Despite misconceptions, as discussed in Part 1, expressing anger is a choice between actions that are defensive in nature and thus increase distance between us, and actions that are effective in increasing our understanding of one another, and keeping communication lines open.
Just as the uses and benefits of lemons are more numerous and significant than most can imagine, so are the possibilities of anger, when expressed effectively, to clarify, spark and produce a deepening of our connections with self and other, and emotional intimacy.
Truth be told, the ability to handle (listen to, feel and express, etc.) anger effectively is essential in building strong, mutually enriching and mature relationships. And, because our brain is a relationship organ, our personal wellbeing is all about how we “do” relationships. In the words of top selling author and personal success expert Brian Tracy notes, “relationships are the hallmark of the mature person.”
To learn how to regulate and express anger effectively, however, like any thing else, it’s essential to better understand our anger, its potential benefits as a healthy emotion, its risks and potentially damaging impact.
1. Anger is an innate human emotion!
Everyone has emotions, and anger is on of them. Emotions are the “language” molecules that help all systems of the body communicate with one another. It’s not a matter of good or bad emotions, rather how you relate to your emotions, love-based and fear-based ones. Emotions are information; the release of these neurochemicals is the primary way your body communicates with you, to let you know at any given moment where you are in relation to where you most aspire to be. Your subconscious mind keeps close track of this type of information.
Anger is an innate emotion experienced by all human beings, perhaps daily in some degree, regardless of gender or age. As an emotion, anger has powerful action-activating energy that, depending on how we choose to express it, can move us to either destructive or creative outcomes in our lives and relationships. When expressed effectively, it helps us regulate or reset our emotional connection to ourselves, which often teeters on the balance between trying to control, stop or change our own or another’s anger (or related emotions). When defensive, it often misdirects our attention to changing something outside of us that is perceived as a threat, i.e., an event or someone’s action (or inaction), feelings or thoughts about something we value.
2. Anger is an instinct for physical – and psychological – survival!
The primary function of anger is to ensure our survival. Not just physical survival, however! In addition to being hardwired to act to protect our physical survival (and loved ones, etc.), our body’s survival-system also activates to defend us (and loved ones) from threats to our emotional-psychological ego-selves. Arguably, we are hardwired to guard our emo-psychological survival, as the choice-making agent of our lives, even more zealously than our physical survival.
First and foremost, anger ensures that we survive, both as physical-self and ego-self. We are wired with needs that range from basic drives to physically survive and emotion-drives to be loved and accepted as well as emotion drives to matter, meaningfully connect and contribute in life. Conceivably one of the most brilliant psychological theorists of the 20th century, Abraham Maslow was among the first to study human beings and to observe that human behavior was motivated by basic drives for physical survival but also with higher needs for “self-actualization” (see Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs theory). Maslow posited that aggressive reactivity and violence are learned behaviors, ways an individual, who feels blocked by a less than optimal environment, attempts to fulfill “lower” human instincts for emotional safety, and love and esteem in relation to others.
3. Anger is a secondary emotion—a cover for emotions of vulnerability.
The emotion of anger is a secondary one, meaning it is a cover for deeper underlying fear-based emotions. As such, it serves a useful purpose. When we need to take action to protect ourself, anger is there to block our connection to emotions of vulnerability, or thoughts focused on doubt, lack of control, helplessness, etc., that may otherwise block you from acting to protect our self or another. When our defenses are triggered by our body’s “fight or flight” system, this lets us know we perceive a threat to our emotional safety. In this case, anger is our survival reaction. It helps us move past emotions, such as fear, shame, hurt, that can stop us from taking action to meet our needs, both lower needs and higher.
Whereas fear may otherwise paralyze our ability to take action to change a situation, anger moves us to act courageously. This is also valuable in cases where we face obstacles, doubts, fear of failure, etc., and need to stay on course toward meeting our goals.
4. Anger is a drive to do more than survive – to also thrive!
When it comes to our emotional-psychological ego-selves, the emotion of anger seems to have a twofold objective: It helps us protect our sense of self as an agent, and choice maker, but it also energizes our emotion-drives to stand up for our values and dreams, to matter and to realize our deepest yearnings for personal, emotional and relational wellbeing. Anger moves us to take action, to not settle, to face challenges, and stay determined, to fulfill our inner emotional yearnings to thrive and find purpose and meaning in life. For example, it prompts us to take action to overcome an obstacle in order to stay on a chosen course in life, in order to achieve a goal, fulfill a dream, pursue a driving purpose, etc.
Anger is an action signal that tells us something is potentially blocking us from getting our core needs met—either physical or emotional—and we need to take action. Our anger, when it surfaces, is designed to ensure that, to the best of our ability, we get our core emotional needs met, i.e., for recognition, love, acceptance, esteem, fairness, fun, purpose, and so on. Thus, anger is an emotional instinct that propels us to action to protect our self as agent, but also to improve our life and keep reaching for the stars. As Maslow showed in his studies of exemplary persons, such as Albert Einstein, Eleanor Roosevelt and Frederick Douglas, individuals raised in optimal environments were more likely to move past a focus on meeting “lower” needs for survival and safety, and onto a quest to thrive and find meaning, seeking to fulfill “higher” needs for “self-actualization,” a state of experiencing self as one with others and life, with an orientation to contribute to life and others in some way that makes a difference.
5. Anger is a call to restore balance.
Anger acts as a balancing agent, reminding us of our need to turn our focus to what is going on inside us. This helps us better understanding and handle life around us, thus, make better informed, wiser choices. Finding balance is not easy. It requires us to reconcile the tensions between our yearnings to be recognized for who we are and our unique contributions, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, to be loved, accepted unconditionally.
