Anger is commonly perceived as a bad emotion and as such, repressed
It seems like nowadays, anger has bad press all around the globe. Anger is broadly referred to as a “bad emotion” and more often than not, children, especially girls, are prompted to “stop being angry!” because “feeling angry about a situation is not going to help.” As adults, we are also widely urged to repress or even suppress our anger, at work for example (“telling your boss you are upset is only going to make things worse”) or in Asian societies where group harmony prevails and losing face is out of question. Anthropologist Jean Briggs in Never in Anger related the extreme case of the Inuit’s society where even when a family borrows and damages your canoe— your most precious possession in such an adverse environment — you are expected not to frown when they ask to borrow it again.
Anger has such an awful reputation that some students (and adults!) claim they “never feel angry”when asked, “when do you feel angry?” Isn’t this tantamount to saying “I never feel happy”? Indeed, as human beings, don’t we inevitably experience all primary emotions: anger, fear, sadness, joy, disgust, and happiness? And many more, thankfully!
Can we realistically expect someone who has been treated unfairly or whose physical space has been invaded to suppress their anger? Moreover, don’t we all feel irritable when we lack sleep or food and are therefore easily triggered?
Repressing emotions, whichever they might be, usually has long term consequences in that it also prevents them from being transformed and processed healthily.
So, what’s so evil about anger?
Anger is too often mistaken for violence and aggression and, as such, it is both fascinating and scary.
As readers and citizens, we are overwhelmed by all the violence we are exposed to through the media and social media. Many people choose not to watch the news anymore but, even then, it’s hard to escape the wars, the refugee crises, the gun shootings, the famines, the epidemics and the flow of alarming news.
The bewilderment and discombobulation we experience is a sign that such violence is extra-ordinary, hence our fascination and extreme fear as its extent seems unprecedented and somewhat out of control.
Anger is not violence; anger is just an emotion (a strong feeling deriving from one’s circumstances, mood, or relationships with others. It is based on Latin “emovere,” from “e-“(variant of ex-) ‘out’ and “movere” ‘move’- Oxford dictionnary). As such, and just like any other emotion, anger isn’t intrinsically “good” or “bad:” it is information on who we are and it should be considered and embraced as such. When you feel angry, it’s just a sign that something is not right for you. Embrace it; it is a fantastic opportunity to learn more about yourself!
Indeed, there are no “good” or “bad” emotions, but rather all emotions are valuable in that they teach us about who we are: our desires and our limits. They also fuel our drive and bolster our abilities to overcome obstacles and build resilience.
Transforming the excess amount of energy triggered by anger
When asked “What do you feel inside your body when you feel angry?” kindergarten students who followed the Wisdom program were able to accurately describe the physiological reactions triggered by anger: “I can feel my heart beating faster,” “My muscles feel tense,” “I feel hot, I need to move,” all reflecting a sudden excess of energy they rarely know how to dispose of without hurting themselves or people around them.
While we can’t suppress the emergence of emotions (would we still be humans if we did?), we have leverage over our re-actions to those emotions.
So what are our options when we feel angry?
1. We can choose to use that excess of energy to destroy through violence and aggression:
- A child whose toy has been taken away from him by his sibling or classmate without asking for permission might destroy the toy or hit his sibling or classmate
- An adult who disagrees with a co-worker can choose to send an email detailing all the reasons why he believes his co-worker is unprofessional and copy everyone that counts to tarnish his reputation. (A C-Suite executive very seriously told me over lunch once: “I don’t have any issue dealing with anger, I just let it out on other people and I feel much better right away.”)
While destruction is tempting and can be almost a reflex (on the spur of the moment it might appear as the most obvious option), the endgame is costly and dissatisfying for everyone: in one case the child is left with a broken toy and no one to play with anymore, in the other the co-worker will likely feel humiliated, undermining his motivation to cooperate in the future.
Anger is often enhanced by our own thoughts such as “the other person did it on purpose,” “they think I’m stupid or what?” “they think they can abuse me, let me show them!” precipitating the aggression as a defence mechanism and cultivating a power relationship that is necessarily unbalanced and disrespectful of the other person.
2. Another option is to try and repress or suppress any reaction to the anger we feel inside. Because this energy is so intense, internalizing those conflicts usually results in self-harm and in bigger problems than if we were able to communicate with the person who triggered that emotion.
3. A more beneficial option is to try and transform this excess amount of energy to build something positive:
- Avoid the haste of the reflex by giving yourself time (children are taught to count to 10 before they act) to process your anger and try to always assume positive intent (people usually have other goals in their lives than ruining yours). This will help you communicate with the person who triggered your anger and the outcome might be a better mutual understanding and enhanced trust.
- This excess energy has fueled many movements to defend causes such as human rights, women’s rights, children rights, the environment, etc.
Once an elementary school history teacher reached out to me and said, “This year, we are dwelling on wars and conflicts. It’s important to me that students understand how conflicts arise and what triggers violence. I think your Wisdom program would be a fantastic way to explain to them what happens at a very micro level (inside our bodies and minds) when we feel angry and what are the options we have when faced with that emotion.” I wonder how many of us have been taught history through this emotional lens as opposed to learning dates and facts by heart and crossing our fingers that wars will never happen again because humans would have learned lessons from the past.
Anger and conflict is intrinsic to human nature, learning how to process them healthily is key to a more peaceful society, and it is within reach!