How to Use Anger Constructively

“If you kick a stone in anger, you’ll hurt your own foot.” – Korean proverb

According to Dr. Martin Seligman, a world renowned psychologist who specializes in positive psychology, the three components of anger involve a thought, a bodily reaction, and an attack.  Sometimes the automatic thought that occurs to us in moments of anger happens so quickly that all we experience is our reaction.  Often the automatic thought that we do have has to do with a feeling of transgression – a sense that we have somehow been wronged.

Following this automatic thought is our bodily reaction.  We tense up and prepare to attack.  When these physical processes occur, the ability to reason may go right out the window.  Finally, we attack.  This attack may manifest itself in the form of verbally or physically lashing out at another.  For some, this attack may be turned on themselves.

How can we use this series of responses to anger in a healthy constructive way?  Is anger really all bad?  Like most everything else, no.  It’s not all bad.  It depends on how you channel it … how you use it.  Practice learning how to use your anger constructively and creatively as a tool that empowers you to take better control of your life.

Practicing Assertiveness

  • Stand up for yourself without violating the rights of others
  • Tell others in a straightforward way, “I want …” or “I feel …” instead of blaming, punishing, or threatening
  • Recognize the feelings of others, followed by a clear statement where you stand up for your own rights: “I know you’ve been going through a difficult time, but I have been feeling ignored by you lately.  I want to make more time for us.”
  • Setting clear boundaries when your basic assertive statements are being ignored: “If this behavior continues, this will be the consequence.”

Four Steps of Assertiveness

(1) Describe:

“You are telling me that you didn’t have time to call me from work to say you would not be home for dinner.”  Describe without emotion or judgment.  State exactly what the problem is, without exaggeration.

(2) Express:

“When you do this, I feel unimportant and hurt.”  Express the way this problem makes you feel without accusing the other person.  Keep the focus on your emotions.

(3) Specify:

“Call me the next time you will be not be home at dinner time.”  Specifically tell the person what you would like them to do.

(4) Consequence:

“If you do not call me the next time, do not expect dinner to be waiting for you.”  Conclude by stating the consequences if this problem occurs in the future.  Don’t exaggerate or threaten.  Be prepared to follow through.

Transforming unhealthy anger into healthy assertiveness takes practice.  Begin with compassion towards yourself as you learn this new habit.  As you begin to cultivate mindfulness in your everyday life, it will become easier to begin to “notice” when you are feeling angry in a nonjudgmental way.  As long we fight against our anger, rejecting it, we are powerless to transform it.  We must first accept what is. Embrace it.  Then you can begin to loosen anger’s hold on you and transform it into something positive.

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Bower, S.A., & Bower, G.H. (1991). Asserting yourself: a practical guide for positive change. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press.

Seligman, M.E.P. (2007). What you can change .. and what you can’t. New York, NY: Random House, Inc.

Featured image: scream and shout by mdanys / CC BY 2.0


About Laura K. Schenck, Ph.D., LPC

I am a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) with a Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology from the University of Northern Colorado. Some of my academic interests include: Dialectical Behavior Therapy, mindfulness, stress reduction, work/life balance, mood disorders, identity development, supervision & training, and self-care.


  1. Beth Carls on April 13, 2011 at 4:09 pm

    Laura, we find this so often in our work with teens + tweens. Anger is the root cause of much of the bullying we continue to see from generation to generation. Unfortunately, much of these negative reactions against someone else come from the child having an abusive relationship at home that they have no control over.

    Thanks for your insights!

    • Laura on April 13, 2011 at 8:19 pm

      Beth – it is incredibly sad how often children and adolescents lash out in anger due to an abusive home life beyond their control. Hopefully more of these young people will connect with the mental health resources that allow them to explore their strengths, focus on positive aspects of their lives that they do have control over, and obtain some much-needed emotional support.

      Thank you for your comment and for visiting my new blog!

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