If you feel anger, should you always express it as long as how you express it is not destructive?

I was asked this question on Quora and wanted to address it here (in greater detail) as I believe it raises an important issue involving anger and whether or not you should express the anger you feel.

Well, as you might suspect after reading some of my posts, the answer is: it depends.

No, this is not an attempt to evade the question.

Rather, there are three elements which go into determining whether (how and if) you express you anger:

  1. understanding the message of anger
  2. assessing the nature of the threat (is it valid or due to a misunderstanding)
  3. whether to express anger or not (and under what conditions) and the nature of your expression (direct or in.

The message of anger.

Anger is one of six primary emotions, four of which are primitive threat detectors. Anger is a primitive threat detector which has been around since we lived in caves, can be seen in all human and some subhuman species, and functions today as it always has.

In other words, your brain is genetically programmed, just like in your ancestors, to both search for threats and subconsciously prepare your body for fight, flight or freeze to “deal” with those threats. This happens very fast, as it should if you are facing a valid threat to your survival, and is not consciously mediated. We call this the fast track message. Your brain prepares you to react.

Each emotional threat detector informs you about the nature of the threat you have perceived and your relationship to it.

If the threat is more powerful than you, your body is “set-up” to freeze or flee and fear is the emotion you experience.  The message of fear is that the threat will “kill” you so get away from it.

If you subconsciously size up the threat as being “weaker” than you (You are more powerful than it is.), your body is “set-up” to go to war with the threat and the emotion you experience is anger. The message of anger is that you have detected a threat you believe that you can eliminate if you throw enough force at it. Thus, when you are angry, the Adrenalin that flows through your body makes you ready to attack and overwhelm.

While the primitive emotional cycle unconsciously prepares your body to REACT and fight off the threat has not changed, your human brain has evolved giving you the option to respond rather than react.

The reactive aspect of the emotional cycle involves a fast track message from the sensory organ (eyes, ears) through the Amygdala in the brain to the Thalamus. If the threat will kill you (as all of them did in the lives of our Savannah or cave dwelling ancestors), your survival would necessitate a quick (and unconscious) reaction.

As humans evolved and the brain grew, the Cerebral Cortex developed to give us options beyond our primitive drives.

The element of the emotional (or in this case Anger) mastery cycle which allows you to choose how you want to respond to the threat goes through the thinking part of the brain, the Cerebral Cortex, and is referred to as the slower track message.

Thus, you have a choice about how you want to respond to the threat. The Anger Mastery Cycle reflects this choice.

As a reader of this blog, you are probably aware that I have discussed the Anger Mastery Cycle in other posts and that you can download a copy of the Cycle using the link in the “welcome” post at the top of this page.

Assessing the threat.

It is important to note that, in our “civilized” world, the threats we are most likely to encounter are psychological (not physical) and involve our goals, our egos,  or our values rather than our lives (although this can happen).  We feel (and we may actually be) vulnerable and this vulnerability elicits anger.

Once you become aware of your anger by noticing how your body physically alerts you to anger, your next step is to create some “distance” between you and the threat.  The purpose of the “distance” you create is to protect you from the threat and give you time to assess the nature of the threat. You create physical distance by taking a step back and you create psychological distance by taking a breath to calm yourself so that you can respond rather than react to the threat.

You then need to assess the validity of the threat.

If there is a real threat to your life, your core values, your finances and so forth, then you will need to take action (This is the third element above.) Here you are expressing your anger.

If the threat is not valid, you will need to choose a different response.

Whether to express your anger (or not) and the nature of the expression.

How (or if) you express your anger depends on three factors:

First: is the threat valid or not?

  •          If you are facing a predator who wants to hurt you (physical threat), you should, if you can safely do so, use all the energy your anger provides and attack the predator.
  •         If the threat is real but not life-threatening (psychological threat), then you need to make a plan to effectively nullify the threat and execute your plan.
  •        If you decide that there is no real threat because you have misunderstood the other person, then the “expression” of your anger is a genuine apology or doing nothing.

Second: Do you express your anger directly or indirectly:

  • Direct action.

If you can directly address the threat and resolve it, do so.

  • Indirect action.

Sometimes, directly attacking the threat may not be “safe” for you to do because your “adversary” is too powerful, too influential, or too evasive.  The risk (unwanted consequences) to you is too great.  In other words, the threat may be real but your surroundings do not permit you to directly express your anger.

An example is a professional setting in which women, who are legitimately angry because boundaries have been violated are demeaned or marginalized by the men in their office when they (the women) express their anger.

Under these circumstances, a more indirect approach is needed which eliminates the threat without directly focusing on the the threat or the person who is engaging in the “threatening” behavior.  The “project manager” approach I discuss in Chapter 10 of my book Beyond Anger Mastery Master Your Anger as a Strategic Tool is a possible suggestion.  I’ll discuss the “project manager” approach in a future post.

Third: Match the response to the situation.

Whatever you do (or do not do) should match the context of the situation in which you find yourself. This will help to avoid either an inadequate (ineffective) response or an inappropriately aggressive (attacking) response.

I hope this information is useful and I welcome your comments.

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