Updated: May 2, 2019
For every minute you remain angry, you give up 60 seconds of peace of mind. ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson
I spent the last two evenings working with some very angry people. While not my favorite role, I end up doing frequent conflict mediation sessions because there are so many angry people out there. I have a lot of coaching clients, too, who end up in sessions with me because of anger issues. They’re in trouble at work, or in their personal relationships, because other people just can’t deal with them. Although the conflicts occur because of a lack of ability to manage their anger, other people’s responses just make them angrier.
Most of my clients vehemently justify their anger. They are passionate about whatever the issues are that they’re angry about and get caught in a downward spiral because they can’t accomplish what they want, causing them to get angrier, which only further blocks them from getting what they want. They have a lot of difficulty understanding how anger hurts them and undermines their efforts.
I’m not saying we should never get angry. First, our feelings are what they are and anger does actually serve a purpose, which is to protect us from danger by preparing us for a fight. Without anger, we might not stand up for injustices or unfairness. Feelings of anger are an internal message that something is not quite right and we need to take action. The problem is, many of us don’t recognize real danger versus the perceived insults our egos translate as “danger.”
We are hard-wired to feel angry and we all have the same physiological response to it – the biological signature of anger. The blood rushes from our brains and out to our arms and hands so that we can better grasp and yield our weapons for the fight ahead.
Ooops. I don’t actually have any weapons to grasp. What are my hands and arms supposed to do with all of that energy? And of course, the blood rushing through them has reduced the blood that should be going through my brain, so I’m not going to be able to think clearly. Plus my heart is racing from the increased blood pressure, and well, I’m not feeling so great at this point.
Do I really want to wield a club at the I.T. person telling me to reboot my computer for the 5th time? Swing an ax at the airline check-in agent who tells me I’ve been bumped from my flight? Hurl a spear at my teenager who didn’t clean his room again? Well, maybe in my fantasy world sometimes, but I do have some self-regulation skills.
This all sounds pretty violent, doesn’t it? It’s because that’s what the biological signature for anger was meant to do – give us the ability to violently defend ourselves. And while that may have been useful a very, very long time ago, it clearly does not serve us today except on rare occasions.
Most of the time now, when we lose our cool, we’re just hurting ourselves. Since we thankfully don’t swing swords at each other anymore, the violence tends to come out in our words. One of the people I was working with last night was very offended that she’d been accused of being violent. She stated that she never touched anyone. To her, emotional violence wasn’t a real thing. But it is a very real thing and more and more, people are expressing their violence through words. You only have to look at a Twitter feed for a few minutes to get a good glimpse of what I’m talking about. There is violence in all of the negative, attacking talk that goes on in social media, in debates on TV and unfortunately, in our workplaces and relationships.
We can all clearly see that anger is increasing around us, whether in person or online, but what is anger itself? Anger is actually a secondary or subset emotion. There are really only two primary emotions – love and fear. All of the other emotions we have fall into one of those two categories.
If anger is really a form of fear, what are we afraid of? Feeling fear is uncomfortable since it makes us feel vulnerable and not in control of a situation, so we want to avoid those feelings in any way we can. One way to do that is to shift into anger, whether consciously or subconsciously. Anger provides a rush of energy along with an illusion that we’re more in control rather than vulnerable, thanks to the stress hormones being forced through our systems. Anger can create a sense of power and control and that temporarily feels better than fearful and vulnerable.
Of course, the biggest downside is that it pushes other people away. If your underlying fear is abandonment and you respond with anger, you’re ultimately making yourself feel more abandoned. If your fear is sadness over a loss and you shift that feeling to anger, you’re only pushing away people who could help you feel less sad or lonely over the loss. If you fear losing your job, getting angry only affirms to the boss that maybe they should let you go.
More commonly, the fear we encounter in a typical day is related to being triggered by something that has nothing to do with the person that we become angry with. It’s important to understand that anger is an instantaneous reaction until we learn to manage it, and even then, there are times that we still can’t stop it from launching. I just had this happen for the first time in a long time about a month ago. I was so enraged my hands were shaking (remember all of that blood rushing to my hands so I can grab my weapon?). I was able to maintain my composure on the outside, but inside it felt like my blood was boiling. I had to step back and really reflect on what was occurring if for no other reason, just to calm my body down.
When we get triggered, it is not the other party’s responsibility, it is our own. We can only get triggered if we have an unresolved issue of our own still sitting in there somewhere, waiting for someone to poke it. My anger exploded that day because the other person was behaving erratically, even nonsensically, to something that I saw as very straightforward and factual. My original intention was to be helpful, but as I started to feel truly attacked in a series of emails, my anger bomb exploded. But it wasn’t the other party’s fault. It was a childhood experience of having a caretaker who was so unpredictable in responding to very mundane events that I was constantly on alert and walking on eggshells to avoid punishment or violence. I got angry because I was not expecting the response I received and it triggered the fear of uncertainty that none of us likes, but which I am particularly sensitive to.
I mentioned injustices and unfairness earlier, which are common themes in anger issues. In my case, I could say the other person “should” not behave that way and that her actions were extremely unfair. But that’s not helpful in any way. I clearly triggered her which resulted in her reaction and that’s not my issue, that’s hers. My issue was that I allowed myself to be triggered over something that is now 40 years in the past. How does that serve me in any way?
Anger is exhausting as well as depressing. All of us get angry, but many of us simply are angry. We’ve developed a "response habit" of anger as a defense against the world. We look for confirmation that we are right to be angry. We cling to egoist positions, such as "being right" or "being smarter" than everyone else or perceiving being taken advantage of on a regular basis. We may see life in general as unfair and unjust. Viewing the world through that lens, there is a never-ending reason to be angry. Life certainly can be unfair and unjust, but anger is not the antidote. That other primary emotion is, which is love. Secondary emotions under love include compassion, generosity and joy. Viewing the world through the lens of love doesn’t make everything rose-colored, but it allows us to notice all of the positive aspects of the world that help negate the unfairness and injustices. It makes us better people and it helps make the world a better place.
When we allow anger to take over, we’re demonstrating a lack of emotional intelligence. That’s not an insult in any way. It’s simply an indication that we need to work on increasing our emotional intelligence, which is not that hard to do. There are hundreds of books available to show us how, there are classes, there are videos online, there are counselors and therapists and coaches. When anger erupts, take some time to reflect on your thoughts leading up to the eruption. What need do you have that is not being fulfilled? Are there underlying emotions such as sadness, loneliness or vulnerability that you’re trying to suppress? Aim for empathy for the other person – how might they have felt during this encounter? Be kind to yourself and use techniques such as mindfulness and meditation to help your body and mind recover from the assault of your angry feelings.
Another simple exercise to practice if you’re struggling with anger is to ask yourself, “does anger move me closer to my desires or away from them?” Why would you do something that moves you further away from what you really want?
For a brief meditation to help with anger, listen here.