Anger is a wonderful emotion to have. It helps subjugated people revolt, it gave women the vote, it can help you stick up for yourself when you are bullied. It can energise us. It’s a good motivator for when change is needed.
Yet many of us believe anger is a bad emotion because we have seen on the news what angry people do. Or, as children we may have endured a violent, raging parent, and concluded that anger is bad. Or, perhaps our parents punished expressions of anger, so we learned it’s a bad thing to feel.
Whatever the case, many of us avoid being angry, afraid that if we let ourselves be angry we might look foolish, or undisciplined, or lose control and do something awful. ‘Good people don’t get angry’, many of us think, so we aim to never be angry.
But being angry is a normal and healthy part of being human. We evolved to get angry, as have most advanced creatures. (Have you seen a mother defend her young?) So, when we become angry but pretend to ourselves we are not angry, we have a problem. The anger will squeeze out in unwanted ways. Here are six:
1. Misdirected anger.
People not acknowledging their anger to themselves might:
▪ slash train seats, undermine workmates, or light fires in bushland, or
▪ pick fights, or
▪ snipe at their spouse, or
▪ punish someone with silence, or
▪ become a chronic complainer, or
▪ be sarcastic often, or
▪ be defensive.
These people may be concerned that if they were to allow themselves to get angry they might lose control and disgrace themselves. So, they find other, more passive ways to express it.
2. Explosive anger. Some anger avoiders suppress their anger until they eventually explode at something trivial. They lash out physically or verbally, and surprise everyone including themselves. Then they feel ashamed and guilty, which reinforces their belief that anger is bad. So, they strive even harder to avoid feeling angry, bottling it up even more for the next explosive outburst.
3. The anger enjoyers use their anger to get what they want. They might even enjoy the adrenaline rush. They and their loved ones live troubled lives.
They don’t see themselves as angry. Just assertive, and sometimes, persecuted.
4. Anger turned inwards. Some people turn their anger on themselves and become
▪ self-critical, or
▪ resentful and bitter or
▪ lose sleep with worry, or
▪ harm themselves.
These people could end up suffering anxiety or depression.
5. Anger and powerlessness.
These people put their own needs aside and become doormats for people to walk over them. They are fearful of:
– how they might behave if they stood up for themselves. Would they lose control?
– how they might be perceived if they were to stand up for themselves (Would they be seen as petty,
selfish, stupid or ornery?)
– and they may be fearful of being quashed in a confrontation.
Because they don’t get their needs met, they lose a big part of themselves and live only half a life. So, they miss out on feeling relaxed and good about life. They exert no real influence in their relationships or in life, and feel powerless, without necessarily knowing it. That can lead to anxiety or despair.
‘Trying not to get angry affects relationships as well. If you can’t get angry, you and those around you don’t know who you are. They don’t know how you feel, nor do they understand the limits of your tolerance. Anger gives you borders and definition.’
Thomas Moore, from his book, ‘Dark nights of the soul’.
6. Chronic anger. Anger has become a habit, and feels normal. The people suffering chronic anger are the grumps, the bigots, the unforgiving, the righteous.
‘Often with anger there are other emotions underneath that a person either hasn’t been able to face or they don’t have the permission (from others or themselves) to face or they don’t even know are there. My question comes from a sense of curiosity about why they think anger is a bad emotion in the first place. So, if a person says “I think anger is a bad emotion to have” and if I ask what is bad about it . . . I will get some information. Valuable information. If I ask them to use another word it can give an insight into the feelings underneath the anger. A person might equate anger with losing control; another might equate anger with cruelty; another might equate anger with being unfeminine, weak, scary, childish, overpowering, inadequate – these are all different and thus provide different ways in to help someone deal with their anger.’
Gay McKinley, psychotherapist.
7. The Activist.
There is a seventh way anger can squeeze out of a person, though in this instance it can benefit the person or society. I mentioned earlier: anger gave women the vote. It helps subjugated people revolt. It helps you stick up for yourself when you’re bullied or harassed. It can help a parent guide the behaviour of a child.
It’s a healthy, constructive expression of anger. It’s directed at change.
In short, when we are not aware of our anger we may destined to explode, or remain grumpy, or stressed, or be doormats. But when we are aware of our anger and can express it in a healthy, constructive manner, we make smarter decisions, and we can focus on changing what needs to be changed.
And, we gain that inner authority I keep talking about. We become less stressed and more relaxed than a person who doesn’t allow themselves to be angry. That’s because we aren’t afraid of our anger – we know how to handle it.
We won’t always necessarily solve our problem, but it’s that knowledge that we can handle life – it’s that confidence in ourselves – which allows the turmoil to evaporate and our behaviour to be moderate.
We might even decide the incident isn’t worth being angry about, and readily let it go.
There’s a bonus: when we realise that anger is not such a bad emotion to have, we cope better with another person’s anger. Instead of dismissing their behaviour as frightening, or bad and irrational, we can focus more on what they are saying.
‘The anger avoider’s pledge: Beginning today, I will allow anger to be part of my family of emotions. Anger has a place in my life, along with sadness, joy, and all my other feelings. I promise to listen to my anger, to use it to help me figure out what to say or do, and to let go of my anger when the situation is better.’
From‘Letting Go of Anger’, by Ron Potter-Efron.
Q. ‘Anger causes heaps of trouble. You only have to look at the news, with all the stabbings and shootings.’
Poorly expressed anger causes problems, yes. That’s why anger has such a bad reputation. But if the people in the news had expressed their anger in a healthy manner they wouldn’t be in the news. They and their victims would have suffered less, and they may have solved their problem while earning people’s respect.
