Sometimes the simplest words have the most complicated meanings. The word “anger” is certainly a member of this linguistic club. Here are three very different presentations of the not-so-simple emotion we call “anger.”
Fight, Not Flight
As troublesome as emotions are, one thing I hope I communicate to every client I meet is that all emotions have a natural basis and serve, in one way or another, to help us survive and prosper. Emotions in and of themselves, are neither good nor bad, only helpful or harmful in a given context.
To understand the positive role that anger plays, we first have to understand that human beings really have two very different mental states. Imagine you’re driving home from work on a lazy Saturday afternoon. You’re feeling relaxed and calm. Maybe you’re listening to the radio or thinking about what you’re going to have for dinner. Suddenly the car in front of you slams on its brakes! In an instant your body stiffens, all other thoughts evaporate as your attention hyper-focuses on the bumper of the car in front of you and your foot slams on your own brakes with lightning speed and with far more force than you would normally use. You’ve just leaped the dividing line between ordinary awareness and fight-or-flight response.
The fight-or-flight response clicks on any time a person perceives an immediate threat to their safety or well-being. As the name suggests, this mode can manifest in two seemingly opposite emotional families: fear and anger. Without anger, we’d be ill-equipped to handle sudden threats that spring out at us from time to time. Anger and the underlying fight-or-flight response are lifesavers when they are triggered appropriately.
The downside to fight-or-flight responses, including anger, is that by necessity, they are very fast reactions. If you hesitated a few more tenths of a second to decide whether the rapidly approaching car bumper was truly a threat, you might have been too late to avoid a collision. Evolution has taught us that it’s better to err on the side of alarm and over-react than to under-react and risk being blindsided by a real threat. There’s just no time to process the situation fully and make a well-considered decision.
Worse, the fight-or-flight response has two separate outcomes, and there’s no ready guarantee that the right response will be selected in the heat of the moment. The fear of hitting another car can be quickly replaced by road rage that fuels an impulse to leap from your car and scream at the offending driver.
Shock and Awe
The threats that provoke anger are not all physical. In the most general terms, anger is likely any time we feel our boundaries are violated. So if your roommate leaves dirty dishes in the sink or is habitually late on rent, then the edge of anger in your voice can be quite genuine, appropriate and effective in communicating “I really mean business!” There are times when anger actually improves communication.
But once again, anger can be a tool of power and control in relationships as well as an aid to communication. Some people, consciously or unconsciously, learn to use anger as a first-line tool for getting what they want, whether they are enforcing their own boundaries or violating others’. Our society even condones this use of anger in certain roles such as managers or military commanders. R. Lee Ermey’s portrayal of a marine drill instructor in the film Full Metal Jacket is a great case in point.
Rage as a Smokescreen
In therapy, as in life, anger can crop up at the most unexpected moments in conversation. But if you remember that anger is a response to a perceived threat, it can begin to make sense. Everyone has sore points they would rather not discuss or emotions they’ll try to avoid at any cost. Some people clam up, others try to change the subject, and still others get irritable or even furious. The motivation in all three cases remains the same: avoidance. When anger seems to come from nowhere, it’s a good time to look for what uncomfortable truth may be hiding nearby.
When you notice anger, in yourself or others, can you fit it into one of the three aspects I’ve described above? Or perhaps you can identify a completely different and new category. Either way, please feel free to share your insights in the comments below.