What is Anger?
We all know what anger is. We have all felt that emotion in our lives at one point or another. Some feel it regularly, others barely at all. Some live lives characterized by frequent experiences of it and may suffer greatly as a result. Anger is a basic human experience, but do we really understand it? “Modern psychologists view anger as a primary, natural, and mature emotion experienced by virtually all humans at times, and as something that has functional value for survival. Anger can mobilize psychological resources for corrective action. Uncontrolled anger can, however, negatively affect personal or social well-being.”
We are at least, at our base, animals, like any other, with highly evolved survival instincts. Anger is clearly linked to our fight or flight response; which our body uses to react to danger, mobilizing our physical resources and stimulating certain biological systems to quickly escape or confront danger. “Anger becomes the predominant feeling behaviorally, cognitively, and physiologically when a person makes the conscious choice to take action to immediately stop the threatening behavior of another outside force.” But do we really always “choose” to become angry? Or are our responses nearly automatic, based on instinct, socialization, or training by peers, parents, and society that may go all the way back to early childhood? Maybe we choose to consciously control our anger after it has already begun. In other words: What comes first, our conscious awareness of external stimuli or our bodies’ perception of these stimuli via our senses? This is important because believing we always “choose” to become angry can lead to a simple suggestion that one who gets angry too often can simply stop choosing to be angry. For many of us, including myself, that suggestion hasn’t worked and instead we have found ourselves choosing not to act based on our anger and to practice mindfulness when we feel ourselves becoming angry. My thoughts once I have become angry will be, for example, biased toward continuing in anger and acting in anger. Yet once I have calmed down, my thoughts will often be very different concerning whatever it was that triggered the anger to begin with. I usually realize that whatever triggered my anger wasn’t worth getting upset over in the first place.
This leads me to want to examine the general nature of what makes people angry in hopes of finding patterns that then can be helpful in changing attitudes towards the common triggers of anger. We may still live in a dangerous world, but it clearly isn’t as dangerous as it was when our instincts evolved or even in the recent past or in other parts of the world. Most instances of anger thus seem to involve social or psychological threats, rather than physical ones. This may offer little real comfort because in my experience these kind of threats are interpreted by my physiology nearly the same as physical ones; my body wants to fight or flee when someone threatens me psychologically.
What Triggers Anger?
So when do I tend to get angry? I get angry at being mistreated (in ways that aren’t physical). I get angry at injustice. Animals, as far as we know, have no such concepts, or if they do they are rarely motivated to anger in reaction to them. My dog did once growl at a neighbor who was yelling at her child, though he may have perceived the yelling as a precursor to physical violence. He does appear to yawn in annoyance when we tell him to get off the couch, but he has never seemed to be angry in the way humans get angry from not getting his way or from his master being unfair.
So we get angry over ideas? We can be frustrated by others, disrespected, and belittled, as these are all social phenomena. We have social and psychological needs and when we feel they aren’t being met, anger can be our alert to the fact and a mechanism for arousing us to respond, ideally in order to alter this delivery of needs within our social framework.
But what if we are routinely feeling these ways and being angered by it? Common sense, along with some research, would indicate being angry too often can have deleterious effects on a person’s physical health over time, as well as disrupt his/her personal relationships. But equally dangerous to a person’s self esteem, and even position in a social milieu, is never getting angry, or suppressing anger, which some researchers have observed can cause health problems or possibly set the stage for more extreme outbursts in the future. These future outbursts would essentially have the same negative effect on a person that is frequently angry.
An Analysis of Anger
To figure out how to deal with anger we must return to the initial description of anger and its typical human contexts. Physically, we have instincts to protect ourselves that may involve anger. Mentally, we can filter out (ideally) through rational labeling which environmental inputs actually signal danger and thus would require anger as part of a valid response. We may, for example, be scared by a movie, but are aware that it’s only a movie which doesn’t require us fleeing our living room or fighting our television. But this may not help us when confronting threats to our dignity, our pride, or even our need for healthy love.
Many of these threats are labeled based on our larger cultural socialization as well as what we are taught more locally by family and friends. For example, in some cultures it may be expected for us to become angry if another person were to make romantic advances toward our partner. Lack of anger and subsequent action with respect to this offending individual may signal weakness to our social group and/or even to our partner. In other cultures, getting angry about such a situation may trigger an entirely different response. We might be expected not to get angry; to perhaps simply laugh off such romantic advances in a way that would have us labeled as possessing confidence and maturity. If we did get angry, we might instead be considered immature.
Regardless of these differences amongst and between cultures, all human groups possess some values; values that give life meaning and worth, that dictate when it is thus appropriate to become angry, which would be when these pursuits of meaning and worth are obstructed. Anger is an appropriate response in certain situations, however, is it the only response, and if so, what kind of actions are appropriate when dealing with the emotion of anger? What behaviors do we accept as legitimate when we are angered? Can we look at anger as being one of a series of responses (rather than the only one) to situations we are confronted with when dealing with an often chaotic world?
In my experiences both dealing with mistreatment and simply living and working with others as we all have to, I have found that I can be angry with a person’s behavior without needing to respond negatively to the person. I also can avoid hating the whole person, as this will only lead to anger being the response this person evokes in me every time we interact. In addition, anger doesn’t have to lead to violence; though I was taught by some of my peers, earlier in life, that this was an appropriate and necessary response to disrespect or physical threats.
I often think of great leaders of social movements like Jesus, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King when I try to figure out what role, if any, anger can and should really play in my life. I know that despite their reputations for being peace-lovers and advocates of non-violence that none of these three figures were absent anger. In fact, they were truly angered by many of the circumstances of injustice they faced in their times. They even knew that acting against these unjust conditions would inevitably lead to violence, not by them or their followers, but by those who sought to defend the structures from which the injustice emanated. I believe they saw anger as part of the process of recognizing wrongdoing and a motivator to act against such wrongdoings. However, they brought to this process other emotions and values that ideally would be creative and constructive, rather than destructive and divisive, as often the actions, such as violence, that occur out of anger are. Love for others, or at least respect for others and their humanity, was one of the values and emotions that Jesus, Gandhi, and MLK brought to this process of facing injustice, which may have began with anger but was designed to end with peace and community. Being guided at our core by respect for ourselves and others, and having a desire for the best outcomes for all of us seems to be the guiding principle that can prevent anger from simply being a tool of our minds and bodies that results in a destructive force in and of itself.
I will try to remember this the next time I get angry, and try to remember that whoever or whatever is angering me exists in a huge interrelated world,; one that needs constructive care that comes from love and respect and not the destructive input that violence and hate can bring from anger.