I can sum up the nature of bipolar disorder in three words: chronic, complex, and confusing; in two words: burdensome and bothersome. Or, if you want just one word: angry.
If you deal with bipolar disorder, you’ve probably dealt with anger as I have. (You may be dealing with it right now.) Facing such a disorder provides plenty of opportunities for anger to manifest itself. How you confront anger does impact the course your recovery takes and the quality of your life in general. Anger may be inevitable, but it doesn’t have to get the best of you.
When anger is out of control, it can lead to clouded thoughts and impulsive actions. It can even result in aggressive behavior directed toward someone or something else. In addition, when you fail to confront anger constructively, others may see you as communicating destructive ideas, such as avoidance or contempt.
I have actively dealt with bipolar disorder for more than two decades. For years, unaddressed anger thwarted my progress toward wellness—until I got a handle on it. Do you want to learn to make the best of anger? Well, let’s look at some questions, starting with, “Is anger a given?”
Is anger inevitable?
Actually, this is a trick question. As a human emotion, anger is inescapable. Everyone experiences it. Anger must be dealt with because it won’t go away on its own, and it has underlying root causes. If you’re living with a mood disorder, some explanations for anger include:
- Loss over the stability and productivity that you once had.
- Frustration over the tedious road to recovery that lies ahead.
- Tension with family members and friends, and regret over friends lost.
- Uneasiness in managing day-to-day stress.
- Discomfort from adjusting to medication side effects.
- Awkwardness dealing with everyday situations and social settings.
In acknowledging anger, you avoid keeping it all bottled up inside yourself, you learn to experience other feelings as well, and you mature emotionally. One way to start to validate that you are angry is to acknowledge it and say to yourself with conviction, “I’m angry. It’s reasonable and it must be dealt with.” Remember that these are legitimate feelings, but whether or not anger ends up being useful is another question.
Is anger useful?
Anger may always be valid, but its usefulness depends on your response to it. For example, a friend doesn’t show up for lunch as promised, and you become enraged. Such a reaction does nothing to change the situation, and you end up feeling worse.
Instead, you could have made the choice to transform your anger into energy to still go out and enjoy yourself. Anger is useful if you let it motivate you to take charge of stressful or upsetting situations. It can spur you to resolve conflict and reduce tension. It can even serve as a warning sign that it’s time to defend yourself against someone or something threatening.
How can you tell if your anger is useful or useless? Ask yourself: “Is this anger helping to improve my situation?” If it’s not, it is likely that you are allowing anger to undermine your recovery and increase your feelings of low self-esteem. Next, let’s see if your anger is warranted.
Is anger justified?
In general, to determine if anger is justified, would you answer yes to this question: “Is my anger targeted at someone who has knowingly, purposefully, and unnecessarily acted in a harmful or hurtful manner?” When anger is groundless, you may end up walking around feeling guilty or embarrassed about feeling angry. Anger that is “justified” occurs when any reasonable person would probably be angry in the same situation.
Situations justifying anger might be a friend deliberately lying to you, a boss purposely embarrassing you in public, or a family member intentionally betraying you. On the other hand, anger that is not justified might occur when someone accidentally bumps your car, your spouse gets home late, or your kids make too much noise. You can see that there is a big difference.
Using anger justly means you’re using it wisely to protect yourself from being treated unfairly. It’s important to be aware of how anger is displayed. If someone lies to you, it’s justifiable to become angry, but it’s not legitimate for you to become violent and use your fist.
Note that these aspects of anger don’t fall neatly on a continuum. For example, anger can be unjust yet still useful. Let’s say that John’s bipolar disorder has impacted many areas of his life, including his work performance. He had kept his condition hidden, so there is no apparent rationale for his declining work ethic. When he was fired, he got angry, but he didn’t take his anger out on others.
In this situation, John’s anger was valid yet not justified. It was useful because he didn’t allow it to persist too long or unnecessarily escalate. He didn’t lash out. Instead, he allowed anger to motivate him to make positive choices. He began opening up to close friends about what had happened and started looking for new work. Now, his acquaintances are better equipped to help him cope with anger in the future.
So far we’ve learned that anger is valid by virtue of it being inevitable. It’s useful when it improves your situation, but useless when it makes matters worse. It may be justified when you’ve been mistreated, but you still have to watch how you manage it. The question now is how do you know whether or not you have a problem with anger.
Is anger a problem?
There are a number of indicators that anger may be creating problems:
- If it occurs too often. In time you should learn to distinguish whether or not how you handle your anger is effective.
- If it becomes too intense. While anger at a reasonable intensity level can be advantageous, higher levels of anger can be destructive. When you have bipolar disorder, gaining control of anger is even more important. Unchecked mania can fuel anger and lead to even more serious consequences.
- If it lasts too long. For instance, a person who has bipolar disorder may become more manic and more susceptible to being aggravated further. Your anger threshold can be lowered, thus making you more likely to be angered the next time around. Resolving conflict becomes more difficult, if not impossible, the longer anger lasts.
- If it leads to violence or aggression. A person who has bipolar disorder can have lowered inhibitions and may be more prone to act impulsively when anger is not effectively managed.
- If it interferes with work or relationships. Costly consequences can result if you are unable to concentrate on the job or friends start backing away because of anger.
Have you noticed any of the above warning signs? If so, anger may be getting the best of you—not to mention the effect it could be having on others. It is a misperception to think that people who have bipolar disorder are automatically more violent. However, if anger grows out of control, the likelihood of aggressive, provocative behavior increases. Having a legitimate disorder is not an excuse for letting anger lead to a regrettable, perhaps even illegal act. If you are having trouble controlling your anger, there are those who can help you, such as your therapist or other professional who specializes in anger management.
While everyone experiences anger, the extent to which it is useful and justified makes all the difference. Using anger to your advantage can make a profoundly positive difference in your life. Anger may be inevitable, but it doesn’t have to become a problem and hinder your recovery. You can begin taking steps today to make the best of it.