Fire Life

Anger: A Signal Worth Listening To

By Anne Gagliano

Anger has gotten a bad rap. It is usually branded as negative, even “anti-social” behavior that may require counseling or anger management classes. The propensity these days seems to be to eliminate it altogether from the human experience. But this would be a mistake, as anger is a signal worth listening to, especially in the firefighter home.

Anger is simply the result of witnessing or experiencing a wrong. Energy wells up inside, bringing with it a laser focus to clearly see the wrong. And with that focus comes the strong, passionate desire to do something about it—to fight even. Fight to stop the wrong and restore the right. It is in this form a noble emotion–pro-social and anything but anti-social. Only with anger can one summon up the will, the courage, and the energy to risk oneself to save others. And this is often a job requirement for the firefighter.

Anger in all its forms is always trying to tell us something. The message is that someone is being hurt, and that someone might even be ourselves. It is something we feel for a reason; thus, anger deserves our attention and our respect. Perhaps our rights are being violated. Our needs or wants are not being adequately met. Or perhaps we are not addressing an important emotional issue in our lives such as grief. Sometimes anger results when too much of our core values, beliefs, desires, or ambitions are compromised (at home or at work). It can also be an emotional signal to self that we are doing too much and giving way more than is comfortable to do or give. A warning, if you will, that collapse is inevitable if this pace continues. Just as physical pain tells us to take our hand off a hot stove, so too does anger tell us to take heed, our psyche is being damaged.

But instead of listening to nature’s warning bells, we often ignore them. Anger is, after all, a heated emotion that may cause problems. Women often suppress anger because they fear rejection, especially rejection from men. A woman’s strongest desire is acceptance and bonding; she would often rather turn her anger inward than risk offending her loved ones. And today, both men and women fear repercussions if they openly express anger, even when completely justified in doing so. And thus suppressed, what started out as righteous anger becomes something darker, self-destructive, and possibly harmful to others. Depression, addictions, explosive inappropriate rage, or even violence may result when anger is ignored. When you just keep giving in, a storehouse of unconscious rage wells up inside, sometimes to lethal proportions.

So what is to be done with anger?  How best to handle something that is touchy, explosive, nebulous, yet necessary to protect ourselves and others?  To begin with, stop feeling guilty. Anger is a legitimate emotion, no matter what society tries to tell you. It is typically even morally right, a natural reaction to something morally wrong.

Next, try to define the real issue: What is behind the anger?  Remember, anger is an emotional “pain signal”; it is a protective emotion that is warning you that something is wrong. The most common underlying emotion that presents itself in anger is sadness. Sadness is a deep, often debilitating emotion that brings incredible pain; thus, we try to avoid it. Anger, by contrast, brings energy and is thus more desirable to allow yourself to feel. It masks pain and even alleviates it for a time–i.e., at a traumatic fire scene–but it will only protect for a while. Later, when the scene has passed, the sorrow must be acknowledged if it is to heal. If not, the protective wall of anger builds, causing distance within the firefighter’s most intimate relationships. Look for anger, firefighter couples, and be aware that it may be masking sorrow.

Once the anger source is identified, take action. Anger is telling you something is wrong. If nothing changes, the anger will continue. If you’re overworked and overstretched, cut back. If someone is wronging you, make a careful plan to confront him/her. If you’re grieving, take time to do so. Let yourself cry, mourn, pray, and pay respect to that loss. Whether it’s the loss of a person, or a dream, or a value (such as trust or a sense of fairness or justice), work to replace that loss with something else, like donating time to a worthy cause, blood to a military hospital, or money to a needy family. Taking action will you give you a sense of power and help you regain control, alleviating anger and bringing peace. The greater the loss, the more serious your actions should be. Right the wrong.

Effective anger management requires skill. Again, manage your anger; never ignore or suppress it. In relationships, this is done with communication. Be tactful when expressing anger, not critical, as this will only inspire defensiveness. Wait till you are calm, then relate your feelings in terms of “I” instead of “you.”  For example, say “I feel neglected” instead of “You are neglecting me,” or “This hurts me because” instead of “You’re a jerk” or “Please respect the intensity of my discomfort with what’s happening.”  Nagging, complaining, and attacking will get you nowhere, especially in marriage. Good communication maximizes your chances of being heard; it is a proper expression of anger and, most importantly, one that is not abusive. Once your anger is appropriately expressed and heard, you must now forgive. Forgive and forget; then the pain will truly heal and the anger will naturally subside.

And finally, take responsibility. Recognize your triggers, your values, your feelings. When you know who you are and what you believe, you can set boundaries for yourself, protective boundaries that will help keep you from feeling wronged. And take stock of your own behavior; own it. You can’t possibly improve or change if you don’t. Stand firm on your deepest principles, but stand loosely on the lesser ones; you don’t always have to win. And if you cannot find the source for your anger and it’s starting to impact those around you, seek professional help. Don’t ignore it; use it as an incentive to effect change and to stop unproductive cycles that get you nowhere (like drinking instead of confronting that deep sorrow from a tough run). With clarity and self-awareness, ownership and responsibility, you can discover new ways to navigate the painful aspects of life, of relationships, of firefighting. And let the warning signal of anger be your guide.


Anne Gagliano has been married to Captain Mike Gagliano of the Seattle (WA) Fire Department for 31 years. She and her husband lecture together on building and maintaining a strong marriage.