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Anger has a terrible reputation in our culture. But is it deserved? Or is there a role for anger as one of the emotions that can teach us and bring us into a state of wholeness? If we tease anger apart from its unsavory companions, contention and fury, we can give ourselves permission to enjoy anger’s benefits while avoiding its potential damage.
Contention is off limits. After all, the Savior warns about avoiding contention as part of His very first visit to the children of Lehi: “…he that hath the spirit of contention is not of me, but is of the devil, who is the father of contention, and he stirreth up the hearts of men to content with anger, one with another” (3 Nephi 11:29). Contention is an unhealthy response to anger. Contention is hostile. It does not seek to solve problems; contention seeks to control, manipulate, and punish.
How can we avoid contention but reap the benefits of honoring all our emotions, including anger?
Anger is an emotion of boundary
Every emotion, including those we may consider “negative” emotions, has a role in teaching us and keeping us safe. Anger invites us to pay attention to what is happening and respond to new circumstances or potential threats. Anger is an emotion of boundary; it helps us to recognize when our boundaries are being violated, and it give us the energy to protect them. But because we often repress anger, feeling it is wrong to be upset, we turn that energy inward. It doesn’t manifest itself until it makes us ill or bursts forth in uncontrolled rage. Suppression or a tantrum: are those our only choices? Can we create a healthy space where we can recognize this valuable emotion, learn from it, and use its energy to express our needs or set things right?
Yes, we absolutely can! But that means we recognize, acknowledge, and respond to our anger long before it overwhelms us or undermines our health. If we ignore anger, it doesn’t disappear. Melanie Beattie explains that “not feeling anger will not make it go away. Its energy will still be there pounding away inside us, and, in subtle ways, pounding away at others too. Until we acknowledge our anger, feel it and release it, it will keep us off balance, on edge, and irritable” (Journey to the Heart, p. 133).
How can anger be healthy?
What does this look like in practice? If I feel myself becoming angry, I first pause and become more deeply aware of what is happening in that moment. What am I responding to? I may recognize some kind of injustice or unfair behavior towards me, perhaps even something that is bothering me on a subconscious level. Simply becoming aware of the situation may be enough. My anger has called my attention to an issue that I can respond to in a calm, clear way. It has served its purpose, and I can let it pass away.
One place where we often have silent, persistent anger is in our relationships with family. While family can bring us joy, expectations can also become a challenge. Remember negotiating where to go and what to do that first Christmas after getting married? Even the invitation for a weekly Sunday meal together can feel irritating, yet we feel guilty for resenting our families’ desire to spend time with us.
Recognizing what we feel and calling it by name gives us the power to respond in a healthy way. For example, “I feel resentful that we can’t have friends over to dinner on Sunday; I am irritated and sad we’re not in our own home on Christmas morning; I am annoyed I have no choice whether we attend family events or not” identify the emotion and what we need. Once we recognize where we feel powerless, we can reclaim that power by setting a boundary, such as “We love getting together with you regularly, but we also want to have some Sundays where we invite over new families in the ward and get to know them. We’re going to come to dinner every other Sunday in the future.”
When we recognize and respond to our own need early, we can honor those needs at the same time as we calmly set boundaries to manage others’ expectations. On the other hand, if we wait and let resentment build, it can simmer for years or blow up, undermining our affection and trust in our family members.
When the boundary violation is more severe, we may need the energy of our anger to protect ourselves or others—not with fury, but with a powerful determination to safeguard well-being. That energy can carry us through hard conversations where we advocate for ourselves or our family, our community, our faith, etc. The key is to recognize the emotion early on, respect it, listen to it, and respond to it. When we do that, we don’t suppress anger until it breaks out in uncontrolled ways and damages our relationships. Responding to the emotion early by naming it and asking what it can teach us helps us avoid actions we will regret. Then we can let it go, rather than continuing to revisit and refuel the emotion.
Anger is not contention
Anger is like an orange barrel on the highway; it invites us to slow down and pay attention to what is going on around us. Anger can be our teacher.
We can choose to respond to anger with contention, which will damage both our spirit and our relationships. Or we can appreciate anger’s benefits, respond quickly to what we learn, and pray for guidance to do so with humility and grace.