Sometimes you get so righteously pissed off that it actually helps you make a positive change: You can use your anger as a motivator to hit the gym after a breakup and sculpt the perfect revenge bod, for example, or find a better job to escape your annoying boss. But there’s a thin line dividing that useful anger from the type of anger that leads to self-destructive behavior, like constantly blowing up at little things and alienating those around you. The difficult part, of course, is figuring out where that line is knowing when you’re about to cross it.
How to Make Anger Work for You
Anger can only be a positive change agent when “you fully understand what you’re angry about,” says Carmen Chang-Arratia, a licensed social worker in New York City. Anger with a clear cause, she says, is the type that can be used for good, because it’s clear what the reason for it is.
“These are good points because you can see the beginning and end of your anger: What you don’t want anymore, what you’re looking to get rid of and what you now may want. You’ve crossed the frustration bridge and entered war territory. Anger is a call to action.”
Generally speaking, it’s a good thing to embrace your anger — whether you act on it or not: According to a study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, suppressing or ignoring your angry emotions will only bottle them up and lead to depression. Instead, the study claims, “Forming a habitual acceptance of negative emotions helps keep individuals from reacting to — and thus exacerbating — their negative mental experiences.”
Where It Goes Wrong
The longer you leave your anger unresolved, the more difficult it becomes to identify what made you angry in the first place, and things compound from there. “Sometimes things can stack up, but there’s usually one triggering event,” says Chang-Arratia. The anger at this original trigger, she explains, gets spread to multiple more trivial annoyances, causing you to both find it harder to focus on expressing anger at the original trigger in a healthy way, and to flare up in bouts of rage at things that don’t deserve such an extreme reaction. “All that emotion must be stored somewhere,” Chang-Arratia says. “It builds up inside you and becomes depression and anxiety.”
This venting of rage at more trivial things starts its own undesirable pattern of behavior, too, by putting you in a cycle of constant flare-ups. Just like any system of instant gratification, allowing your anger to repeatedly erupt in violent reactions is addictive, and quickly turns into a learned behavior. Worse, this causes you to completely lose the ability to use your anger for positive change.
“If you want to someone to be quiet and you yell at them, hit them or threaten them, the result you want will assuredly happen almost immediately,” Chang-Arratia says. But because it’s so superficially quick and effective — you’ve dealt with the symptom (the noise) but not the cause (the reason someone was yelling at you in the first place) — it’s easy to slip into the habit of expressing your anger through these means. And in the long term, immediately resorting to an angry response every time you become mad threatens your ability to exhibit proper judgment.
This is where things begin to spiral, since venting at smaller annoyances might bring you temporary relief from your pent up aggression, but won’t help deal with your actual problem in the long term. If you’ve missed the mark on what you’re angry at or you spend your time steaming about something you can’t quite put your finger on, you may feel the anger turn inwards, even as you keep directing small bursts of it towards undeserving targets. This is when it manifests itself as depression or anxiety, and can even seep into your relationships, damaging them and compounding the detrimental effects to your overall mental health in the process. You get stuck in a mental rut, unable or unwilling to move on. As a result, people stop wanting to be around you — the guy who’s always brooding — creating a sense of isolation that will just deepen that spiral.
Once you’re in an angry tailspin, it’s likely the root of your anger is so far in your past it’s beyond the point of resolution. The only way to break out and move on, then, is to merely accept that you can’t go back in time to fix it, and instead try to take back control of your life. “Begin by acknowledging that your past cannot be changed and focus on working on the present,” Chang-Arratia says. “Decide what you can change now so you feel more in control of your life, living for the present and future rather than in the past.”
How Long You Should Hang Onto Your Anger
Unfortunately, even if you are fully accepting of the cause of your anger, there’s no official timetable that denotes how long you should stay angry at specific triggers: Some people might get over a breakup after two weeks; for others, it’ll take six months. But as the study earlier suggested, sooner is generally better. The more skilled you get at acknowledging your anger and pinpointing what exactly is making you angry, the happier you’ll be. And if it’s something you have no control over — a broken escalator, people eating on the subway, backed-up traffic — learn to let it go.
“Most people believe they have much more control over things than they really do, and then chastise themselves with, ‘I should’ve known better,’” says Chang-Arratia. “Before you get angry, ask yourself, ‘How long will I be able to change what happened, and do I have any control over what just happened?’ If the answer is ‘never’ and ‘no,’ holding on to your anger will be to your detriment.”
So learn to acknowledge and pinpoint your anger, then use it to spark change, because the longer you let it simmer, the further you get from being able to do anything about it.