Most of us have been conditioned to think that expressing anger always makes a person bad or even sinful. Today I hope that I can change your mind and demonstrate anger as a natural and important signal.
How we habitually express and react to anger can make our lives heaven or hell.
A belligerent samurai, an old Japanese tale goes, once challenged a Zen master to explain the concept of heaven and hell. The monk replied with scorn, “You’re nothing but a lout – I can’t waste my time with the likes of you!”
His very honor attacked, the samurai flew into a rage and, pulling his sword from its scabbard, yelled “I could kill you for your impertinence.”
“That,” the monk calmly replied, “is hell.”
Startled at seeing the truth in what the master pointed out about the fury that had him in its grip, the samurai calmed down, sheathed his sword, and bowed, thanking the monk for the insight.
“And that,”said the monk “is heaven.”
The sudden awakening of the samurai to his own agitated state illustrates the crucial difference between being caught up in a feeling and becoming aware that you are being swept away by it. Socrates’s injunction “Know thyself” speaks to the keystone of emotional intelligence: awareness of one’s own feelings as they occur.”3
From the article, ‘When Anger’s a Plus’, from the American Psychological Association’s website:
. . . constructive anger expression usually involves both people, not just the angry party. In the best-case scenario, the angry person expresses his or her anger to the target, and the target hears the person and reacts appropriately.
“If the anger is justified and the response is appropriate, usually the misunderstanding is corrected,” . . . anger can be constructive when people frame it in terms of solving a mutual problem rather than as a chance to vent their feelings.”1
The question we are obviously left with here is . . .
When is Anger Appropriate and What is the Appropriate Response?
To arrive at an answer let’s first ‘sort this from that’ by breaking down a common misconception.
While it’s common these days to express anger at a partner being ‘controlling’, anger is primarily triggered by disrespect.
From an article in Psychology today on controlling behaviour provoking anger.
It is understandably frustrating and annoying when your friend or spouse routinely contradicts your beliefs and values. Your partner may frequently question your feelings with a devaluing or even a dismissive tone. Or, he or she may make you feel guilty or devalue your plan to enroll in a class or your desire for solitude. Similarly, your spouse may be controlling when she criticizes how you manage the tasks involved in home maintenance.”2
Notice that all of these examples of a partner being controlling, are underpinned by varying levels of disrespect.
The article continues. . .
Others may attempt to control or manipulate you in order to reduce their anxiety, gain power, or address a heightened need for security. Or they may attempt to control you in reaction to an intense sense of slight they experience when your thoughts, feelings or behavior don’t exactly align with how they believe you ‘should’ be.”2
Again these are not only examples of a person being controlling but major signs of disrespect.
Control or Disrespect?
On the other hand, a person can be controlling, say in the case of a parent taking care of a toddler near a busy road; or a nurse taking care of a disoriented patient, without showing any sign of disrespect.
In situations where there are two or more people just as capable as each other acting controlling can be perfectly normal as well. Say a host at a dinner party directing people where to sit; a teacher in front of a class; one parent organising chores in a household or, in fact, any person taking a role of leadership with another individual or group.
If we want peace in our homes, leadership should be encouraged with all members of our family and our children encouraged to give leaders respect.
For this reason I think it unhelpful that ‘being controlling’ is highlighted so often now as a just cause for anger.
Disrespect is a warning signal we certainly need alerting to. For us to be angered by disrespect is normal and healthy. Anger at a person being ‘controlling’, however, leaves many questions unanswered and unasked.
For instance, I have spoken to many husbands, whose wives have left them for being too controlling, who are completely at a loss as to what their wives are upset about. Speaking of disrespect, instead of control, would have made a lot more sense to these men.
Or consider a teenager who rails against having to do chores at home, “You are so controlling” they might say, manipulating their parent to feel guilty, simply because they don’t want to do the work.
I am not suggesting inappropriate controlling behavior should be condoned. The question here really is what is appropriate and what is not?
Who’s the Boss?
Leadership roles vary from culture to culture.
Confucianism in Chinese culture, for instance, places emphasis on the importance of the family and social harmony. Family roles and obligations are often defined by birth order and gender.
The protestant work ethic and corporatism in the west, on the other hand, produces more specialized roles established on the basis of merit. Industriousness, knowledge (education), acumen (discernment and discrimination in practical matters) and self discipline being the top rfor leadership roles.
This may appear liberating, but can, in fact, leave many members (of families and society) with little power or responsibility.
It also creates a situation where people must compete (sometimes fostering deceit and aggression) over leadership roles.
“Leadership is not domination, but the art of persuading people to work toward a common goal.”3
When Anger is Appropriate
To get past cultural differences let’s look now at results. Again from the article When Anger’s a Plus:
A number of studies show that in the places where anger is usually played out–especially on the domestic front–it is often beneficial. “When you look at everyday episodes of anger as opposed to more dramatic ones, the results are usually positive,” says James Averill, PhD, a University of Massachusetts Amherst psychologist whose studies of everyday anger in the 1980s found that angry episodes helped strengthen relationships about half the time . . .”1
This statement would seem to imply that because it is more usual for anger to be played out on the domestic front, for this to happen there needs to be trust. It also states clearly that in the right conditions anger can indeed be positive.
