Anger: road-sign or road-block?

I’ve already written about emotions in general; however, I thought it would be useful to discuss anger in more detail. While positive emotions make us feel good (known as positive affect) and help us move towards pleasurable things, difficult emotions generally make us feel bad (negative affect) and usually lead to avoidance or withdrawal.

Anger is the only emotion, however, to satisfy both positive and negative affect – it can make us feel good (self-righteousness or self-pity) but also make us miserable and isolated. Understanding this may explain why some people seem unwilling to let go of their anger or are quick to react in the extreme. But while perpetual anger can become comfortable, it is also destructive.

Fortunately, anger can be used constructively, provided we understand its purpose.

A few years ago I read The Dance of Anger by Dr Harriet Lerner. I’ve never considered myself an angry person, but it still opened my eyes to the ways I was misusing this particular emotion.

While anger is indeed something we feel, Lerner describes it as more of a signal than an emotion. In doing so, she encourages us to explore exactly why we are angry; to go deeper than just the surface-level reaction. Perhaps there was disrespect or invalidation. Maybe something was said to expose our insecurities or to prod uncomfortably at old wounds. Or perhaps it was a combination of confusion and fear at our lack of control over a situation, or our lives more generally. Either way, anger can help us identify when our expectations, boundaries or values do not align with our reality.

Once we’ve used anger as a road-sign to identify what the root problem is, it’s less likely we’ll use it as a road-block. Road-blocks can take the form of projecting anger onto others and lashing out, revenge and punishment, withholding or silent-treatments or harbouring resentment – in fact, anything that stops us from taking responsibility for our feelings or improving the situation.

Unsurprisingly, these behaviours are so common because they’re often automatic. Difficult emotions trigger specific biological responses (fight or flight) which are integral to our safety and survival, whereas positive emotions are comparatively more diffused and don’t elicit specific biological reactions. Nevertheless, when it comes to using anger constructively or destructively, individuals still exercise personal choice.

We can choose if we will reflect and how we will react.

This concept is known as emotional intelligence. While this term has been defined by a number of theorists, it generally refers to an ability to recognise and understand emotions in oneself and others and to use this understanding to problem-solve and regulate future emotional responses. With respect to anger, emotional intelligence involves a balance of exploring and expressing anger responsibly (that is, without avoiding it or, at the other extreme, over-identifying with it) and using this knowledge to prevent history repeating itself.

This can be a lot to ask of ourselves when our pride is hurt, however it is worth keeping in mind that it’s easy to give into the base-instincts that demand we shut down or lash out. We have only to look at the comments section online, where punishment is put forth as a solution for just about everything, without thought to alternatives or consequence. It’s much harder to engage in emotionally intelligent behaviour; to be vulnerable without manipulating and honest without blaming. But, in the end, choosing to pay attention to those road-signs can make all the difference to our well-being and the success of our relationships.

Photo credit: goodenoughmother

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