4 part series on anger. Part 1: Is it okay to be angry?

P1 Is it okay to be angry?

This is an interesting question that was addressed to me on Quora.

The question is important because it reflects a common myth that “anger” is an emotion that is best either ignored or suppressed.

Note: For future reference, this is a link to a post I did on the three primary anger myths.

The belief that anger should be avoided stems from the (correct) observation that inappropriate behavior is often associated with the emotion of anger.  In other words, it is true that when people get angry, they are more prone to do dumb things. It is not true that anger is the cause of the dumb behavior.

As a primary emotion, the nature of anger is to prepare you for war.  When “war” actually is the optimum response, anger is the “optimum” emotion.

The “inappropriate” behavior we observe as a reaction to anger is often “inappropriate” because it does not fit the situation that actually exists and which elicits both one’s anger and reactive behavior.

To put it another way, the behavior that anger elicits is “designed” to fight off a “life-altering” threat. This is why “war”, as a response to a “life-altering” threat would be appropriate.  However, if this level of threat is absent, “war” becomes both inappropriate and overkill. This mismatch is what you observe when a celebrity assaults his significant other and, later, expresses his regret for and inability to understand what he has done.

The problem lies in both the initial assessment of the issue at hand (one’s perception of the situation) and the nature of the behavioral solution  to rectify that issue.

Anger gets the blame for a misguided and faulty analysis of the situation.

Here is the critical point: anger is just a tool.

If you hit your thumb with a hammer, the pain you feel is attributable to your inadequate handling of the tool not the tool itself.

Anger is, indeed, a human emotion and, therefore, should be strategically deployed so as to deal with and resolve the situation as it actually exits.

So, the quick answer to the question posed above is: “Yes, with certain guidelines, it is okay to get angry.”

With this answer as a background context, let’s look at different types of anger.

Most people believe that anger is a unitary concept in that you either are angry (appropriately or inappropriately) or you are not. While this is one “face” of anger as I will discuss in the next post, it is  misunderstanding of what Ange is and is incorrect.

In fact, there are different manifestations of anger.

The first, and most common, manifestation of anger, is that anger is a primary emotion that humans have had since we began to evolve.

There are 6 primaryemotions 4 of which are primitive threat-detectors.

The purpose of these emotions is to alert us to a threat and prepare us to deal with that threat.  The four threat-detectors are mad (anger), sad, fear and disgust.  The other 2 primary emotions are glad (happy) and surprise.  The purpose of glad is to engage us in an activity and motivate us to pursue that activity.

Anger is seen in almost all human cultures and in many sub-human species.  It appears in humans early after birth.

The nature of anger is to alert us to a threat that we believe we can overpower if we throw enough force at it.  (Note: If it was a threat that we could not defeat, we would experience fear.)  This is why anger energizes us to take action.  The amygdala in the brain is activated, our vision narrows and focuses,  and the body is put on red alert. We are primed to REACT.  When facing a true threat, this is as we would want it to be: automatic, outside of our awareness, and fast. This is also the fast track emotional pathway which goes from our sense organs directly to the amygdala and out to the body.

When we use our anger as a tool, we tap into the slower emotional pathway which goes from the sense organs to the cerebral cortex (our thinking center) in the brain.

You strategically deploy this tool when you validate the anger, assess the nature of the threat (does it really call for action or can I walk away, make an assertive response, or do nothing), and choose how you want to RESPOND to the situation.

While this is the most common manifestation, there are at least two others.

The second manifestation of anger involves using anger as a secondary emotion.

Some people, primarily men but women also, substitute anger for other feelings such as guilt, shame, hurt, or anxiety.  Anger is an energizing emotion which  is experienced as pleasurable and (for men, at least) as familiar  while these other feelings are experienced as unpleasant and unfamiliar.  So, we show anger rather than feel vulnerable and exposed with these other feelings.

When anger is a secondary emotion, it is advisable to not express it, learn to recognize it, and, if necessary, get some help learning to express these other feelings.

Lastly, anger can be used instrumentally to achieve a specific end.  When used this way, the individual gets angry in order to manipulate or intimidate others.  When anger is used to manipulate others, it is a dishonest anger and others should, if they can, work to nullify this expression of anger, redirect the individual and encourage them to find other ways to get their needs met.

Part 1 of this four part series provided a general overview of anger.

Here is what I will cover in the next 3 posts:

P2 –The different faces of anger

P3– You are Not Your Anger

P4– 4 Secrets for Unlocking Your Anger and Deploying It Strategically

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See you in the next post.