As such, anger reminds us to balance our need to give with our need to receive. Why do we need this reminder? Conceivably because we are relationship beings, our brains are relationship organs, thus, we find it gratifying to give, care for and , caring for and make others happy. Our survival depends on relationships, especially at birth; later in life, our happiness and health continue to depend on forming healthy relationships throughout life. In other words, our drives to connect and care for others are so profound and satisfying that we may otherwise forget about our own self-care, emotion-drives (higher needs), feelings, wants, dreams and aspirations. This therapist has concluded that, without the emotion of anger to help us balance our self-agency and connection needs, we would likely remain in infantile states of not being able to identify a difference between self and others.
Mastering anger is about mastering emotions.
Knowing how to understand and regulate anger allows you to transform anger (and fear) into an asset that works for and not against you. Emotions have a physiological effect on the brain and body, and can cause immediate changes to the mix of hormones the body releases, even structural changes in the brain.
Mastering your emotions is a process, it takes effort, yet worthwhile. The most effortless way to master your anger is to commit to developing a mindful practice and awareness of your emotions and inner thoughts. It can start by simply observing, for example, on an occasion when you lose control of anger, how you literally gave certain thoughts and feelings power, in the moment, over your body and mind, your choices and actions. Not having mastery explains why you may feel powerless after you express anger defensively, regardless whether it’s with an angry outburst or stewing inside.
SUMMARY OF BENEFITS
Here is a summary of the potential benefits of anger when expressed and handled effectively. Anger:
- Is a survival instinct that, in addition to physical survival, acts to energize us to protect and defend ourselves from core fears of not fulfilling our emotion-drives to matter and meaningfully connect in life. (Loss of a loved one’s acceptance, love, etc., is perhaps our biggest and most common fear.)
- Helps us rise above emotions of vulnerability, i.e., hurt, doubt, fear, guilt, etc., which can prevent us (some persons more than others) from expressing and standing up for something we value, yearn for, aspire or need to do.
- Focuses our attention on our own life and self-care, so we may connect to our own feelings, needs, wants, etc., and thus it acts as a balancing agent that ensures we do not get overly enmeshed, lost or focused on the expectations, wants, needs, etc., of another.
- Moves us to take action to realize something that is important and valued.
- Sustains our momentum when obstacles or challenges appear in our way.
SUMMARY OF RISKS AND HARMS
Here is a summary of the potential risks and harms when anger is expressed defensively. Anger:
- Keeps us from confronting the real source of our pain, deeper emotions of vulnerability, especially core fears of inadequacy, rejection, abandonment, that can be key ways to building courage and strong relationships. fear. (negative self-statements, learned beliefs/attitudes about self and others, self-critical voice inside, etc.)
- Blocks us from being honest with ourselves and facing information about us that, albeit painful, would help us take responsibility to change behaviors that hurt others or ourselves.
- Prevents us from seeing what we’re doing that is harmful or at best not working, i.e, reactive patterns, impulsive actions, toxic thinking patterns, limiting beliefs/attitudes, negative self-talk, etc.
- Makes others resist us, build walls, shut down, withdraw, etc., in order to defend themselves from our attacks, i.e., blame, stacking wrongs, fault-finding, etc.
- Is a futile waste of our energy. After all, what good is yelling at a “wall”? It’s at best a ‘quick-fix’ feel-good, a way of lowering our body’s anxiety levels that comes with a cost, potentially a high one.
- Puts on a “show” of strength and might, giving us a quick-fix of pseudo-power, but in reality, is a cry for help, which can leave us feeling increasingly powerless, inadequate, isolated (alone with only “anger” or “bitterness” for company…) and unloved, when in truth we are often the ones blocking others from coming closer to love us.
- Hides options, diverts energy away from healthy win-win problem solving, and deceives us into thinking there’s nothing we can do to change the situation.
Making friends with anger?
Whether aggressive or passive, whenever anger is defensively expressed, it sends a message that says: we are scared, that we do not feel safe in the presence of the other, that we’re afraid of losing our emotional connection with the other, and that, as a result, our connection to our own heart-place self inside.
Regardless how cruel a word or gesture, like other fear-based emotions, anger is a cry for help, a cry for a holding place, a yearning for an unconditionally secure and stable connection with another human being, that would help us reset and refresh our own connection — from within — to the stabilizing resources inside. Perhaps no one needs our love and compassion more than one who feels lost, and thus unlovable, in short, they’ve lost an empathic connection to their own source of compassion inside.
It is not about eliminating anger (or fear), however. Absent the emotion of anger, which acts to balance our self-agency drives and our connection drives, we’d perhaps not have the ability to distinguish ourselves from others!
Rather than eliminating or avoiding anger, it’s about growing your skills and capacity with each experience to feel and process emotions that trigger you more effectively whenever they show up, so that you can embrace them as friends with messages (authentic wise-self) rather than perceive them as enemies to attack, eliminate or hide from (wounded ego-self). How critical is this?
- The former allows the frontal cortex to be engaged, and the latter does not.
- The former allows you to connect to emotions of vulnerability that underlie anger, the latter does not.
- The former allows you to be in charge of your choices, and the latter keeps your surival-mode brain and body in control of your choices of what to think, feel and do
- The former is free to access your amazing capacity for self-reflection, possibility thinking, and so on, and the latter is limited to either-or, black-and-white, thinking patterns.
This may be what Albert Einstein meant when he said: “The most important decision we make is whether we believe we live in a friendly or hostile universe.”
Somehow, we need to make friends with the emotion of anger, and thus also fear, to see its essential role as a balancing agent, as well as a catalyst for activating courageous action in the face of emotions of vulnerability, fear, hurt, shame, guilt, that would otherwise prevent us from taking essential action on behalf of ourselves, others or our relationships.