Anger is a normal human emotion.
And there’s nothing necessarily wrong with feeling angry. In fact, it’s often helpful: Anger can motivate us to maintain fairness and correct injustices.
But chronic, unexamined anger puts you at risk for two serious consequences:
- Aggression. From small sarcastic comments with your spouse to major acts of violence, aggression—the tendency to act out your anger—can be devastating and destructive.
- Chronic Stress. While acute moments of anger aren’t harmful, being in a chronic state of elevated anger can increase your overall stress levels. And consistently elevated stress leads to a wide range of problems from physical illness and psychological distress to relationship conflict and problems at work.
Whatever your anger issues look like—from chronic irritability and frustration to road rage or passive-aggressive communication style—the key to working through them is this:
If you want to be less angry, you must understand the function your anger serves.
People with chronic anger issues feel that way for a reason—their anger serves a purpose and addresses some need within them. And if you want to not be angry all the time, you need to understand what hidden purpose your anger serves and figure out healthier ways of getting that need met.
In the rest of this article, I’ll explain four common but subtle psychological reasons why people stay stuck feeling angry all the time.
1. Anger is your antidepressant
In many cultures, sadness is seen as a sign of weakness. This is especially true for men.
As a result, we learn to avoid sadness—or try anyway…
- For some, they learn to numb out their sadness and grief with drugs or alcohol
- Some people use casual sex as a way to distract from deep sadness
- Still others try to avoid sadness with false cheerfulness—insisting on always putting a positive spin on things without taking time to reflect on genuine pain and loss.
But one of the most common strategies for avoiding sadness is anger.
Some people learn from an early age that they can distract themselves from feeling sad by making themselves angry.
Anger is a particularly tempting antidepressant because, contrary to what most people think, anger is actually a positive emotion.
We tend to think of anger as a negative emotion because many of the consequences of anger tend to be negative: violence, rudeness, stress, insults, etc.
But if you stop and reflect the next time you’re angry, I think you’ll realize something surprising…
Anger actually feels good.
Psychologists classify anger as a positive emotion because it is ego-inflating. Which is just technical jargon for the pretty obvious idea that makes us feel strong, powerful, and self-righteous.
And because anger is such a powerful way to temporarily feel good, it’s easy to fall into the habit of using anger as an antidepressant—to distract from or numb out the pain of sadness and grief. This is especially true, I’ve found for men—and especially for men who grew up around other men who used this strategy.
If you frequently feel angry but rarely feel sad, maybe you’ve fallen into the habit of using anger to mask your sadness.
If so, it’s worth taking the time to explore the role of sadness in your life.
“Anger is just anger. It isn’t good. It isn’t bad. It just is. What you do with it is what matters.”
― Jim Butcher
2. Criticizing others is how you maintain self-esteem
Many people keep themselves feeling angry because it’s an easy way to temporarily boost their self-esteem.
Self-esteem is your regard for yourself as a person:
- Healthy self-esteem is the result of being genuinely proud of yourself and how you live your life. It doesn’t mean you’re in denial about your faults and failures. To the contrary, it means you can see yourself objectively and in a balanced way. And if in general you’re proud of the way you live, your self-esteem will reflect that.
- Low self-esteem is the result of being ashamed or disappointed in yourself and the way you live your life. Crucially, just because you have low self-esteem doesn’t mean you don’t live your life well—it means you don’t perceive things that way.
Now, for a variety of reasons from early childhood issues to overly-negative self-talk, many people develop low self-esteem. Which means that deep down, they just don’t feel good about themselves.
Obviously, this is a painful way to live. And so…
Some people learn to cope with the pain of low self-esteem by criticizing others and making themselves feel better in comparison.
And while this can be an effective strategy for boosting your self-esteem in the short term, it never works in the long run. In fact, more often than not, it actually keeps your self-esteem low because on a deep level you don’t respect yourself for using this “strategy” to feel good at the expense of others.
So, rather than using criticism of others as a cheap and ultimately illusory way to boost your self-esteem, the solution is to find healthier ways to feel good about yourself.
And the easiest way I know to begin doing this is to ask yourself a simple question:
What’s one small thing I can do today that I would be proud of myself for?
For better or worse, how we feel about ourselves is the result of our actions—what we consistently do on a regular basis.
If your chronic anger stems from low self-esteem, finding genuine ways to do things you’re proud of is the best way to build high self-esteem and let go of your need for chronic anger.
