Last week in talking about forgiveness, anger and violence frequently came up. Even though I normally would do something lighter after such a heavy topic, I feel I need to cover my position on anger to try to clear up the misunderstandings. To be honest, I’m not even sure how much of this is original to me or to another psychotherapist because it’s a topic that we’ve covered in depth several times. Then again, how much of an idea is ever original to anyone? All ideas are formed based on our interactions with others. Therefore, here is my spin on what I’ve come to understand about anger through the exchange of ideas with very wise others.
I suppose if you weren’t shocked about my previous post, you won’t be shocked to learn that I’ve come to see anger as healthy. I lost count of how many times I said that last week. Anger really is the most demonized shadow emotion, and it’s unfortunate because anger can be such a powerful tool.
I think the aversion to anger lies in this myth that anger is the same as malice, violence, and abuse.
First, malice is an intent—wishing someone harm. While I could argue a relativistic approach about the neutrality of a “wish,” I do not believe that intending someone harm is either good or healthy. But anger doesn’t have to come accompanied with intent. I can be (and am) angry at my abusers without wanting to see them harmed.
Second, violence and abuse are behaviors—a certain way of expressing various attitudes and emotions. Anger can be part of that mix, but it doesn’t have to be. Sometimes violence and abuse can be about control, entitlement, sadistic pleasure or prejudice without anger ever entering the picture. Even if anger were always part of violence and abuse, it would be fallacious to assume that one is equal to the other. In order for anger to become violence, there must also be a script.
And by “script” I mean exactly what it sounds like. Shakespeare wasn’t too far off when he likened the world to a stage. Life is filled with little scripts that tell us what to do and say in various situations. Think about the majority of your interactions and how rote they can be in the beginning and end. There might be some variation, but for the most part we all follow a basic model of interaction.
Scripts aren’t instinctual from birth. They’re conditioned and taught through culture and, as a result, often vary from culture to culture. If someone tried to kiss me in greeting, I might duck and run, but if I grew up in Europe, that would not be an awkward way of saying hello.
Whereas our scripts are conditioned, emotions are universal across humanity—the one language that can be understood across cultures—and shared with other species. We tend to downplay the importance of emotion in science, but the fact is emotions serve a pretty significant evolutionary function. Our species could not survive without them. They’re one of the oldest surviving aspects of the mind because they are essential to group interaction.
As an emotion, anger has a purpose. It’s the warning light that goes off when something is wrong. By itself, that warning is neither good nor bad . . . actually, I could argue that it’s good because without that warning light we’d have a hard time knowing when something crossed an important boundary. But for the sake of simplicity, we’ll call it neutral.
We are taught how we’re supposed to react to that warning, and that is where we get into problems. When we think of anger, the scripts that most often come to mind are suppression or rage—neither of which are healthy. In many ways, I also see them as the same response. Anger out of control is anger that can no longer be suppressed. And suppressed anger will eventually become out of control.
Let’s use the analogy of urination. It’s not something we consider all that pleasant, but it is a natural bodily function that we all have. If you can’t pee, there’s something wrong with your body. If you try to suppress your body’s need for too long, sooner or later you’re going to pee uncontrollably all over yourself. If you suppress your body’s need consistently over time, you’ll cause permanent damage.
Similarly, when anger is considered something we need to suppress or drive away from ourselves, the only time it ever finds its way out is when we get to the point that we can’t suppress it any longer. Then, yes, we’re going to get unhealthy and unwanted expressions.
If we consistently fail to give ourselves a healthy outlet for our natural emotions, it will also cause all of those nasty little health problems that everyone associates with “negative emotions.” And if the pee analogy isn’t enough to convince you that the health problems are a result of an unhealthy expression of anger, consider adrenaline. It’s common knowledge by now that too much adrenaline in the body can cause pretty significant damage, especially if adrenaline levels are kept elevated over time (aka stress). But no doctor would argue from that knowledge that we shouldn’t have an adrenaline response. We’re advanced enough in our understanding to recognize that adrenaline serves an important function in the fight/flight response. It gets our body ready to deal with an emergency. We need that ability. But if our adrenaline response is repeatedly triggered and our body isn’t given the proper outlet for releasing that energy, it causes problems.
Why should anger be any different? Go ahead and make note of the unhealthy approaches to anger, but don’t kill the messenger because you don’t know how to make use of the message! Instead, find the positive approaches to anger.
It’s an arousing emotion, meaning it creates energy. Like most people, I used to associate that energy with destruction, in a bad way. It’s true that anger can be destructive, but as a part of creation, destruction can actually be healthy. Sometimes it’s better to end a relationship because it’s toxic. Sometimes it’s better to cut some ties, pull down some walls, demolish some beliefs, and tear up some letters. Anger as a destructive force gives us the energy to bring to an end something that no longer contributes to our health and/or growth.
But, I’ve discovered that anger can also be constructive. Some of my best art has been created during a period of intense anger. It’s been the force behind much of my healing and the impetus that prompted me to create a better life for myself. And I wouldn’t be learning how to build relational boundaries without the anger that tells me when someone has done something that violates my person.
Putting the destruction and construction together, I see anger as the catalyst for change, inspiring activism, social justice, and protests. Civil rights, women’s rights, gay rights, child labor laws—all of it involved some sort of anger at the injustice of the situation and a desire to see that change. Hell, the U.S. wouldn’t even be here without anger. Anger is a valuable stressor that pushes a system to make adjustments. Otherwise, the system has no reason to change.
Sometimes anger can just be an extra boost of energy. Some of my best workouts have been fueled by anger. I absolutely love running when I’m pissed. Yoga, with angry girl music blasting, is pure exhilaration. And let’s not forget that rumor about angry sex. I’ve been doing my own little experiments on that. I can’t reveal my results, but the gist of my post could probably tip you off. 😉
I’ve even come to see anger as an expression of love! By allowing myself to experience anger over my abuse, I am showing love to myself. By allowing myself to get angry over the injustice that I see against another, I am loving them enough to get upset at the way they are being treated. And I really can’t bring this point out enough—even Jesus (you know, the love your neighbor as yourself guy) got angry enough to build a freaking whip and overturn the tables of a bunch of swindlers.
So, to wrap up my exhausted ramblings, yes, anger can have significant problems associated with it–as can any emotion or natural function that has been demonized and pushed into the recesses of our psyche. And it’s true that living in a constant state of anger can be problematic . . . but to be fair, no emotion is healthy to experience as a constant state of being (not even happiness). So really, the constant state thing is a moot point.
When we no longer try to dictate to ourselves which emotions we’re allowed to feel, the body has its own way of finding balance. Our job is to listen to it (yes I said that last week, but I think it’s important) and sit with the process. We start by questioning the scripts we’ve been taught about our emotions and giving our emotions space to simply be–without judgment, without expectation. Just be.