Can anger be a useful tool?

Musician's Assistance Program

Volume 115, No. 5May, 2015

Siena Shundi, LCSW-R
Siena Shundi, LCSW-R

Siena Shundi, LCSW-R

Anger is one of the hardest emotions to get right. Many of us are either too angry or too afraid to express our anger. Is there a “perfect” amount of anger that we should strive for – not too much or not too little? Is anger ever useful? And when someone is angry at you, are you automatically afraid – or do you fly into a rage?

If we feel we have too much anger, we might be tempted to seek out “anger management,” as if anger is something to simply tame. However, there are some very essential emotions underlying anger that not only help us make decisions in life but also help us facilitate growth and powerful change. There are also many different kinds of anger and its expression can vary. In this article, we’ll focus on why anger is so fundamental to our emotional health and growth and how to harness anger in a positive way.

But first a story. I was recently talking to a musician – we’ll call him Will – who is fed up with a band he’s playing in. He finds himself making excuses not to practice with them, and he actually stormed out of the last gig. He plays piano in the band, and the lead guitarist keeps bullying him into playing in a certain style. Will feels guilty about leaving the band because he is friends with the drummer.

In my talks with Will, we focused on his anger and explored his underlying motivations. As we talked, it became clear that Will felt the band’s instrumentation didn’t work for him and there were too many people acting as bandleaders. Plus it turned out he didn’t care much for the music they’d been playing lately. So I helped Will figure out what his anger was telling him – he needed to leave this band to free himself up for other opportunities. Had he chosen to only find ways to calm himself, he might have continued to participate in a project he was feeling uninspired by. Worse, it could have damaged some of his professional relationships!

Psychotherapists see anger as essentially a defense against feelings of vulnerability. Anger is a sign that something internally is being disrupted, causing us to feel a kind of disorientation and powerlessness. Destructive anger gives anger a bad rep – as many people associate anger with violence. With a few exceptions, violence that stems from anger is usually the result of a long history of suppressing feelings by stuffing them down and not dealing with them. And when anger turns violent, it get a lot of negative attention, hence people try to avoid their own anger or the anger of others. However most of the time, anger is telling us to pay attention to a deeper truth that we are evading because it causes us too much anxiety. Our mind and body are telling us that something’s wrong that needs attention. Of course, usually by the time we’re angry, our adrenaline and cortisol are high, which causes our judgment and ability for insight in the moment to falter. We cannot process all that we’re feeling. Usually it takes calm reflection to really get to the reasons we’re feeling angry. And once we learn just what we really need, it can be an incredible motivator for change.

Make your anger work for you

Maybe all this talk about the psychology behind anger doesn’t help you address your personal situation. Try asking yourself the following questions:

  1. Why am I angry?
  2. What other feelings might I be feeling? Sadness? Fear? Guilt?
  3. Is there a pattern to my anger or does it appear to be random?
  4. Are there changes that I might need to make in my life that I’ve been avoiding?

If you find yourself stuck, here are some more suggestions:

  • You might start taking note of the times that you’re angry and what triggered the anger. Start a journal so you can track what the underlying problems might be.
  • Don’t forget to reach out to friends and loved ones for support – remember that under your anger, you are hurting!
  • If you find yourself getting stuck or if your anger has already reached a point of no return, consider talking to a therapist. Sometimes it helps to get an outside perspective from a non-judgmental support person so that you can sift through it all. Our office provides free, confidential counseling and mental health referrals for Local 802 members. We’re here Monday, Wednesday, and Friday from 9:30 to 5 p.m.

The office of the Musicians’ Assistance Program is your one-stop shop for musicians’ health. We offer counseling – both one-on-one and in groups – as well as information on all kinds of social services, including health insurance, food stamps and more. All services are free to Local 802 members. Contact us at or (212) 397-4802.