The Value of Constructive Anger

Turn a negative emotion into a healing opportunity

Two girls talking and having tea in cafe

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The phrase "constructive anger" may sound like an oxymoron, but in fact, learning to use negative feelings in positive ways can go a long way toward helping with healing, forward movement, and recovery.

For instance, for someone who's dealing with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a cluster of often-debilitating symptoms that result from a terrifying situation or experience, destructive anger is a common emotion, one that can cause them to act aggressively toward other people or engage in substance abuse or self-harm.

In fact, anger is a valid emotion, one that doesn't always have to be negative and harmful. It can have bad or good outcomes, depending on how you handle it. Here's why learning to use anger constructively can be a useful life skill and how to do so. 

The Importance of Constructive Anger

Anger is often the emotion that will push you to let other people know what you need in a given situation. And generally speaking, it's good to speak up for yourself. But think about it: How likely is it that yelling, criticizing, and fighting with others will actually get you what you want? 

When you channel anger into these kinds of actions, another person will hear only that you're mad, not the message you're trying to communicate. Their natural response is to get mad, too, and so no one's message is likely to get across. Worse, the same argument may happen again and again, with the same frustrating result.

When you use your anger in constructive ways, however, there are a multitude of potential benefits. Expressing constructive anger:

  • Shows respect for yourself and the person you're in conflict with
  • Allows you to be heard as you want to be heard—as someone who is considerate, fair-minded, and interested in another point of view, rather than a person who's upset, critical, and unwilling to hear the thoughts or opinions of others, no matter how valid they may be

Over time, as you hone the skill of transforming anger from a potentially destructive force to a constructive asset, you can expect to gain a new understanding of your own and others' feelings. As a result, you may find your relationships improving and lasting longer.

Time Is on Your Side

A destructive expression of anger is almost always one that erupts spontaneously. You lash out in the moment, either at another person or at yourself. Let's say you've been given the impression that a colleague at work has been criticizing you unfairly. Before you shoot off a harshly worded email or storm into your co-worker's office, take five. Think before you act: Remind yourself that by expressing your anger in a confrontational way you're using it destructively and it's unlikely you'll get what you're hoping to—such as an explanation (there may be a reasonable one) or an apology (that you may well deserve).

Or suppose a friend cancels an important lunch date with you at the very last minute, and not for an especially good reason. Your first reaction is anger: You had blocked out the time, you were ready to go, and you were looking forward to catching up and enjoying a meal.

Rather than give your friend a hard time when they scrap your plans, give yourself time to think about how best to react. This will allow you to express your anger and disappointment in ways that might help to heal your hurt feelings and mend any riffs your friend's behavior has caused in your relationship.

One option, for example, would be to make new plans with your friend to meet another time soon. At that meeting, you can calmly and without criticism explain that the last-minute cancellation was upsetting to you and why. Your friend should be able to hear you clearly, without feeling shamed or judged. In this way you will have expressed your anger but not in a way that might cause more problems and, thanks to your careful use of constructive anger, the two of you will be able to resume your relationship with a greater understanding of each other. 

2 Sources
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  1. Taft CT, Creech SK, Kachadourian L. Assessment and treatment of posttraumatic anger and aggression: a review. J Rehabil Res Dev. 2012;49(5):777-88. doi:10.1682/jrrd.2011.09.0156

  2. Butler MH, Meloy-miller KC, Seedall RB, Dicus JL. Anger Can Help: A Transactional Model and Three Pathways of the Experience and Expression of Anger. Fam Process. 2018;57(3):817-835. doi:10.1111/famp.12311

By Matthew Tull, PhD
Matthew Tull, PhD is a professor of psychology at the University of Toledo, specializing in post-traumatic stress disorder.