In part 1 of this series, I noted that for some people, anger is a “unitary” concept. Anger is either present or it is absent.
“I am angry (or I am not)” is one “face” of, or one way to conceptualize, anger.
For other people, anger is conceived in “binary” terms. For these folks, either there is no anger or their anger is out of control.
Here, the “face” of anger is, “I don’t usually get angry but when I do, watch out!”
The state of “no anger” may be their default state and is what they experience most of the time.
The state of maximum anger, or rage, is what happens when someone believes that another person has “made” them angry. The behavior of that other person is seen as so egregious and the threat so large that maximum force is needed to repel it and the raging person often either doesn’t feel responsible for their actions or feels justified, in the moment, for whatever they do or say.
For the record, it is impossible for one person to make another person angry.
When experiencing rage, these people tend to do or say something that results in unwanted consequences or problematic outcomes for which they later may need to apologize.
The fact of the matter is that both of these ways of viewing anger are problematic in that they do not fully cover how anger is expressed and eliminate one’s ability to utilize anger as a strategic tool to improve one’s life.
Recall from my last post that anger, as a primary emotion, is a primitive threat detector, the function of which is to alert you to and prepare you to deal with a perceived threat.
With this in mind, the most effective way to think about anger is to use fire (as a survival tool) as a metaphor for anger.
Using fire as a metaphor, think about the difference between building a camp fire to stay warm (cold is the perceived threat), building a bigger fire to cook a meal (hunger is the perceived threat), and using a flame thrower in war (the enemy who wants to kill you is the threat). In each of these examples, fire is the power that is being deployed but the intensity of the flame is both proportional to and designed to overcome the perceived “threat”.
From this point of view, the emotion of anger should be seen as a continuum in which the energy expressed as anger ranges from a small amount to a very large amount.
The key component here is the nature of the perceived threat. One’s anger is initially a reaction, and then a strategically chosen response, to that threat.
The degree of threat that you believe, or perceive, exists is what elicits the anger that arises to help you deal with that threat. In other words, how you view the situation in which you find yourself determines both how you define the threat and the level of power you need to bring to bear to eliminate that threat.
By way of explanation, I should say that, while it is true that your perceptions of threat are linked to both the Model of your world which serves as a filter thorough which you view any interaction and the skill sets you bring to that interaction, these are topics for other posts. In this post, I am focussing just on the emotion of anger.
The “many faces of anger” then reflect the different levels of expressed anger that occur along this continuum from mild to extreme. While all of these emotions are variations of the basic emotion of anger, the different levels of threat are reflected in the the different words we use to label the emotions we experience.
Other words that describe different levels of anger and the different threats that are implied by these labels include frustration, annoyance, disappointment, indignation, resentment, exasperation and rage.
Think of these as different faces of anger.
Let’s start with some definitions from the New Oxford American dictionary.
frustration: the feeling of being upset or annoyed, especially because of inability to change or achieve something
annoyance: the feeling or state of being irritated
disappointment: sadness or displeasure caused by the nonfulfillment of one’s hopes or expectations
indignation: anger or annoyance provoked by what is perceived as unfair treatment
resentment: bitter indignation at having been treated unfairly
exasperation: a feeling of intense irritation or annoyance:
rage: violent, uncontrollable anger
You might correctly be wondering at this point what difference any of this makes. Why not just say: “I’m angry.” or “I’m very angry!”?
This is a binary approach to the emotion of anger.
And, while binary statements often are sufficient, they severely limit your options and possibly might make it more likely that you will overreact.
Let’s go back to our fire analogy.
Let’s say that you are camping and you tell your associates to build a fire. While you might mean a “cooking” fire, if they visualize a big warming fire, you might end up eating protein bars for dinner because you can’t get close enough to the flames to cook your burgers.
Or, if you are preparing for a Homecoming rally at the University and you tell your naive associate to build a fire and he (or she) builds a warming fire instead of a bonfire, all the boosters will show up and be clearly disappointed.
An example from the workplace..
Let’s say that you are working on a project with a co-worker, tasks have been assigned, and this co-worker comes to the working meeting without having completed their assigned tasks.
They give you their reason.
You experience anger.
If that anger is disappointment, the perceived threat is that your expectations were thwarted and the project deadline must be reset but you attempt to sympathize with your co-worker.
If that anger is frustration, the perceived threat is that your co-worker, for whatever reason, is messing up your plans to get this project done and you probably are not very understanding toward your co-worker.
If that anger is exasperation, the perceived threat involves more than just the incomplete task at hand, there are probably unresolved issues you need to work out with this individual and the project (and your relationship) may be at risk.
Finally, if that anger is rage, the perceived threat may only marginally be related to the incomplete task, you are in reactive mode, you most likely have led others in the room to either leave the room or think about calling security and you may have to seek some professional help.
Or, maybe you are angry but aren’t really sure why. Your co-worker’s “reasons” for the missing materials seem okay and the project can be rescheduled. Perhaps, however, what you are really feeling is hurt, let down or even betrayed but rather than own up to these emotions, you substitute anger.
This is anger as a secondary emotion. It is dishonest anger as it is substituting for and covering up other emotions.
As you can see, the different label you use to describe your anger gives you bothbinsight into the threat you perceive and a clearer path to the way you choose to strategically respond to the situation.
In summary, in order to facilitate your being able to deploy it as a strategic tool, the emotion of anger needs to be viewed along a continuum.
The better you get at specifically identifying the level of anger you are experiencing…
- the more effective you become at communicating what you feel to others so that they can appropriately respond and interact with you and
- the more capable you become at choosing a response that is commensurate with and proportional to the real nature of the threat that exists.