What is anger?
Anger is not a ‘negative emotion’; it’s a cue created in the brain for a purpose: self-defence. Either for yourself or for your family or community.
The body creates the emotion of anger for a reason: in order to ensure that you are treated with respect, protected against exploitation, have your wishes taken seriously, or to cue you towards self-defence. Emotionally intelligent people do this constructively and well.
If emotions like anger are not released properly and are bottled up then periodic explosions of rage may be the result. This is what is really meant by problems of the kind treated in anger management courses.
In therapy I notice that people who don’t manage anger well make three common mistakes:
- They bottle up anger and later on, once the pot is filled to boiling point, they explode in uncontrollable rage (which creates stress and damages your health)
- They express anger but don’t follow up and ensure that they get what they need (for example, you yell at your daughter for not keeping her room tidy but you don’t enforce the rule – so it happens all over again).
- When they express anger they shout, swear, call names, blame, scream and try to make the other person feel as bad as possible.
The reason for these mistakes is simply lack of education in emotional intelligence. We are told as children that anger is ‘bad’, ‘destructive’, ‘self-indulgent’, etc. So we aren’t given permission to explore the emotion in more depth. At the same time we watch the adults around us having tantrums and so we conclude that anger must, indeed, be an evil thing.
Expressing anger can be healthy
Anger is a ‘hot’ emotion. Meaning that most people feel it very powerfully; rising up and demanding fast expression. But that doesn’t mean your body wants you to go into a rage. What it means instead is that your body is warning you that something deeply important to you or the people around you is at stake, and you need to speak up quickly. Using communication techniques it is easy to learn how to channel your anger into words that get people listening to you and ensure that you actually get what you want.
Most approaches to anger management are fatally flawed through seeing anger as bad and something to be controlled and avoided. People with ‘anger management issues’ may be referred to psychobabble specialists like Dr Buddy Rydell as played in the film Anger Management who mix up anger with rage.
The study of emotionally intelligent approaches to anger suggests a different view.
Anger is good:
- It brings issues out into the open
- It gets you taken seriously
- It corrects poor behaviour
- It resolves grievances
- It initiates change in others
- It fights injustice (think Martin Luther King)
- It protects you from manipulators
- It helps you towards self-respect
- It maintains personal boundaries between you and others
Rage has little to do with genuine emotion and is something to be avoided. Rage is destructive, childish and emotionally damaging.
Rage is emotion distorted by resentment, control and timidity in which pent-up anger and frustration erupts into an out-of-control state in which the person seems hijacked or possessed by the Furies. Rage is ventilated through screaming, shouting, destruction and violence. In some cases – such as road rage the individual will put lives at risk in order to ‘get even’ with other drivers.
Rage is based on two sources:
Repression. Emotions are ignored or denied because the person has been taught that anger and frustration are bad, scary, selfish or something to be avoided. Typically, the habit of repression is learnt in childhood from parents and teachers who shy away from conflict and believe that emotions are irrational. Mild, timid, and ultra-reasonable people, they respond to bad behaviour by ignoring it or by engaging perpetrators in rational discussion through which (it is hoped) they understand the error of their ways and sin no more.
While this is a nice model in some ways it doesn’t teach emotional intelligence, and it doesn’t teach children what to do about conflict.
When anger is created it does not disappear when ignored but is stored in the body, awaiting resolution. However, because the person does not know how to resolve conflicts, or because they see anger as ‘bad’ then resolution is never achieved. The unresolved anger simmers away, just below the level of consciousness, fuelling resentment, irritability or passive-aggressive behaviour such as sulking, non-cooperation and veiled contempt. As rage stacks up a pressure-cooker effect is created and the person eventually ventilates over relatively trivial incidents that have little to do with what really is upsetting her. I once worked with a client who went into an epic 45-minute tantrum over a poorly-cooked steak in which he swore at his wife, smashed up furniture and made so much noise that a neighbour called the police. The real cause? He believed that she no longer cared for him and was secretly planning to leave the relationship – worries that he kept to himself. In some cases rage erupts in dependent relationships because the person is too scared to talk about what is really upsetting them – believing that if they did they would be ridiculed or rejected.
Character traits. For some people rage is a habit. Disagreeable, irritable, impatient and bad-tempered they let off steam on a daily basis whenever events – or other people – do not meet with their expectations, demands and wishes. From delayed trains, slow service and traffic jams to careless drivers, lazy employees and anyone who happens to disagree with them they react in fury.
The origin of these traits is complex. Sometimes the origin lies in childhood: the person may have grown up with parents who were always in a fret and rage comes to seem natural. Others were bullied or intimidated at school or elsewhere and grow up with an underlying sense of powerlessness that fuels resentment, frustration and – later – rage. Such people may grow up with a high need to prove themselves in some way and for control over events and other people which erupts in rage when it is thwarted. Related to this need for control is a perfectionistic, driven, high-achieving attitude which insists on success at all costs – and reacts with impatience should that not be forthcoming. These traits are often seen in what are called Type A personalities