165 – How to be Angry

One thing that I find vexes us in modern society is how to be angry. Anger is not a bad thing in and of itself. It simply is an emotion. When we get angry it is because something has bothered us. We’re not taught how to manage our anger very well. Things get pushed below the surface where they stew and remain unresolved. We are often afraid of dealing with someone that is angry because we as a culture, at least here in the U.S., avoid talking about it and dealing with it healthily. It is used to bully people, intimidate others, and to shut down discourse. We see this in our current political scene, where many of our leaders lash out at anyone they feel have wronged them or disagree with them.

Of course there will be anger where the love is strong, spilled like gasoline
It’s crude but it’s a power we can draw upon, if it fuels the right machine

— David Wilcox, Covert War

I’ve been meditating on lately is how to manage anger better. My role models for anger growing up were either explosive rage, or passive acceptance. Neither of these is useful or helpful in dealing with the things that upset me. In working with my therapist, and talking with my partner, I’m working on how to be angry in a productive way, and trust that I can be angry, and talk or even shout about the things I need to get out. I’m not trying to suppress anger or pretend that I’m not upset or push it to the side. Basically, I can be angry without being an asshole.

In the January edition of the Atlantic magazine, Charles Duhigg, one of my favorite authors about habits, writes about a study about anger in Greenfield, Massachusetts in 1977. The researcher, James Averill, was curious to understand if the existing attitudes about anger, that it is to be avoided and suppressed, really held up in a place where the quality of life seemed to be rated very high, and crime rates very low. He sent out an in depth and almost invasive survey and the result surprised him. Most people reported being angry several times a day to several times a week. And here’s the thing – most of these angry episodes were typically short and restrained conversations, rarely becoming blowout fights. And contrary to Averill’s hypothesis, they didn’t make bad situations worse. Instead, they tended to make bad situations much better. They resolved, rather than exacerbated, tensions. When an angry teenager got upset about his curfew, his parents agreed to modifications — as long as the teen promised to improve his grades.

Anger is one of the densest forms of communication. It conveys more information, more quickly, than almost any other type of emotion. And it does an excellent job of forcing us to listen to and confront problems we might otherwise avoid.

—James Averill

If we could, when dealing with someone who is angry, at least count on a general way of how that person might act, we could confront them and work on resolving issues rather than ignoring the problem until it manifests itself in violence. If we knew that we could get angry about something, and that the target of that anger would be willing to listen to us and work towards a resolution, we could be angry in beneficial ways that help bring up and work on difficult topics.

And as societies around the world become less able to deal with their anger about everyday life, the world as a whole becomes a more violent place. When politicians stir up anger in their voters against some distant group that is easy to demonize, there is no easy outlet for the perceived wrongs. I think this idea of not being angry is really not healthy.

How can you learn to be angry in a fruitful way? Rather than making anger something to be feared, what if we could, as a society, teach people how to be angry in ways that direct us towards resolution, rather than division? Are there ways in your own life that you could turn anger into a positive force?

Resources:
Chales Duhigg – Atlantic Magazine


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