These days, anger has acquired a bad rap. Warnings about its dangers and downside abound, while tips on how to manage this powerful emotion proliferate: “Never drive angry.” “Don’t go to bed mad.” “Just walk away.”
In my experience, anger can actually be very useful. Feelings of anger – when used wisely – can increase your sense of power and motivate you to transform a bad situation. Like all emotions, anger is triggered by a change relevent to your happiness, whether it is an external stressor or your very own thoughts. Before learning to use your anger more effectively, you must understand where it comes from, and what it means.
Most of us become angry when we are unexpectedly frustrated or blocked in the pursuit of a goal or desire: a wish for personal safety, a tempting financial reward, the longing for justice, or the hope of getting where we need to go.
The more important the expectation or goal is to you -- and the more “unjustified,” complete or surprising the obstruction -- the angrier you are likely to become when thwarted. In this way, anger can be both an indicator and protector of those things in life to which you feel most entitled or needy.
The philosopher Robert Solomon believed that anger reflects a sense that the world has injured us and defied our expectations. It follows then, that our personal expectations about how the world “is” or “should be” go a long way to determining what constitutes an anger-inducing offense. So when your email goes down unexpectedly, you get angry because you expected to connect with someone else or meet a deadline. Context is especially critical when it comes to anticipating and understanding anger. Each of our three aspects (primitive, social and reasonable) has its own needs and expectations about how the world should be. Each has its own specific anger triggers and responses, and here are just a few common ones.
- Being blocked whether by failed technology, geting lost, or a missed opportunity
- Craving physical relief and wanting food, sex, sleep or drugs
- Feeling trapped by poor health, bad decisions, circumstances, obligations, an unfulfilling relationship
- Feeling helpless against uncontrollable forces such as the government, weather, traffic, or your own limitations
- Unexpected pain from stubbed toes, sudden illness or injury
- Wanting help or cooperation and being met by ineptitude or rudeness (bad drivers, doctors, cell phone company employees)
- Expecting help or cooperation and having people steal credit or let you down at work
- Wanting love and being criticized, misunderstood, left out, judged, or lied to
- Desiring true friendship and finding friends filled with envy, indifference, or competitiveness
- Disagreeing about key ideals, politics, aesthetics, or values
Affronts to Reason:
- Injustice poverty, prejudice, discrimination, or cruelty
- Universal problems like war, famine, waste, or pollution
- Ideological issues like politics, religion, or philosophy
- Existential concerns about life, religion, or meaning
When does anger pop in, uninvited, to your life? And what is your anger protecting?
You probably experience and express your anger differently depending upon the context and particular concern. Take a few moments to think about which specific circumstances consistently set you off. Review the common triggers listed above and use them as a springboard to discover what makes you angry. Take note of your anger, whether you hear it loud and clear, or as a whisper of annoyance, or as the silent din of a stifled rage in your mind. Try to write down what gets you going even if is uncomfortable to admit; it will be useful to review your list later.
As you take note of which triggers reliably provoke your anger, think about what it is that leaves you feeling wronged. As you look over your list, ask yourself:
- Do physical difficulties, social dilemmas, or ideological issues set you off most frequently? Or are you equally triggered by all aspects of your personality?
- When do you become most aggressive (not just angry) and impulsive?
- What is your anger protecting?
- Where did your expectations originate?
Is there something you could work to accept -- or change -- that might reduce the potency or frequency of your rage? Is there some way to go about putting things “right,” rather than just getting angry time and time again? How can you use an understanding of your anger to plan your life, or change your expectations -- address the things that make you mad – before they arrive uninvited?
Getting to know your anger better – its roots, methods, and aims – can help you know when anger is likely to rear up. And it will also tell you about your values. It may even help you learn to get what you want -- before getting angry.