Anger, what is it good for?

Well, it turns out, quite a lot. It tells you when something is wrong, when there is an unidentified danger, or when there is a situation when you have decreased power. Often our actions are turned to the outside world in a reflexive action designed to reassert ourselves and give us temporary reprieve, or they are turned inwards, leading to self-harm physically or socially.

The best general response to anger is to not act. In the heat of the moment you cannot accurately act in a meaningful way because often you don’t really know what you are angry with, or when you do, your emotions cloud your response system and you overreact. So, step one, don’t act.

The next thing to do is calm down. Acknowledging how you feel is a good tactic for calming down. “I am angry”, “I’m pissed off”, “I am enraged”. There is nothing wrong with how you feel – the feeling is trying to tell you something. Acknowledge it, feel it, let it run its course. This could take a few minutes, a few days or even a week. If it takes longer than a week, perhaps you need to consider doing more calming actions.

Once it has moved, look back at the situation leading to your anger and look at the triggers. Were they direct or indirect triggers? That is, did your level of anger match the thing that triggered you, or was that trigger the bit of the iceberg that you can see, the last dribble of the avalanche of events that has collided with you and many more metaphors? If your response was far greater than the triggering event, look at what that event means to you and see if it is indicative of something deeper or elsewhere that you actually have to deal with. What I am briefly describing here is complex anger rather than simple anger, where the event was met by justifiable rage.

Now that you are calm and you know what has triggered your anger, it is time to work out what you can do about it. Often we can’t fix the entire problem, but we can put in strategies to manage repeats. Sometimes we can’t fix the problem at all. This can be very frustrating, but what we can do is manage ourselves until the situation can be fixed.

For example, I can quit work, leave a relationship and tell my best friend that what he did was wrong. These are actions I take to change the world around me. If I can’t quit work (such as financial problems), am guilted into staying in the relationship (she only has a few months left to live damn it) or I can’t tell my best friend what he did was wrong (since I’m not supposed to know and that is breaking someone else’s confidence) then the change that I must enact is internal rather than external until the situation changes and I can make an external change.

Anger only leads to the dark side when you do nothing about it. Anger itself is not bad, regardless of what society says about it. What is bad is the aggression that we often use on others or ourselves instead of calming down and solving the problem.