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4 Types of Anger Everyone Should Know About

Honoring our anger, even when being angry is exhausting.

Key points

  • There are four types of anger that can help people understand how the emotion works in their lives: long, short, hot, and cold.
  • Short-hot anger is a knee-jerk reaction, whereas long-cold anger is a productive space in which people make meaning and justice through action.
  • Honoring anger is important for health and well-being, but it's also important for people to take breaks so anger doesn't consume them.
Liza Summer/Pexels
Source: Liza Summer/Pexels

Are you exhausted from being angry all the time? Me too.

There are a lot of things to be angry about: The pandemic, climate change, extreme polarization, categorical denial of science and reason, disinformation, not to mention our personal struggles during a time of upheaval — the world seems broken and many of us are wading through emotional waters we may have never experienced before. For many of us, the fear, frustration, and sorrow that results from this understanding will manifest as anger. Serious, blood-boiling, seemingly endless anger.

Understanding anger is challenging, let alone feeling the emotion in the first place. Some of us believe that anger is inherently destructive and should be avoided or rejected. I have a different take. I believe anger is an important part of our bodies taking care of us, motivating us to make change and helping us make meaning in the world.

Instead of rejecting the part of ourselves that needs to be angry, what if we learn to honor that anger instead?

Four Types of Anger

Anger is a part of us. When we reject our anger, we are lopping off a part of who we are. That rarely leads to good things. Instead, we can learn to understand and honor our anger.

Let’s think about anger as having four distinct qualities:

  • Short anger is the experience of the immediate, physical response connected to our fight/flight/flee/fawn system. Short anger is part of our body’s ability to protect itself and mobilize us to take immediate action. It flares up and winds down pretty quickly.
  • Long anger is a profound, ongoing sense that the world is not what it should be. Long anger is connected to our meaning-making ability, our natural processes of grief — any time we are forced to accept the unacceptable. Long anger is usually sustained as long as the injustice or wrongfulness continues.
  • Hot anger is a rush of rage, such as a public outcry; it has explosive, destructive qualities. When we learn that a terrible wrong or trauma or injustice has occurred, hot anger is a natural and rightful response to re-establishing healthy boundaries. But if we stay in hot anger too long, it may start to consume us. Hot anger is like a volcano boiling over.
  • Cold anger is anger that has been cooled and put to use. It is directed toward something productive, like changing norms, laws, leadership, culture; or healing broken relationships. If hot anger is a volcano, cold anger is a river that cuts through stone, and over time does the impossible. Cold anger transforms us and the world around us for the better.

The idea of hot and cold anger comes from the world of community organizing.

Melody Stanford Martin/Brave Talk Project
Source: Melody Stanford Martin/Brave Talk Project

When the four types of anger intersect, we can start to map out the actions and attitudes that are associated with each quadrant:

  • Short-hot anger is any knee-jerk reaction. It’s when our tempers flare in the immediate, but that energy is not yet directed at anything productive. We just become explosive. Often this anger dies down quickly because short anger is not rooted in larger systems of injustice, trauma, or grief. We might experience this kind of anger when we are embarrassed or when a boundary has been crossed.
  • Short-cold anger is the realm of self-protection and mobilization. It can inspire us to negotiate, defend, and de-escalate at a moment’s notice. Short-cold anger is productive action in the moment that is driven by anger but is not planned or strategized ahead of time.
  • Long-hot anger can be incredibly destructive or self-destructive. It is the buildup of a lot of grief and pain that doesn’t (yet) have anywhere to go. At its peak, it can lead to a breakdown of social order or relationships that are no longer tenable. (Note: As soon as long-hot anger starts to “cool” it can be put to use in healthy ways. Long-hot anger helps us express pain and trauma and motivates us to protest things in our families, communities, or societies that are not healthy. In the graphic below, the blue triangle above the x-axis shows some of the positive things that can happen during the “cooling” process.)
  • Long-cold anger is the most productive form of anger. It’s the process of making change in our lives or the world so that unjust situations won’t happen again. Long-cold anger is a great way to reconcile with painful pasts by ensuring the future will be filled with more justice and less pain. If we can move our anger to this space, the long-cold space (lower right blue quadrant below), we are able to create the most meaning from our anger.
Melody Stanford Martin / Brave Talk Project
Source: Melody Stanford Martin / Brave Talk Project

Honoring Anger and the Role It Plays in Our Lives

Anger needs to be heard; it needs an outlet, or it can only become destructive. Making space for anger starts with listening and recognizing that anger is a part of life, an ability we possess to respond to wrong. Without anger, we struggle for the motivation to do something about wrongfulness. This means that anger is one of the most important tools we possess as humans ... if we learn to channel it properly.

How do we honor anger? Here are five steps:

  1. Make space for anger by letting it speak. When we sense anger in ourselves or in others, we need to invite expression. Creating intentional times and places to listen to anger without judgment is really important. When people talk about their anger, hold what you hear. Value it. Give it credence, as much as you can. Believe the best about the person expressing anger. Hear the message beneath their tone. It takes vulnerability and courage to express anger, and listening builds trust. In fact, it builds so much trust that expressing and hearing anger can make relationships stronger.
  2. Once we express anger, we can start to unpack it. Honoring anger means investigating the things that are causing it. This means taking time to process and examine, to the best of our ability, the entire chain of events, beliefs, rules, policies, laws, and actions that the anger is responding to. Especially in cases of long anger, the sources of anger can be really complex. Don’t rush this step. Making time to understand the causes of anger can be immensely cathartic and even healing in its own right.
  3. Identify what can’t be changed, and grieve it. Grief is what our bodies do when we are forced to accept the unacceptable. Sometimes in life, whether it’s a physical death, an emotional death, or a situation that is beyond our control — like the general state of the world — we can find ourselves living in a reality that all of our senses rail against. It feels profoundly wrong not to have that person here, to lose that relationship or job we loved, to live in a country where social systems are breaking down. It’s important to recognize that grief is the long anger we experience. We need to let ourselves grieve what we don’t have control over.
  4. Create a plan for what can be changed. Once we hear anger, unpack anger, and grieve, we can make a plan. This is the point when anger begins to cool down so it can turn into something productive. Consider making a plan of action that is S.M.A.R.T.: Strategic, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Timely. Why? Because plans of action that are too ambiguous, not followed through, or too weak to effect real change may make the problem worse. Why? People can only see plans of action fail so many times before they lose faith in the cold anger process — they start to lose faith that they have a voice; they lose faith in community, and faith in the democratic process. They might even lose hope. Every time a plan of action fails, it becomes harder and harder to cool anger down the next time the source of the anger rears its ugly head. So the stakes are high to plan well.
  5. Take breaks and compartmentalize. It’s not sustainable to let our anger burn 24/7 — it can actually lead to some serious consequences and health problems. When we take breaks from anger, we are not rejecting anger, we are simply setting it aside for a while and letting ourselves rest. Self-care helps us remember that even in a world of brokenness, there is still immense beauty and love. That's why we seek out support, therapy, and creative outlets that remind us that we are so much more than the sum of our problems or trauma. Meditation and gratitude techniques help us ground in the fact that anger is so often a sign that we care deeply; we crave safety and wholeness and the right relationship, and those are beautiful things.

When we learn to understand and honor the four forms of anger, we can grow in our ability to transform conflict from animosity to collaboration, from perpetuating cycles of violence to building a better world.

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