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Why Suppressing Your Anger Hurts You

Written by
Michael Wells

Why Suppressing Your Anger Hurts You

Written by
Michael Wells

Why Suppressing Your Anger Hurts You

Written by
Michael Wells

Originally answered on Quora, this question was raised ...

When you’re really angry, what can calm you down in an instant?

This was my response...

Let me challenge your thinking here - no matter how good you get at calming your anger, that’s not the same thing as dealing with it.

As a young child, I grew up in an abusive home, with a dad who didn’t know how to manage his own anger. When it came out, it came out in a big way, and made a mess of things.

To my little kid brain, this was interpreted as-

“Holy crap anger is SO bad, look how much damage it causes, I can never do that.”

So like you, I learned to suppress anger, and I got pretty darn good at it.

Why This Doesn't Work

By the time I was a teenager, I was calm, cool, collected, even in  emotionally intense situations.

Deep inside, I could feel this nagging emotional baggage, a lifetime of repressed emotion. But I felt like I had it decently under control.

This seemed to work well until something sudden would happen that I didn’t expect.

In sudden situations, my rational mind couldn't react quickly enough to suppress the unexpected anger, and I would explode.

There's a scientific explanation for this...

Your mammal/emotional/feeling mind (aka “System 1”) is far, far faster than your human/rational/thinking mind (aka “System 2”).

When emotions like anger trigger suddenly at a high intensity- your rational mind has basically zero chance to put on the brakes.

… even the smallest, stupidest thing, like stubbing my toe on a step.

KA-BOOM. 

I will just say that I got fairly decent at drywalling.

The intensity of anger I’d feel in these moments was overwhelming.

I could try to keep making my rational mind stronger, and learning new emotional suppression techniques, but my emotional mind was collecting this huge pile of repressed anger that wasn’t going away.

When a tiny thing would make me angry suddenly, the whole weight of that repressed anger would explode out with it.

There was a lot of kindling to fuel that fire.

It was like locking a tiny “anger puppy” away in the closet, only to have that closet burst open a year later with a full grown rabid rottweiler at your throat.

Why Does This Happen?

Anger is IMPORTANT.

Anger is an essential, fundamental emotion, and it’s one of the main reasons you’re alive.

Anger is your brain saying “I feel threatened,” and it motivates you to protect yourself.

If you, or your ancestors had been incapable of feeling anger, you would have been eaten or killed by mother nature long, long ago.

Like all emotions, when you repress anger, it doesn't go away, it accumulates.

As long as you have those memories, you will keep those repressed emotions attached to them- which is to say... forever.

And your mammal brain is smart. Its job is to keep you alive, so when you repress anger, your mammal brain just says...

He's not listening. Let's turn up the volume.

Emotional repression doesn't work. It doesn't make the anger go away, and it just makes your mind a toxic, unbearable place to live.

Fortunately, you can reverse the situation entirely.

Here’s the thing- no matter how much we try, we will always have both an emotional mind and a rational mind. We will always be half mammal, half human. Freud’s ego and superego.

This is a fundamental human struggle, which many of us think of as a battle, between thinking and feeling.

Those two levels of our mind are not supposed to be at war.

When we try to shut one of these two brains down, and “side with” the other one, we suffer terribly, because it goes against our fundamental nature and design.

How I Deal With Anger Now

The basic truth is that all emotions are helpful.

The key for me was to stop trying to repress them, and instead, learn how to listen and use them in my decision making.

My process for dealing with anger is very different now, and I find journaling helps tremendously.

When you feel any strong emotion, especially anger, here's what I recommend;

  1. Stop and go somewhere quiet. Create space if you need to. You’ll need less space later - once you’re using anger effectively, you’ll no longer have the massive pressure of repressed anger adding to the situation.
  2. Take a moment to investigate what’s happening in your head.
  3. Ask yourself...
    “why do I feel threatened?”
    "what do I think will happen here?"
    "what are the possible reasons this person could be acting this way?"
    "what do I want to happen here, in a perfect situation, and why do I want that?"
    "what should I do next?"
  4. If possible, record your answers - by writing or audio recording to your phone. I find saying this out loud to myself, to my phone recorder, is the easiest and quickest way for me to journal strong emotional states. I also get to learn more from them by listening to past recordings.

The process of reflection, connects your rational and your emotional minds, so they’re speaking the same language. 

Once the thinking part of your brain understands why the feeling part is throwing a tantrum, it becomes very clear what’s happening, and what the best course of action is.

Then, your energy gets to go towards solving the problem, rather than trying to control your emotions.

You'll know when you've answered the right question, because the anger will disappear instantly, and never return. You'll be left with a new understanding of your core values, and a lot of clarity on what needs to happen next, and why.

It's beautiful discovering this, because suddenly emotions become one of the most valuable things in your brain- the big glaring neon sign that points the way to the most important thing you need to learn right now.

Follow that sign. Unplugging it won't work.

And, this same process works with ever past memory you have too. It took me about a solid year to work through a lifetime of emotionally repressed memories, but the process was kind of magical.

One of the most freeing things I've ever done.

Actually, it's downright beautiful.

My mind is mine now, with no more war.

Your anger is NOT the problem, it’s just a dashboard light, telling you something critically important. If you cover it with electrical tape… your engine will eventually explode.

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Addendum

Does Time Heal All Wounds?

I used to think so, but... it seems time doesn't help as much as you'd expect with mental trauma.

Except when you die, of course, we assume.

I recently coached a man who was still missing his girlfriend from high school. They dated for only 2 months. He last saw her 34 years ago, and has not had contact with her since. 34 years... mind-blowing.

The mind reinforces what you choose to think about consciously, and it surfaces memories and imagery attached to what it wants & needs emotionally.

When you experience trauma, I see people heal much faster and more completely if they approach it the same as, say, a broken leg. Get it set right, attended too, care for it. Don't walk on it for awhile, then once it's sound, re-strengthen it and rebuild the muscles with exercise. Done right, it will be stronger than it was before it was broken.