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This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at BU chapter.

In a world so focused on living life to attain pleasure, anger is one of the least acknowledged and processed emotions. Emotions associated with negativity, such as anger, are uncomfortable. It unsettles us when we feel these emotions, and we do anything we can to avoid them, especially when we see these sentiments boiling up in others. So often we’ve seen anger play out in the form of violence and hurtful language, and it can be scary to see what you or the people close to you are capable of when overcome by emotion. What is important to understand, however, as clinical health psychologist Dr. Wu says, is that anger is an emotion and not a behavior. The unfavorable reputation associated with anger needs to be separated from its expression, seen as physical, emotional, or mental abuse to others or oneself, even repeatedly, when anger is suppressed. Connecting the feeling and its potentially harmful expression prevents the view of anger as a positive force that can be harnessed for change and self-growth and instead promotes the mentality of needing to avoid anger at all costs.

From a young age, we are taught to hold back on the full spectrum of our emotions. When kids get angry, so often the root of their anger is the fact that their actual needs are not being addressed. Instead, their actions are dealt with. Whether it’s sending you to your room or saying that strangers are making fun of you, caregivers typically force reflection or stop the WAY you react rather than solve the anger itself, but the line gets blurred. The trend continues into later life. Common advice on anger often explicitly or involuntarily suggests cutting anger out or simply letting it go, for our own well-being, but is it actually in our best interest to not interrogate this anger? 

We need to take a step back and realize is that anger, like all emotions, exists for a reason. It remains in human beings, preserved through evolution, to serve a purpose. For our ancestors, anger alerted them to danger to their wellbeing, which plays out today as a signal of injustice.  

Obviously, things have changed, and we cannot acceptably react as our ancestors did with fists and clubs, so how do we use our anger? What does it mean to feel and express anger? Confronting anger first and foremost requires remembering the feeling and acknowledging it as anger. It is to look closer to see where the feeling sprung from, whether betrayal, a broken promise, lack of respect or approval, etc. and make a decision. As Dr. Reynolds, leadership coach and expert on emotions in the workplace says, you can either release your emotions or use them to drive change. 

A healthy outlet of anger can be letting go, but only after the triggering event is understood and the choice is consciously made to feel a different sentiment while recalling the event. However, if it is something significant to you, hold on to it, voice it out and act on it. Anger energizes you; it taps into your circuit of willingness and fuels action to get your needs met. Historically and even in the present day, there are so many things that are not as they should be, and it is anger that has driven people to change. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke of his anger at multiple points of his life like when a white bus driver had ordered him and his teacher to give up their seats on a 90-mile trip and when dynamite was thrown at King’s house. All this anger he kept, and as King said, “I could feel the anger rising.” But he caught himself and thought, “You must not allow yourself to become bitter.” It was this anger as well, according to Clarence Jones, attorney and speechwriter for King, that propelled him to write the famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” which is considered one of the most powerful pieces of persuasive writing ever. Many others have spoken of anger and how it fuels change; from Greta Thunberg to Mahatma Gandhi, the list goes on. Anger is a catalyst for some powerful initiatives. 

Beyond that, anger is also a protective emotion that helps us understand ourselves better, through our boundaries. It strengthens and deepens relationships, through insight into the needs and comfort levels of ourselves and others.  

Another way to look at anger’s benefits when properly faced is to consider the outcomes of suppressing anger because everyone feels anger, and when it’s repeated or significant, it can’t just be ignored. Frustration seeps out, as Dr. Reynolds explains, through surrender: relinquishing one’s abilities to change anything and choosing to hold resentment in our hearts — which can end up with misdirected anger and even violence, or through attacks: harshly judging those responsible for the anger and attempting to gain support and validation from others — often ending up as a cycle of passive aggression and constant venting. It consumes you and, as the quote goes, “Holding onto anger is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die,” with “holding” in this context interpreted to be leaving anger unaddressed to fester. We hide our anger behind other feelings, be it worthlessness, despair or bitterness, which does no good. 

It can feel embarrassing and demanding to put your emotions into cohesive thoughts, let alone verbalize them. To have to admit you’re affected and concretize your emotions, especially through anger, has become something to be dismissed for. This is predominantly seen for women with the terms “angry feminist” and “angry black woman” demeaning and devaluing amazing and talented individuals such as Serena Williams and even former first lady Michelle Obama for their emotions and what they stand for. In an age where everyone is playing their cards close to their chests, it’s hard to feel exposed. Anger is messy, and it can get out of hand. Sometimes people will never be able to understand where it’s coming from and how strongly one has to feel to put that kind of emotion out there. Nevertheless, anger is never something to be ashamed about. Just as the greats felt it, it is empowering.

Easier said than done, right? It’s desirable to think about anger as a force for our wellbeing, but we have seen how things can take a turn for the worse. What’s most scary about anger is that it’s hard to control, and nobody wants a weapon in their pocket that can fire at any time, damaging relationships and hurting feelings and potentially having far-reaching impacts on your career and life stability.

While the idea of expressing anger, especially to one’s superiors, seems unprofessional and a quick route to getting fired, a study by Stickney and Geddes makes for a pretty convincing case. The research looked at expressed vs suppressed anger and found the action of confronting one’s superiors to be predictive of a perceived improvement of problematic situations in the workplace, while suppressed anger forms led to a perceived deterioration in the workplace environment. The study also found that it was individuals with a high organizational commitment that expressed anger to the “relevant other” such as management or those who were responsible for provoking the anger while employees who were emotionally exhausted and regularly experienced negative emotions tended to follow the approach of venting to uninvolved parties or remaining silent. This is just one study among a growing amount of research that suggests expressing anger in the workplace can have all-around positive outcomes in terms of productivity and employee well-being. 

Anger is still the product and excuse for bad things we see out in the world, but acknowledging it is putting your hand on the trigger rather than letting it sit unattended with the safety off. It can be hard to relate to visionaries who inspire change over their anger around large issues, detached directly from most of our daily lives, whether climate change or racism. However, the “inconsequential” things you are getting annoyed or irritated about today, could actually play into bigger things, the fight against systems and institutions: sexism, flawed education, abuse of authority, and xenophobia can all start off “small,” with that one colleague who never takes you seriously or that one superior who devalues the work of their employees.

As we grow older, we have more power and more responsibility to be able to do something about the things we find appalling instead of complaining and reading about those who do. So, what are you going to do with that anger today?

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Originally from Bangalore, India, Meha is a junior at Boston University majoring in Medical Science with a minor in Psychology. When she's not cramming she loves going on long walks, playing sports and traveling.