The Surprising Way To Make Anger Healthy

Illustrated by Mallory Heyer.
The last time you got angry or anxious, how did you deal? Chances are, you tried to sidestep the negative vibes and get on with your day. Many of us cope by slapping on a happy face — but researchers say this may not be the best approach. There’s a reason we evolved millions of years and still continue to experience emotions such as guilt, anxiety, and envy: They tell us something is off. It turns out you shouldn’t actually ignore negative emotions; instead, you should use them to fuel positive change.

“All feelings, good or bad, are like a built-in GPS that gives us information and feedback. But, the negative ones in particular signal that we need to make tweaks to our behavior, reactions, environment, or relationships,” explains Todd Kashdan, PhD, a professor of psychology at George Mason University and co-author of the new book, The Upside of Your Darkside. “The most successful people in life are able to use and respond to all emotions — a skill called emotional agility.” Emotionally agile people can experience pain or discomfort while also figuring out what these feelings are telling them, so they can adjust and continue to move toward their goals.

The point is not to be intentionally miserable or angry, nor is it to push aside the bad when it creeps up. “We should want to be happy and positive most of the time, but it’s not realistic or helpful to be to be so 100% of the time,” Dr. Kashdan says. “There’s no strict formula, but most people function best when they’re at about a 80/20 or 75/25 ratio of positive to less positive,” he says.

Click through for five negative emotions you may want to start paying attention to — and how to channel them into something valuable.
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Illustrated by Mallory Heyer.
Emotion: Anger
Use It For: Creativity

Anger typically invokes images of The Real Housewives flipping tables, Rosie O’Donnell popping off at fellow co-hosts, or any other equivalent of, well, losing one’s shit. While these examples illustrate how unpleasant a temper can become, they don’t mean that all anger is destructive and nasty. Anger can spark positive developments, too. “When you are pissed off, your left frontal lobe gets activated. It’s the same brain region associated with positive emotions,” explains Dr. Kashdan. (Emotions like fear and sadness are associated with the opposite brain region.) So, while you might avoid a challenge when you’re feeling blue, when you’re frustrated, you’re more likely to approach problems and think of new ways to tackle them. A series of studies published in The Journal of Experimental and Social Psychology found that angry people generated more ideas and were more creative compared to their non-emotional counterparts. Researchers think anger can be energizing and motivating, even leading to unstructured brainstorming.

How to use it: When you’re angry, channel the energy. Go back to the drawing board on a project you’ve stalled on — it’s the perfect time to crank out ideas for an office presentation or figure out ways to fund that creative project you’ve been dreaming of starting. Frustration can spur new solutions that you might not have thought of in a calmer state.
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Illustrated by Mallory Heyer.
Emotion: Self-Doubt
Use It For: A Performance Boost

Self-doubt is a feeling that we’re taught to immediately slay if it comes creeping up behind us. Instead of questioning ourselves, we’re encouraged to lean in, speak up, be #girlbosses, and do so with 100% confidence. Sure, this is empowering advice, but even the Sheryl Sandbergs and Beyoncés of the world get pangs of insecurity — and it turns out these moments of doubt can shed light on what we need to work on.

If you never experience doubt, overconfidence could lead you to be less invested in a relationship or task. Research from Cleveland State University found that when schoolteachers experienced uncertainty about their performance, they did more personal reflection, were more collaborative with others, and worked to sharpen the skills they felt iffy about.

How to use it: Self-doubt can crop up anywhere, so to use it as a stepping stone rather than a setback. Dr. Kashdan suggests joining forces with people who are more experienced and, if possible, getting a mentor. “Choose people who are smarter, wiser, or more established in the area where doubt appears,” he advises, “whether it’s someone who is a better team player at work or who’s more fit than you are. Your performance boost will come from people in your inner circle who can coach you in areas where you feel less experienced.” And, remember that asking for help or guidance is a sign of maturity, not weakness.
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Illustrated by Mallory Heyer.
Emotion: Guilt
Use It For: Self-Improvement

“Guilt is clearly not an awesome feeling, but we’ve developed it because it pushes us to repair the harm we did — to ourselves or to others,” says Dr. Kashdan. Feeling guilty about minor slip-ups, such as lashing out at a loved one, can motivate us to make adjustments and be more sensitive next time. Plus, guilt can keep our moral compass on track: A study from California State University found that adults who experienced guilt were less likely to drive drunk, steal, use illegal drugs, or become abusive to others.

