It wasn’t but long ago when anger was all the rage. Concerns about reports in the media that some disgruntled employee went “postal,” on a murderous rampage. Disaffected young, teenage boys, misfits and loners raising suspicion about what they might be capable of doing. Heightened public attention to the prevalence of domestic violence. Whether for the purpose of sensationalizing a tragic event or raising public attention to a social problem that has lurked for too long behind the private curtain of everyday family life, anger has become a topic of concern in the public eye. And with this concern questions have been raised whether anger is a destructive emotion rooted in the blood of our primeval ancestors, merely a vestige of an uncivilized part of our human heritage.
Are All Negative Emotions Really Bad?
The value we give to temperance, the apparent opposite of anger, is a matter of civility, what it means to behave in a civilized manner when in social situations. When anger is counter-posed in this way, i.e., as both primitive as well as dangerous, it isn’t a far stretch to understand how the social pressures of political correctness have railed against it. In my blog, “Can we be positive all negative emotions are bad?” I raised the question whether emotions generally regarded as noxious or unpleasant, such as anger, are necessarily toxic or harmful. While granting that the emotion, anger, can give rise to the enactment of terrible things, the question, then, whether anger is useful or simply a remnant of primeval instincts becomes confused when we conflate emotions with actions. In other words, it is important when answering this question to be clear that just because one feels anger doesn’t mean that one is necessarily acting in accord with it or even at all. Moreover, not all useful emotions are pleasant. By the same token, not all civil actions are necessarily pleasant, to wit our jurisprudence system, an institution that harnesses adversarial relationships within the confines of a civil society.
Whether anger is useful or harmful, then, depends in part on how we define it. Acknowledging the difference enables one to recognize and accept anger without judging oneself as aggressive or destructive to others. Anger serves an important purpose as all emotions do. When we feel angry something within ourselves is telling us that something is not right that harkens us to take aggressive action, whether it be from a threat to ourselves or those we care about or from an insult to our sense of dignity.
Rather than judging ourselves or others for experiencing anger, what matters is first, your awareness of the presence of the emotion, secondly, what are its likely causes, and finally how should one respond to it. If we disavow our feelings of anger, we are susceptible to projecting it onto others and when we disavow anger in actions we are inclined instead to play a semantics game with ourselves and others, for example, “Oh, I wasn’t angry, I was just upset!” Anger is a broad term for a wide range of emotions, from annoyance and irritation to rage and all the gradations in between. It can be cumulative, a thousand irritations can lead to a volcanic explosion, or sudden, like striking a nerve, depending on the level of threat that elicited the emotion.
Knowing what causes us to become angry enables us to know where to direct our response to take action. When we don’t know the origins of our emotions we are susceptible to repressing them and directing them elsewhere, such as displacement, when we redirect anger toward an easier or more available target or intro-punitively toward ourselves. Suppressing anger over a long period of time as we know can lead to stress reactions that are toxic to one’s self-esteem and physical well being. As the cliché goes, resentment is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die. Anger is sometimes the result of stress, fatigue, hunger, frustration, etc., and in other cases it can be an effect of a mental disorder such as major depression or bipolar disorder. Rage reactions can arise from situations that present imminent threat, certain kinds of drug reactions or withdrawal, a personality disorder, or flashbacks associated with post-traumatic stress disorder.
Perhaps, most importantly, what determines whether anger is a useful or destructive emotion depends on what we do with the emotion. When we disavow anger we confuse those we care about or worse give others cause to blame themselves undeservedly; when we repress our anger we deprive ourselves the opportunity to understand ourselves much less resolve problems that beset us. People with “anger management” issues don’t express their emotions constructively. Sometimes these issues serve to intimidate or manipulate others. Effective anger management on the other hand uses empathy and clear and specific communication in order to maximize the likelihood that the party toward whom anger is directed will respond in a sympathetic and cooperative manner.
When you are angry at someone or about something, use the following guidelines:
Robert Hamm Ph.D