Anger is an emotion with a bad reputation in some circles. The reason for this is understandable. A lot of people I talk to equate anger with the actions that they or other people engage in when they’re feeling angry. Sure, some people can be angry while staying cool as a cucumber, expressing themselves in calm, purposeful, and respectful ways. However, most people relate anger’s bad reputation to things people do that can be really unsettling. It’s far less common for people to do harm or use violence against others when they’re feeling excited or overjoyed than when they’re feeling angry or frustrated. However, I’m of the opinion that in those instances the problem isn’t anger – the problem is the aggressive, abusive, or violent actions the person engages in.
Although I too once saw anger as a bad thing – particularly my own anger – I’ve come to see it differently over the years. As an emotional response to events in our lives, anger tells us when things aren’t right. Many of the folks who tell me they have “anger issues” explain that their anger has a lot to do with injustice, unfairness, betrayals, and other kinds of wrongdoings. Most of us would probably agree that it makes a lot of sense to feel angry in response to those kinds of experiences. In many contexts, anger has implicitly positive undertones for the person feeling it. For example, if someone was abused or mistreated by a parent when they were a child, and years later they find that they still feel angry well into adulthood, their anger could be an implicit acknowledgement of how they would rather be treated. From my perspective, this preference for better treatment is more of a sign of good health than a problematic emotion.
When people talk about anger being a problem, it’s usually in conjunction with aggression, violence, or abusive behaviours. When people are angry and they do things to hurt others physically or emotionally, it isn’t anger doing the hurting, it’s that person’s actions. It’s through this misunderstanding that some people come to feel stuck – as though they “can’t control their anger”. We don’t make statements like that about many other feelings. Could you imagine someone saying, “I just can’t seem to get a handle on my happiness!”? Although it may be easier when we’re happy, we know that our kind actions are still volitional – they take effort and are based on decisions we make. It doesn’t make sense that when we’re happy, we’re driving the proverbial ship when it comes to our kind actions, but when we’re angry, it’s anger behind the wheel.
It would be understandably discouraging to think that the reason we mistreat others is because we get angry. Anger is almost unavoidable in the grand scheme of things. If you live on planet Earth and have a pulse, you probably feel angry from time to time, and rightly so. Through my work I’ve learned that we can’t just turn our feelings off without some negative consequences down the road. Many people have described to me how they’ve tried to divorce themselves from feelings that don't feel good, like anger, only to find that they just feel numb. It seems we can’t lose one emotion without distancing ourselves from them all – even (or especially) the ones that feel good. So while our emotions may be a fundamental part of our humanity, we’re free to change our actions. It’s in that possibility that I see great hope for folks who initially see anger as the problem. Once we recognize that anger is just as useful and valid as joy or excitement, we can take steps toward using more considerate or respectful actions when we feel angry.