How to use it: First, figure out what is causing regret. Is it your chronic lateness, your bickering over petty things, or your diving into junky eating habits every time you’re stressed? Dr. Kashdan then recommends performing a quick (and honest) survey with these two simple questions:

“On a scale of 1 to 10 (with 1 being the least amount of desire), what is your desire to stop doing this?”
“On a scale of 1 to 10 (with 1 being the least amount of confidence), how confident are you in your ability to stop doing this?”

Once you rate yourself, think about why you chose certain numbers. “Reflect on why, for example, you didn’t rate yourself lower on the confidence scale. What makes you confident? Put this into words and keep [those words] nearby, so you can remind yourself what you are capable of when do have doubt,” Dr. Kashdan says.

He warns that this exercise might initially crank up the guilt factor quite a few notches as you confront your demons — but it will encourage you to move forward. “Let those uncomfortable feelings lead you to think about how to take action, even if it’s just a baby step,” he says. Small changes — for example, resolving to set your alarm 10 minutes earlier — will give you the momentum to keep pushing forward while boosting your confidence that you can make moves in the right direction.
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Illustrated by Mallory Heyer.
Emotion: Anxiety
Use It For: Problem Solving

We’re going to give the Debbie Downers and Negative Nancies a bit of credit for once. Yes, it can be annoying to be around someone with a gloomy outlook, but focusing on what could go wrong has a helpful side, too. “We tend to love the happy-go-lucky, positive person on the team, but we also need the worrywarts. They are attentive, investigative, react quickly, and consider what could go wrong and what needs to be improved upon,” says Dr. Kashdan. In some cases, science has found that more anxiety is better than less. Studies show that people who are too relaxed miss cues of danger. For example, not enough worry can lead us to gloss over important information about others or in our environment (like a sketchy person walking behind you), says Dr. Kashdan. But, you’ll also want to keep your worry in check (remember: 80/20 rule) so that it doesn’t become crippling or delay progress.

How to use it: The key is to figure out when worry is productive and when it’s ineffective. Dive into some old-school journaling when anxiety crops up, making a list of your worries and the potential problems that could result from a situation. Then, rate each on a scale of one to five, based on how likely it is to happen, with five being the most likely. “Seeing your concerns on paper and taking some time to explore and expand upon them can help you decipher whether you can discard a particular worry or should act on it,” Dr. Kashdan explains. “Ask yourself: Is there anything I can do today that would solve my concern? If the answer is nothing, it’s unproductive worry. You can acknowledge this and then move on to a problem that you might actually need to examine.”
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Illustrated by Mallory Heyer.
Emotion: Envy
Use it For: Success

A dash of resentment can do you good. Research published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin found that envy increased performance and persistence on tasks, even more than admiration did. The reason has to do with how it lights a fire under us, says Dr. Kashdan. “When envious, we acknowledge that others have strengths that we do not possess; in turn, we pick up on what they do and how they do it — and become stronger in the process,” he explains.

How to use it: The key is not to dwell on your shortcomings. Don’t compare and despair; rather, use envy in a productive way. Dr. Kashdan suggests picking one or two qualities that you’re feeling green-eyed about and stealing like an artist. If you’ve got a hint of spite at how easily your friend strikes up conversation at the bar, try it for yourself. If a co-worker is super-confident at meetings, sample her slow, steady voice the next time you have a presentation. The point is not to monkey-see-monkey-do; instead, figure out whether these are changes that will fit into your life, goals, and personality, explains Dr. Kashdan. If they do, you can develop an action plan and even enlist that person’s help (there’s no shame in asking for advice). “But, you might realize these tweaks don’t work for you, and that’s okay. In that case, there was probably no reason to feel jealous in the first place. So, you’ll be able to acknowledge that reality — and move on.