(4 minute read)
Mae West, the American sex symbol of the 1920’s and 30’s once said “Too much of a good thing can be wonderful.” Anger — contrary to conventional wisdom — is a very useful emotion, and in reasonable amounts can be a good thing. But when it comes to anger, Mae West was wrong — too much of a good thing isn’t wonderful.
Anger seems to be a primary emotion: in other words, anger is the first emotion we feel when something happens to upset us. When we get angry, we connect our anger directly to the event that made us angry. It feels like a straight line: someone did something and we got angry. In fact, there is usually another emotion that happens first. Sometimes that primary emotion is so brief that we don’t even notice it. Or the anger that follows is so intense it overwhelms that primary emotion. So what’s really going on is this: Someone did something. We then felt some kind of primary emotion. Then that primary emotion generated anger in us, causing us to forget or ignore the primary emotion.
That’s all well and good, but what are these primary emotions that generate anger? Everyone is different, but there are some common themes:
Some people react with anger when they feel hurt by another. This is clearly what happens when many couples argue: one person says something that is hurtful, and the other responds with anger and says something more hurtful, which causes the first person to become angry too and say something even more hurtful, and so on, escalating to Defcon 3. We think that the other person has made us angry, but the truth is that they’ve hurt us — and then we got angry in reaction to that hurt. That sense of hurt doesn’t necessarily come from an argument; it can happen when our own needs are not being considered and we feel pushed around, overlooked and powerless.
People often react with anger when they feel trapped or pressured. Having to spend a vacation with disliked in-laws, or having too much to do and too little time, or being pushed to change a behavior — all of these can cause a person to become angry and lash out. Sometimes we’re unaware that we’ve become short tempered, and assume that it’s just other people who’ve done annoying things.
Humiliation and fear are sources of anger. Being criticized by a romantic partner, boss or parent in front of others can give rise to rage. Fear too, can have the same effect; when the fight or flight response is triggered, and if the choice is made to fight, anger is evolutionarily very helpful.
Anger is useful because it tells us that something is wrong. It is an alert that there is a primary emotion going on that we may not be aware of. It says “You may be feeling angry, but you’re also feeling hurt, or trapped, pressured, humiliated or frightened.” Being aware of our primary emotion is important because it enables us to do something about it. If we just focus on the anger, we’re more likely to try to get revenge on those around us, or focus on our dislike of them. If we are aware of our primary emotion, we can try to ensure that in future, we’re not put in a position where we are hurt, trapped, pressured, humiliated or frightened.
If we find ourselves getting only moderately angry and only occasionally, the chances are that the source of anger lies outside of ourselves. People do step on each others toes: our romantic partners push us too hard at times, our bosses say insulting things, people fail to meet their commitments, our kids can be too demanding and so on. That’s life. Anger is a natural response, and can be useful as a signal to us. Used appropriately, in some situations it can be a signal to another person that they have stepped out of line, and that we won’t accept their behavior.
However, if we find ourselves getting enraged again and again, there may be more going on than somebody simply stepping on our toes. This is where Mae West was wrong — too much anger isn’t a good thing. It destroys romantic relationships, makes children fearful, distances ourselves from friends, ruins careers and impacts our health.
Some people spend much of their lives being extraordinarily angry, and that anger is far out of proportion to the provocations they experience. Their extreme responses generate reactions from others which are interpreted as further provocations which result in even more anger. Generally, this kind of rage is a result of a fairly traumatic childhood. Many such people will end up in counseling at some point. In extreme cases, some may end up in jail.
For some, anger is something that only comes out when drunk or high. The rest of the time they are calm and controlled and hardly ever show any negative emotions. But they are a mean drunk, aggressive and hostile at any provocation. As a general rule, people like this believe that feeling anger, let alone showing it, is bad, and that they are the kind of person who doesn’t get angry. With drugs or alcohol in their systems, however, inhibitions are lowered and there’s less to stop the anger. Getting angry only when intoxicated also enables a person to retain their self image as someone who doesn’t get angry; they do this by blaming their outburst on the substance.
Other people find themselves getting very angry only at strangers: The driver that cut them off in traffic, the customer service rep who kept them waiting for 20 minutes, the bus driver who drove off before passengers had a chance to grab a handrail. These people would never shout at friends or family the way they do at strangers. Usually, people who do this are unconsciously angry at someone or something, but do not feel able, or perhaps permitted to express it. The anger is displaced from the legitimate target to someone else.
Society frowns on anger, and for good reason — the frequent and uncontrolled expression of anger can be very damaging. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t feel angry at times. Anger is a signal to us. When it’s appropriate anger, it’s a signal that we’re probably experiencing some other primary emotions that we need to understand. When it’s inappropriate anger, it’s a signal that we’re displacing it, or repressing it, or that we have been badly hurt in the past.