If I see a hungry lion racing for me, aiming for my throat, I feel fear. It’s a visceral reaction out of my conscious control. It is an instinct.
If I am walking down a road in England, perpetually scared that a lion might attack me, that isn’t fear, although it is commonly called such (as in Susan Jeffers’ book, Feel the fear and do it anyway). It is actually anxiety. Anxiety is a feeling that arises from a behaviour—worrying—based on an irrational belief which has generated the feeling of anxiety.
I wish we had a word which bore the same relation to anger as anxiety does to fear.
We get angry—for example, if a stranger attacks my child—and it is a visceral, instinctive response. If I am still angry about the situation two hours later, or two years later, it isn’t anger, it’s something else: a synthetic state which requires mental energy to maintain it.
True anger is biologically impossible to sustain: the level of adrenaline and other hormones and what have you sloshing around would kill the brain. But the anger, at the time, is unavoidable and a necessary life preserver.
Whereas synthetic anger is rarely justified. It may serve a purpose. It is often maintained unconsciously, so the angry person is genuinely unaware of his/her contribution to it. It is very often consciously justified thorough a variety of techniques such as being righteous and more or less covert demands for sympathy.
But it is the emotion which fuels conflict, racial hatred—hatred of all groups different from “us”—and is used as an excuse to fail to move forward. ‘Habit’ is too weak a word for this: just because it is not conscious doesn’t mean it is not volitional.
Anger is always a cover emotion. What it is covering may be… fear, or frustration, or judgement or many other things. It is worth being aware of why we are angry and then making the effort to work out why really we are angry.
There is a widespread view that anger is bad, in itself. ‘Bad’ has many meanings, as in ‘this food is bad’ or ‘that chair is badly made’. But ‘bad’, as in morally wrong, needs to be used with care, I think, when it comes to anger.
Anger is an emotion. It is neither good nor bad. It just happens and, because it is a primitive, instinctive response, it is extremely difficult to genuinely not feel it in a situation where it would be a natural and, indeed, normal response.
Suppressing anger—ie, not expressing it, probably with associated attempts to deny it, and garnished with judgments about how ‘bad’ it is—is just an illusion. All that has been done is that the mind has chosen not to be conscious of it. It’s still there and is likely to come out at an inappropriate moment.
Manufacturing anger is also unhelpful. Because of its nature, true anger can only be short-lived: the brain cannot produce enough of the chemicals associated with it to keep it going for long. If it appears to be going on for more than a few minutes, it is becoming increasingly synthetic (however real it is to the angry one and those around him or her). When people are described as being angry for years it would be helpful to find more accurate, subtle descriptors.
Indulging anger (think the young John McEnroe on court) has more of a feel of a childish tantrum and is, almost always, recognised by everyone else as unhelpful.
It helps to differentiate anger from attack. In society today, it is very difficult to express anger without it being received as an attack. (It’s hard to be assertive without being accused of being aggressive.) Appropriately expressed anger is necessary for the well being of the angry one and can be seen as a useful communication by all those around them. Attacks may include anger (if only of the manufactured kind), but the anger isn’t the attack, it is a weapon used in the attack.
For example, (true) anger can be helpful in relationships, in business or in private, but attack (aggression) isn’t. If your partner is not willing or able to express him/herself with honesty and authenticity, because they don’t want to be seen as “angry” This is helpful to your relationship, not least because suppressed anger will just explode at some entirely inappropriate moment in a way which will be difficult to deal with, because the anger is now irrelevant to the thing the partner is claiming it is about.
Anger can be managed without being suppressed, but care needs to be taken: we have to know what we are doing, and I don’t think the word ‘control’’ is appropriate here. It is hard for control not to degenerate into repression, manipulation or inauthenticity. But, as Aristotle said (Nicomachean ethics, II),
“Anyone can get angry—that is easy… but to do this to the right person, to the right extent, at the right time, with the right motive, and in the right way, that is not for everyone, nor is it easy.”
Managing anger is about choice, surely. Some people may not realise that other choices are available, or they may believe that other choices “won’t work”, but most people can make choices.
There is a ‘right context for expressing anger’ defined by timeliness, honesty, authenticity and appropriateness. You might choose to refrain from expressing anger to your dying mother however much that expression would qualify under the other criteria.
Talking about the behaviour that follows anger isn’t talking about the anger. Anger is not a behaviour, it’s an emotion. It’s the person who is angry, not the behaviour. And, in particular, the behaviours constitute the attack I referred to earlier.
These behaviours can be damaging and this is why I believe that we would do well always to remember that we have choices in how we are going to react in any given situation.
by Jeremy Marchant . © 2015 Jeremy Marchant Limited . uploaded 20 june 2015 . image: Free images