Have you ever needed to address the anger of yourself or another person and got resistance, justifications, or rationalizations whenever you opened a discussion on the issue? Read on.
Anger is often portrayed as a negative emotion. Not only is this portrayal incorrect but it is also potentially destructive as it implies that anger should be eliminated.
This is like saying that you should toss the smoke detector in your house because it sounds an alarm when you burn the toast or it wakes you up at night with that annoying chirp when the battery is low.
Anger is never a negative emotion. It is always adaptive and should not be eliminated.
Let’s take a closer look at the concept of negative emotions.
Emotions as Tools
I maintain that there are no negative emotions.
My reasoning has been that all the emotions are adaptive tools in that they provide us with actionable information we can use to improve our lives and our relationships. Emotions as tools are neither positive or negative. While you may get annoyed at it, your computer is neither positive or negative. It is just a tool you need to learn how to use.
With emotions, you need to learn how to strategically deploy them and the information they provide.
Experiencing an Emotion
Emotions can also be viewed in terms of their hedonic quality.
In other words, how is the emotion experienced? Is it experienced as “good” (I like this feeling and want it to continue.) or as bad (This feeling sucks and I want it to end.) An emotion that feels “bad” tends to get incorrectly labelled as “negative” based on how it is experienced.
Emotions and Behavior
The function of emotions is to motivate us to take action. As I illustrate in the Anger Mastery Cycle, our senses constantly scan our surroundings for threats. When a threat is subconsciously perceived, the body automatically goes into fight or flight.
The emotion that you experience is linked to the perceived threat and automatically prepares you to deal with it. This is the message of the emotion. The actions you want to take should match the nature of the perceived threat.
Hence, when you are sad, the perceived threat is loss and you want to withdraw and recover. With anxiety, the threat is a future based something that might occur and you want to either escape from it (distress) or prepare for it (eustress).
This fight or flight process is very quick, happens outside of our immediate awareness (until we experience the emotion) and was designed to save our lives when we lived on the Savannah (or in caves).
Today, if the action our emotion motivates (not causes) us to take is seen as destructive, the emotion gets blamed for the behavior.
The message of anger is that you perceive a threat you believe you can eliminate if you throw enough force at it. Anger prepares you for war.
Anger often gets labeled as “negative” because some people tend to do negative things when angry and then blame their anger.
Interestingly, anger (hedonically) feels good. Anger is energizing. We feel powerful and ready for action. It is the action we take that is often problematic.
Incidentally, this is the reason that men may choose to use anger as a secondary emotion. Anger is substituted for emotions such as anxiety, vulnerability, hurt and guilt which do not feel good (are hedonically negative).
A Different approach: Constructive verses Destructive anger.
I developed the Emotions as Tools Model because I needed a way to talk about feelings such as anger with the under-educated incarcerated teen age girls I was treating in therapy and the often jaded men and women correctional staff I was training to deal with the girls I was treating. What I learned in graduate school didn’t prepare me for these tasks.
I needed a new model and the Emotions as Tools Model worked well.
And, it still does. But, sometimes, a different approach might be useful.
From the perspective of talking about anger to others or understanding our own anger, the idea of constructive and destructive anger might help you open up a discussion.
Constructive anger moves us forward and is beneficial.
Destructive anger elicits actions we later regret and wish had never occurred.
Anger, per se, remains just a tool that is used constructively or destructively. If you take a hammer and destroy a vase when you are pissed off, this is using the hammer destructively. If you use the same hammer to build a house… I think you get the idea.
Let’s explore the idea of constructive anger in more detail.
Constructive anger is strategically deployed.
- You have assessed the nature of the threat and determined it is valid
- You use the motivational impact of your anger to propel you to take action.
- You match the amount of anger force with the nature of the perceived threat. This is what it means to strategically deploy your anger.
- You may use additional anger force, if necessary, to deal with the threat.
This is called assertion and escalation.
Destructive anger is problematic.
- The actions you take when angry are either excessive given the threat or unnecessary in that no threat exists.
- The anger is a substitute for another feeling (secondary anger).
- Anger is used to manipulate others into taking the action you want them to do (instrumental anger).
Using this Approach
Your teenager, spouse, employee, or friend gets angry and does something they later either regret or make excuses for. You need to address their actions but get resistance when you do.
Note: This discussion can also apply to you if you put up a wall whenever your anger (and behavior) are discussed.
Here is a way to open a discussion and avoid the resistance.
When you need to address your own anger or the anger of another person, talking about constructive and destructive anger enables you to discuss the topic of anger without placing blame or establishing responsibility. While you may have to address the issue of responsibility for one’s actions, it can be done at a later date once you have opened a dialog about constructive and destructive anger.
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I welcome your comments.