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Anger is a Useful Signal

Many people have a lot of trouble with their anger. They may fear that they might express their anger in destructive ways that could lead others to reject them. Frequently they tell themselves that they should not experience anger, because in some way anger is bad. The result of denying their anger is physical illness, depression, or variations on the kind of sudden display of anger that we call tantrums. Most of these problems result from irrational thinking and inadequate understanding of the potential usefulness of anger.

Like other emotions, anger can be understood as a signal generated within the limbic lobe of our brain, giving us information about how well our physical and psychological needs are being met. In particular, anger tells us that something is happening that we dislike. Note that the emotion of anger is considered quite separately from the way that many people express their anger. The emotion of anger is not the same as the behaviour of having a temper tantrum, or hitting someone, or swearing, or saying nasty things to someone, or giving the cold shoulder, or yelling, or frowning. These are all different ways of letting others know that you are angry, but these behaviours are not the same as anger. I am using anger here to refer only to the emotion, to the feeling, that is experienced. This is an important distinction to make. One reason is that we do not have direct control over the emotion that we experience, whereas we do have control over how we behave. Our experience of the emotion of anger cannot hurt anyone else, but the way that we behave in our expression of anger certainly can. It is important to know that it is very possible to safely experience anger without having to behave in destructive or harmful ways. Put differently, anger in itself is not bad, although it is possible to express anger in bad ways.

The fact that anger provides us with information about the fact that something is happening which we do not like is not bad, although the information may very well tell us that something is happening that is bad for us. The information conveyed to us by the signal of anger is useful especially if we recognize the signal while it is still weak in intensity. If we do not pay attention to our anger, it tends to increase in intensity. As with other emotions, if we allow the intensity of the emotion of anger to rise to a peak, it becomes virtually impossible to think clearly. This is simply a fact of human nature. At this point, if we have significant conflict about the experience of anger, then expression of anger in the form of some kind of destructive action, either through the use of hurtful words or physical violence, may result. This expression of destructiveness may be directed towards other people, objects in the environment, or oneself. As with other emotions, there is a physical aspect to anger as it affects our nervous system, various glands in our body, and our cardiovascular system. For this reason, if there is a significant conflict about being aware of anger, then anger may be experienced as physical illness. If the anger is directed towards ourselves as self-criticism, then it will be experienced as depression. None of these is a positive or constructive use of anger.

What then is a positive approach to anger?

Following upon the idea that anger is a signal generated within our brain, it seems to make sense that a first step would be to learn to become sensitive to its presence. In other words, if something is going wrong for us, it makes sense to be aware of that before whatever is going wrong gets really out of hand. Anger is useful because it tells us that there is a problem that we do not like. This of course does not fix anything, but it does at least let us know that there is a problem that deserves our attention.

Because anger only tells us that there is something going wrong, but does not tell us what that something is, the next step is to identify the source of the anger. It is quite common to feel out of sorts about something without being clear about what it is that we are reacting to. It is not always easy to know what it is that we are angry about. One technique for identifying the immediate cause of the anger is to think back to exactly when the anger began. If we then pay attention to what was happening at that time, and especially to what it was that we were aware of, including our own thoughts, then the source of our anger may become apparent. In other words, although the problem is not yet fixed, this step at least lets us know what the problem is.

Knowing what the problem is still has not gotten us anywhere, although we might feel better at least about not being so confused about our distress. To fix the problem, however, we need then to figure out what we would rather have happen instead. In other words, we need to identify a goal to work towards. This at least describes the direction in which we want a change to happen. At this point we still have not gotten anywhere or even done anything beyond thinking, but at least we now have an idea about the nature and direction of the change we would like to see take place.

At this point, we need to consider what we can do in order to bring about the change that we would like to have happen. This usually means reflecting upon what has been tried in similar situations in the past. It is useful to know what has been effective, what has been ineffective, and what has made things worse. After taking all this into consideration, we are then in a position to think about a range of possible actions available to us to solve or at least relieve the problem we face and to make progress towards our goal.

In summary, anger is a useful signal which indicates that there is a problem. Early recognition of anger makes it easier to identify the nature of the problem. From that we can identify the corresponding goal and then to consider ways of coming closer to our goal.

Put differently, there are four steps to take:

  1. Recognize the presence of the emotion of anger.
  2. Identify the problem that you are angry about.
  3. Identify the corresponding situation that you want and that would consitute a correction of the problem.
  4. Generate and act on a prioritized list of possible actions to enhance the likelihood of making progress towards the desired state.

Although this method of dealing with anger may sound simple, that does not mean that it is easy to carry out. Like any other skill, it requires training and practice. And like any other skill it is more difficult to acquire if we have to unlearn other, less positive ways of responding to anger. As with any other skill, the early stages of learning are very hard work requiring deliberate, conscious attention to the steps involved. With practice, however, the skill improves and the effort becomes less and less, to the point that the approach I have described becomes automatic.