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How to choose your anger

Dec 15, 2009

Do you feel that you have a choice over what to be angry about? I often get a difference of opinion on this question. We will discuss what our options are below. But first let us define anger. Anger is an emotion, not a behavior. If we behave poorly when we are angry it simply means that we "felt" angry and we "behaved" poorly. We want to make sure we separate the behavior from the feeling. They are two separate things. The anger is an emotion and whatever behavior we did as a result of the anger (e.g. cursed, yelled, etc.) is a behavior.

Do we have a choice over what behavior we use when we are angry. Yes, of course. We are not tied to any one behavior when we feel angry. We might feel that we are because we've been doing the same thing, such as yell, when we are angry for the last 30 years. But it is very important to understand that behaviors are learned and can be unlearned.

Anger is not a behavior. It is an emotion. To a certain extent being angry cannot be unlearned like a behavior. It is a normal emotion which whether we like it or not we are going to continue to experience from time to time. This is the part of anger which is innate within us.

However, there is an aspect of anger which is learned. That aspect has to do with how long we hold onto anger and how many things we get angry about. These things are learned and can be unlearned by us.

HOW LONG DO WE WANT TO STAY ANGRY? The shorter the period that we are angry the better. This is because anger is a stress on our bodies and causes negative health consequences if we hold onto it too long. In general anger held for the short term that motivates us to positive change is the anger that we want. Anger held for the short term that motivates us to negative change we don't want. And we don't want any long term anger.


First we want to own the fact that we feel angry. We don't want to brush it off as nothing if it is something. If we deny our anger we will bury it and as a result we will build resentment. Building resentment is the primary thing we are trying to avoid. So we must not ignore our angry feelings. Also, we must learn to validate our primary emotions, like hurt or fear, that underlie the anger. When we learn to validate our own feelings we grow our self esteem which in turn helps us to deal with our anger more appropriately.

Second we want to take responsibility for our role in the problem. If we cannot directly see something that we did to create our problem, we then want to ask ourselves what choice we made which helped to bring the problem to us. An example might be that we are driving and we come to a complete stop at a red light. The driver behind us rear ends us through no fault of our own. We are not directly responsible for our problem, the other driver is. However, we made a choice to drive and therefore made ourselves vulnerable to being rear ended. An extreme example, I know, but I wanted you to get the point. It is only through seeing our responsibility in our problems that we can empower ourselves to change our future.

Third, we want to use our newly found knowledge of our responsibility to set boundaries. Boundaries are used for the purpose of preventing the same problem in the future and/or lowering our resentment about the problem. Using the above example, we may try to prevent the problem of being rear ended in the future by driving at less busy times or on different roads. We may try to find a way to brighten our stop lights on our car. Or we may try to drive more defensively. Of course, we can do nothing to guarantee not being rear ended. Instead, our boundary can be used to limit our level of resentment about the problem. We can try to accept the "what is" element of the problem. It has already happened. We can't change it. We can focus on the idea that the chances of it happening again are slim. We can focus on the gift that the problem has brought us. This means that something positive comes from every problem. We just have to seek the awareness of it.

HOW MANY THINGS DO WE WANT TO GET ANGRY ABOUT? The less, the better of course. In general, we have the ability to choose to get angry or not to get angry about most things.


We want to choose to not get angry about unimportant things. What we tend to classify as important versus unimportant things varies with the individual. However, in general, try to put as many things as possible into the unimportant category. Some things are obviously unimportant such as a phone call from a nuisance salesperson. Other things seem more important but are still very plentiful in occurrence, such as someone opening their car door into your car and leaving a ding. We want to try and put these things into the unimportant category also. We want to leave for the important category only things that are enormously important in terms of how they might impact our life, such as an unresolved conflict with a family member or friend. Our anger would be useful here, but remember that the purpose of the anger is to use it in the short term to enact positive change. This might mean setting appropriate boundaries with that person or helping us channel to the more useful primary emotion (hurt, fear, abandoned) which might help us communicate our feelings and work towards strengthening the relationship.

Also, we want to choose to not get angry about things we cannot control. I tend to repeat myself on this because it is a big one. I see people spending endless amounts of time being angry about things that have already happened or things that will be happening. In either case it is about things that they can't control. You can't control things that have happened because they have already happened. Why be angry about the event or about the person who did it. Again, your anger is only useful for as long as it takes you to own your own responsibility and set a healthy boundary. You also can't control what others are going to be doing in the future. Why be angry about these things as you anticipate them. Your anger here would only be useful for as long as it takes to set a useful boundary to minimize the impact of their actions or decisions.

The quality of your life and peacefulness of your spirit will be determined by your choices. CHOOSE CALM.

Author: Lorraine Watson

Lorraine Watson is a licensed therapist in California with extensive experience in the areas of anger management, nonabusive relationship skills and trauma. She is the author of "Expressing Anger Nonviolently". The contents of that book can be viewed on our website at

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