“Often those that criticise others reveal what he himself lacks.”
― Shannon L. Alder
3. Unrealistic expectations make you feel confident
As human beings one of the things that terrify us most is uncertainty…
- Uncertainty about what other people think about us
- Uncertainty about whether we will perform well or not
- Uncertainty about the meaning of life, death, and existence itself even!
This fear of uncertainty is especially painful for people who grew up in environments that had lots of uncertainty and potential for danger—abusive or neglectful parents, extreme poverty, trauma, etc.
And as a child, we all cope with our fears as best we can with whatever tools we have available to us.
Many people learn as children that setting and maintaining unrealistically high expectations for others is a good way to feel less uncertain and more confident.
- When you’re afraid that your friends won’t want to hang out with you, you adopt an expectation that Good friends are always there.
- If you’re afraid that you’ll do poorly on a test in school, you apply an unbelievably strict expectation of yourself that I always get As.
- If you’re insecure about your marriage, you adopt the expectation that my spouse should always make me feel loved.
All of these are extremely unrealistic expectations. And they’re a set-up for chronic disappointment, relational conflict, and self-loathing.
So why do we hold on to these expectations of ourselves and others?
We maintain unrealistic expectations because they give us the illusion of certainty and the brief feeling of confidence that comes with it.
Back to our examples from earlier:
- When you tell yourself that good friends are always there, you make it seem like the world is a perfectly orderly, predictable, and therefore comforting place. And that feels good.
- When you tell yourself I always get As, you make it seem like your performance is always going to be exceptionally high. And that feels good.
- When you tell yourself that my spouse should always make me feel loved, you make it seem like you’re married to the perfect partner and everything will turn out well. And that feels good.
Of course, everybody—including ourselves—is deeply flawed and imperfect. And expecting them to be otherwise is not only a set-up for chronic disappointment and frustration… Ultimately it’s inhumane.
Just like the expectation that you should always get the best grades in class, always make people laugh when they’re sad, or whatever other perfectionistic belief you have about yourself are a form of self-sabotage and self-cruelty, so too unrealistic expectations of others are a form of cruelty.
Give yourself and others the grace to be exactly who they are and everybody will feel better in the long run.
And remember: Giving up expectations doesn’t mean you’re giving up hope. Go ahead and hope for the best—just stop expecting it.
“I’m not in this world to live up to your expectations and you’re not in this world to live up to mine.”
― Bruce Lee
4. You’re afraid to be assertive
Chronic frustration is often the result of chronically ignoring your own wants and needs.
See, many people are chronically angry but just wouldn’t describe it like that. Usually, they describe themselves as frustrated and irritated but not angry necessarily.
So, what’s behind this chronic frustration and irritability?
Chronic frustration often stems from a fear of being assertive.
Assertiveness is the ability to ask for what you want and say no to what you don’t want in a way that’s both respectful of your own wishes and those of others.
- If your partner suggests getting Thai food for dinner but you really feel like Mediterranean, instead of just “going with it” you speak up and say, “Actually, I really feel like Mediterranean. Is it okay with you if we do that tonight and Thai next time?”
- Your boss sends you an email at 4:55 pm on Friday evening asking you to do some work on the Johnson file over the weekend. Even though you’re afraid to disappoint them, you assertively tell them, “Sorry boss, I’d like to help but I’m spending time with my family this weekend and won’t be able to work on it.”
Unfortunately, many people—especially women—are taught to believe that you should always defer your own wants and needs to those of others.
And as a result, they end up ignoring their own needs and feeling chronically frustrated and resentful of all those people they’re constantly sacrificing for and being “nice” to.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with being nice and doing things for others or deferring what you want for what other people want. The problem is if that’s the only thing you do.
How could you not feel constantly frustrated when you’re so busy living other people’s lives that you have no time left to live your own?
It’s difficult but learning to be more assertive is one of the most important skills you can build—not only to reduce chronic anger and frustration in your life but for better emotional health and resilience generally.
“Not being you is a risky way of becoming.”
― Aniekee Tochukwu Ezekiel
All You Need to Know
If you want to feel less angry all the time, you need to understand the need your anger serves and find healthier ways to get that need met.
Here are four common psychological causes of chronic anger:
- Anger is your antidepressant
- Criticizing others is how you maintain self-esteem
- Unrealistic expectations make you feel confident
- You’re afraid to be assertive