Considering all of this I will suggest an answer to when anger may be appropriate.
If you trust you can solve the problem together, express your anger with a focus on wanting the issue resolved. Otherwise, unless it is urgent that you defend yourself, it is best to detach from your anger and self soothe. Once calm, then take time to think of better ways to tackle the problem your anger has alerted you to.”
Learning to detach and self soothe is important. Especially when a person you interact with on a regular basis does not respond to anger appropriately.
Responding to Anger Inappropriately
Rather than see anger as a signal that a problem needs solving, some treat anger like a competition of who deserves to be in charge.
Another inappropriate (and unhelpful) response to anger is to fortress oneself (energetically) in a defensive position. This may look like a person sulking, lashing out or in some other way playing victim.
These responses make solving the problem very difficult if not impossible.
Competitive and defensive people are everywhere, however, so learning to detach and self soothe when you doubt that your anger will be responded to appropriately is a vital social skill.
If the issue is important, it may take patience and further social skills to get the person ‘out of defense’ to a point where the problem can be addressed and solved.
Defending or Defensive?
This is not to say you should only express anger when things will be easy and smooth to deal with.
There is a difference, for instance, between a person being defensive and simply defending themselves.
If you expect to solve the problem by expressing your anger, be ready to accept the other person may see the situation differently. You may have to accept that they are feeling some anger towards you as well.
As hard as it may be to hear when you are emotional; a normal and healthy reaction to anger is the other person wanting to defend their actions and express their own side of the story. If you hope for a positive solution, both parties must be prepared to share honestly and find the strength and courage to listen.
If you do not consider the other person’s response they may feel you are ‘holding them in blame’. This means not allowing your anger to be resolved because you are blaming your own problems and inadequacies on the person you are angry with.
For instance, a woman may be angry at her husband for not having the car clean to go on a hiking trip with the kids. When he tries to defend himself, however, she won’t hear his reasoning. Because she stays focused on her anger instead of working together on a solution, the kids all end up saying;
“She just doesn’t want to admit she’s not fit enough to go hiking and is trying to blame us not going on Dad.”
Or a husband may create fights every time his wife tries to discuss money. Because he does not want to disclose credit card debt he is hiding, he will continue to find excuses to stay angry at her (hold her in blame) and not allow the truth to come out so the money problem can be solved.
Holding someone in blame is an attack style of defense.
If They are Over Defensive Call the Conversation Off
Another type of defensive person may react in an aggressive manner the second anyone offers the slightest complaint. Their response may justify their actions by claiming things that simply are not true.
EG. A wife asks her husband if he can please stop talking over the top of her. In response, her husband begins saying she had no right to speak in the first place.
Talking through situations like this when you are emotional is rarely productive. Arguments and fights will usually ensue. In this case it is best to end the conversation and approach the problem later in a different way. There are many scripts for this in Part 1.
How Anger Affects Your Reputation
Considering results, we should also mention the social stigma associated with using anger inappropriately. The damage this can cause our relationships and reputation is very real. Nothing will alienate you from your family and community faster.
Feeling slighted is not a good reason to speak up (or lash out) if you feel angry. Take time out first to change your focus to how the problem might be solved.
When expressed appropriately, on the other hand, anger is considered a sign of strength.
In a paper in the January 2001 Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (Vol. 80, No. 1), Tiedens showed across four studies that people grant more status to politicians and to colleagues who express anger than to those who express sadness or guilt.
As Daniel Goleman famously quoted Aristotle
“Anyone can become angry —that is easy. But to be angry with the right person, to the right degree, at the right time, for the right purpose, and in the right way —this is not easy.” ARISTOTLE, The Nicomachean Ethics”
A Broad Social Problem
Anger and control have been mixed up so badly, dealing with inappropriate anger has gone beyond being a personal issue only a few of us face.
Fights about who’s in charge (and people feeling angry about being controlled) interfere now with just about every aspect of our lives.
Over 10 years work helping families in crisis has shown us that a basis for decision making (that engenders peace and prosperity rather than conflict) is now urgently needed at just about every level of society. This alongside a new basis for delegating (a greater number) of leadership roles.
The delegation and decision making process our family has been working together on will be explained in detail in the new program, titled, The Good King and Queen, we will be releasing here soon.
This work will step away from our study of narcissism and codependency and move towards a structured framework for sharing which short circuits both.
Want Access to this Entire Series? Register Here (if you haven’t yet): Earning Respect
1 – When Anger’s a Plus – By TORI DeANGELIS March 2003, Vol 34, No. 3 Print version: page 44
2 – Being Controlled Provokes Anger—so Does Feeling Controlled – By Bernard Golden, Ph.D.