5 Steps to Unbend the Anger Arrow

By Seth Grossman

Are you angry and don’t know it? Have you ever heard the expression, “Anger Turned Inward”? While that idea might be oversimplified, self-anger has been linked with depression, low self esteem, anxiety, and a host of other problems that get in the way of our feeling energized, motivated, healthy, and fulfilled. I like to call this the “anger arrow” which looks a lot like a U-turn sign, but pointed right back at you. That’s the direction the anger goes, and for many of us, that’s right where the anger stays.

What  is the “Anger Arrow”?

Anger serves a purpose. It is not only an emotion. It’s a communication to you and, when expressed accurately, to the person or people who have contributed to that anger. It means that a rule has been broken in terms of how you deserve to live your life, or how you deserve to be treated. Often, the reason for the arrow being bent in the first place is because you’ve had doubts as to your “rights” in this regard. You may have been put in a position where you were, or had sensed, powerlessness. You may have felt that expressing anger, appropriately¸ was not your right. So where did it go? In your mind’s eye, picture this bent arrow.

Does “unbending the arrow” mean releasing rage on the people around you?

Absolutely not. While some older forms of therapy encouraged “venting”, and one form was even called “Primal Scream” therapy, research has shown that simply directing anger out at others or inanimate objects only serves one purpose: It makes the anger worse. It’s a little like what you do when you’re learning a skill, practicing a sport, or rehearsing with an instrument. This kind of repetition can help you become really skilled at something. The problem is, it is making you really good at being angry.

What can I do about it?

These are some basic steps you can begin to use today to get to understand your reactions and begin handling difficulties in a different way. You may also find that these steps aren’t limited to anger, but can be used to gain understanding and control over many difficulties. Try the VALUE approach:

  1. Validate. This is where it all starts. If you’re like many people, you’ve heard (or it’s been implied) that you don’t have the “right” to feel angry. It’s usually stated more like, “That’s not appropriate behavior.” Depending on how it’s expressed and your social situation, it may not be. But it is appropriate to have feelings – even if it seems illogical, irrational, or even inappropriate or immoral! You will have an easier time expressing those feelings “appropriately” if you take this step and recognize that even what seems like inappropriate anger has a legitimate meaning.
  2. Accept. Being valid doesn’t mean the anger is rational, or worth holding onto. There are two tasks here. First, recognize that the other person has their rationale for acting as they do, and you do not have to agree with it to simply acknowledge that they, too, must “validate” their feelings. Second, if you stop and look at your current feeling as well as any action you’ve already taken, you’ll probably recognize some of your own flaws. You’re human. It’s ok. You can correct actions you’ve taken, as you feel is correct. See the next step…
  3. Learn. This step lets you recognize that conflicting ideas, slights, disagreements, or irrational behavior from others may not be in your control – but YOU are not under the control of those things, either. You have options on how to proceed. The learning process is both to learn what your responses usually are, as well as to learn new strategies.
  4. Understand. As you have learned your familiar patterns, it’s now time to apply that same idea to the other person, to the predicament, or whatever is causing your distress. Get to know that just like you, the other person, or the situation, is not perfect. There are reasons for the contrary beliefs or the offensive actions. This is not to excuse those things – this is to gain a greater understanding that these things are not simply random or “all about you,” but are part of a system of thought and feeling different from your own.
  5. Express. With the previous four steps under your belt, see what you now say. You’re likely to surprise yourself, given these tools and, very likely, your better confidence in your feelings and position (which may have changed a bit!).

With practice, this becomes something that happens regularly and more directly, leaving less room for the argument to be about everything except what the argument was about.