associate professor of counseling at Missouri State University and her colleagues found just that: A focus group of 16 women attested that, in some situations, they found anger useful for helping them set boundaries, self-define and clarify their needs.
When we’re angry, we tend toward confrontation, but this isn’t always a bad thing. Though confrontation can be physical or spiteful, it can also be constructive. “Part of the reason for such attitude change may be that angry people are processing information more effortfully and analytically,” Laham writes. “Not only do they search for information that might disconfirm their own opinions, they might also process this information more carefully.”
In a 1988 study, Mario Mikulincer, Ph.D., then a professor at Bar-Ilan University in Israel, gave 90 students discrimination tasks. Those in the high-helplessness condition tried to complete four questions that had no answers; for those in the low-helplessness condition, only one of the four questions was unanswerable. The low-helplessness group was more likely to experience frustration, while the high-helplessness group experienced more feelings of depression. In a subsequent task, the frustrated people solved a lot more problems than the helpless, depressed participants. In this case, mild frustration, a variant of anger, yielded perseverance. When angry, some people are able to focus more on goals and rewards, triggering persistence despite adversity.
Controlled anger can also make some people much better at certain negotiations. In a 2005 study out of Stanford University, Marwan Sinaceur, Ph.D., and Larissa Z. Tiedens, Ph.D., asked participants to role-play a negotiation. Those who were told they had poor alternatives to making a deal were much more likely to concede to people expressing anger than people who weren’t.
What’s more, research shows that angry people may be go-getters. In a study, published by Jennifer S. Lerner and Dacher Keltner in 2001, the researchers found that angry participants’ judgments resembled those of happy people: Both felt relatively high degrees of certainty and control. And both, as a result, were more optimistic about their futures and likelier to take risks, as compared to fearful people.
When we’re angry, we’re not the only ones who have more faith in ourselves. A 2001 study by Tiedens suggests that others judge us as more competent, too. Tiedens had half her participants watch a video of an angry Bill Clinton, who “looked straight into the camera” and “emphasized his points with strong hand gestures”; the other half watched a sad version, in which “his head was hung and his gaze averted.” The first group was more likely to say that Clinton should retain his position despite the Monica Lewinsky scandal. This finding extends to unknown politicians, too: When Tiedens repeated the study with an unknown actor pretending to be a politician, participants said they were more likely to vote for the angry politician than the sad one and to think he’d make a good leader. Expressing anger didn’t make the politician more likeable, but it did make him seem more competent—and thus likelier to achieve a position of status.
So, what to do with your anger? The first step is to work on noticing when you’re ticked off. In her research, Stabb and her colleagues found that “many women had tremendous difficulty even knowing when they felt angry or admitting it if they did,” she says. But that can change. “We can become better at tuning into ourselves,” she says. “This takes time and work and a willingness to do it.”
Stabb recommends paying attention to your body to notice when you’re tense: Do you clench your teeth? Narrow your eyes? Sigh? Any of these could clue you in to the fact that you’re angry and trying (unwittingly) to suppress it. Also, dig a little deeper by thinking about the way anger was expressed in your family, including considering “the rules—both spoken and unspoken—about anger expression,” Stabb says, which can influence how you show anger. If you’re feeling blocked, there are several types of therapy aimed to help you get in touch with and understand your emotions.
Once you’re able to tune in to the times when you’re angry, work on using the powerful emotion to your advantage. “It really comes down to how anger is expressed,” Laham writes. “If the focus is on calmly discussing the reasons for one’s rage, then the outcome is often good. Whether a response to goal blockage or injustice, anger promotes adaptive behavioral strategies: persistence, optimism, control, punishment. Of course, if anger grips us too tightly, it may morph these adaptive responses into the maladaptive—persistence into stubbornness, optimism into unwarranted riskiness, control into obsession and punishment into vengeance. As with the other sins, anger must be exercised with caution and a little restraint.”
In other words, anger doesn’t have to turn you into a She-Hulk. Practice noticing it, expressing it in a productive way—and wielding it wisely.
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