Q. ‘Anger creates conflict, and conflict creates stress. We don’t want to feel stressed.’
If you avoid necessary conflict with another person you will develop an inner conflict, and that’s the last thing you want. No one likes conflict, but if you have the capacity to meet it head on in a constructive manner, problems get solved and you get over the discomfort.
Q. ‘If we allow ourselves to become angry we will become angry more often. That can’t be a good thing!’
If you practise being angry inappropriately then yes, that will happen. Yelling and throwing things is unhealthy. You will you feel stupid and guilty afterwards, and you might well develop a short fuse.
I’m suggesting an expression of anger that aims to rectify the situation.
Paradoxically, when we can express our anger in a healthy way, we become less angry. That’s because we are calmer and our perspective is healthier. And, it becomes easy to conclude that an incident isn’t worth being angry about. We might even conclude that displaying tolerance and compassion, rather than anger, is a more appropriate response to a situation.
Q. ‘When my sister gets angry at work she cries, but instead of taking her anger seriously, the staff think she’s weak.’
I’m not surprised. Crying is another unhelpful way to express anger.
Q. ‘What’s wrong with screaming and shouting at someone? That gets results. A squeaky wheel gets the grease.’
You might get compliance but you haven’t truly solved the problem, so it’s a short-term victory. The respect you will lose will be more far-reaching. And, from then on, the other person will lie to you, or avoid you, to avoid your anger. You don’t want that.
‘But ranting and raving can be enormously satisfying.’
Yes, it can be a release, as can swearing. Instead of aiming to reduce the intensity of their anger, some people aim to increase it by yelling and swearing. They work themselves into a ranting fit! Why? Because they believe that yelling is the best way to get results. And each time they work themselves up they get better at it, and become excellent at becoming angry. Then they get angry over trivial things. Anger becomes their default response.
Yes, a good, brief yell at no one in particular can be enormously satisfying, but don’t yell at someone. Don’t vent. If you vent on someone it’s not fair on them, and their reaction can exacerbate the situation. That won’t help you or your relationship. And, with your prolonged yelling, your brain will become proficient in creating ‘anger chemicals’. You don’t want to develop a short fuse and get angry often.
‘So, venting at someone is bad?’
Not always. Sometimes we can have controlled venting, with a friend as a soundboard. Sometimes we need to vent to open things up, to find out what is going on inside. Just make sure you have a plan in mind and have the other person’s permission.
‘One problem with merely venting anger is that the raw emotion may contain memories of many violations and humiliations. You may be angry with many people and for many reasons. To vent this conglomerate of feelings in the presence of a single person is to swamp that person with all your accumulated feelings, most of which have nothing to do with him. Rage turning into violence feels impotent and accomplishes nothing, because you aren’t dealing with the real object of your anger. You are simply giving other people good reason to be angry at you.’
Thomas Moore, from his book, ‘Dark nights of the soul’.
Q. ‘I find that punching a punching bag is a good way to express anger.’
You are creating adrenaline and endorphins that will swamp the bad feeling of your anger. Or, you’re exhausting yourself. Either way, would you consider instead calming yourself, and looking within you to discover precisely what buttons have been pressed? What ‘shoulds’ have been violated? Then focus on rectifying the problem. What needs to change?
‘If you are angry at your spouse or partner, hours of workout at the gym are not going to be nearly as effective as letting your partner know how you feel.’
Thomas Moore, from his book, ‘Dark nights of the soul’.”
Q. ‘When is it okay to get angry?’
It’s always okay to be angry. If you’re angry, you’re angry. You can feel any emotion you like, whenever you like. Remember Charlotte? Charlotte allowed all the dark emotions to be with her. That’s how she learned how to deal with them. So yes, it’s always okay to be angry. What is important is how it is expressed.
‘I mean, when is anger a good thing to have?’
When change is needed. Anger can give us the strength to stand up for what is right and make changes for the better. Anger can be the impetus for courageous acts.
Q. ‘Is the Dali Lama an anger avoider?’
Buddhists don’t repress or avoid feeling their anger, nor do they indulge it; rather, they don’t allow it to arise in the first place. They train their mind to be alert to their emotions, and become aware of their anger as soon as it begins to form. When it does begin to form they observe it in a detached way, then address it using a number of methods, until it fades. One method is to consciously replace it with a cultivated compassion, or loving kindness, called ‘metta’.
Each Buddhist aims to one day be able to cut off anger entirely and feel only loving kindness. ‘This is, if nothing else, a beautiful ideal to aspire to,’ said one teacher I spoke with.
So, to answer your question: no, the Dalai Lama is not an anger-avoider. He, presumably, has become adept at being aware of any anger growing within him, and adept at dealing with it before it gets a chance to grow further. If you can do that, fine. My concern is that if you fail to apply the Buddhist teachings properly, you might become an anger-avoider. Anger management methods are relatively easy to learn and apply, whereas the Buddhist methods require training and persistence. But if they work for you, well and good.
‘You’ve spoken with Buddhists? What do they think of your claim that it’s okay to express anger in a healthy, constructive manner?’
They disagree with it. They claim that even when anger is constructively expressed it is still a toxin to the holder of the anger.
‘You said anger is a good motivator for when change is needed. If the Buddhists quell their anger before it arises, what do they use as a motivator for change?’
I don’t know.
To discover if the Dalai Lama was an anger-avoider I wrote to three practising Buddhists. All replied. Their answers were exceptional. You can read them here.
Q. ‘What if I am really angry with someone? What should I do? Write a letter to my Member of Parliament?’
Sarcasm noted. When experiencing a strong burst of anger, take time out. Leave quickly. When you have calmed down think about the incident thoroughly, and from all angles. When you are ready, deal with the situation.
‘But what steps can I take to address my anger?’
Try the chapter: ‘An Incident Occurred and I’m Angry!‘