“The beliefs we have about anger and the interpretation we give to the experience are as important to its understanding as anything intrinsic to the emotion itself.”
Carol Tavris Anger: The Misunderstood Emotion
Anger has been called the “misunderstood emotion.” Why is that? Seems like we know everything there is to know about anger, don’t we? While there still is no scientific consensus on anger’s roots or definition, each of us has accumulated strong beliefs about this powerful, universal emotion.
There are many reasons why anger is so “misunderstood.” This is due, in part, to the mixed messages cultures send regarding the acceptance and norms of the expression of anger.
The signals for tolerance of the expression of anger comes to us early, from the time we are toddlers, through the overt and subtle messages of parents and societal influences.
In the US where there appears to be a high tolerance for the expression of anger, much depends on context. In practice, the US is actually quite ambivalent about anger. While the public discourse, especially through media, is skewed towards demonstrations of anger and vitriol, there are still many situations where expressing direct anger is essentially taboo. One primary place where the expression of anger is still largely unacceptable is the workplace.
Now we are not suggesting here that anger in the workplace doesn’t occur. It is, in fact, pervasive and insidious – and mostly unmanaged. Anger gets played out in many different ways through work, especially through relationships. But there is a major difference between acting anger out (venting) – and the honest and appropriate expression of anger. We have few models for doing that safely and productively in the workplace. So it is unsurprising that so much anger shows up as: gossip, vindictive and selfish acts, lying and even violence when the pressure cooker of the workplace tips the scales.
The general lack of emotional safety in most workplaces triggers and reinforces the anger many workers experience. Surely, every employee has the responsibility to manage their emotions, but the structural conditions of many workplaces ignore and exacerbate inevitable human dynamics.
Does Your Anger Have Value?
Let’s begin by laying down a framework for what I believe about emotions. In our work we never refer to groups of emotions as good or bad, positive or negative. Certainly dealing with emotions like anger, rage and hate are far more difficult than happiness, confidence and enthusiasm. And given the wreckage that anger often leaves in its path – it is understandable that we would have negative views of it.
Our point here is that every emotion potentially has value – it all depends on how we think about it – and then act on it. In our view, all emotions are a source of information about our experience. If we meet our needs and our values are in alignment with our actions – the emotional outcomes we want will usually be the result. The challenge with emotions often is that they become unconscious and habituated to certain thoughts and behaviors creating repetitive neural patterns. Emotions reside in the body. So working with your physiology in concert with your thinking process is how you begin to “unhook” your unwanted emotional reactions.
Think Of Your Anger As A Wake-Up Call.
“Most people with real anger problems think that something outside of them controls what they think and feel.” states Dr. Steven Stosny What’s complex about anger is not simply how you get rid of it, but how you understand it. Your anger is “showing” up for a reason. True, you have to deal with the habituated behaviors that lead to or trigger anger, but first you have to do some introspection to understand its root source.
Unfortunately, too often we tend to look for the sources of our anger outside of ourselves. It is easy to blame others and external events for our anger. But the bottom line is – no one can cause you to be angry but you. You may be triggered by dozens of events, circumstances and situations in a given day (who isn’t?) but your response is always your choice. That’s why anger can be a great learning tool (didn’t say an easy one, did we?). Identifying your anger triggers (some of us need several pieces of paper for this assignment) is a very valuable way to start understanding what your anger wants. Typically, underneath our occasional or patterned anger responses are needs that are not being met. Identifying and understanding the needs and beliefs behind your anger is the next step to making different choices in your responses.
How Angry Are You?
Most of us think of anger as a big blustery loud show of force. But there is also the seething slow – burn type of anger that can be just an intimidating to others as the screamer type. Some of us are anger-averse – we’ll do anything to avoid conflict and displays of anger. Since anger can’t be permanently buried, it will show up in some other way, like chronic illness.
The ways in which you express your anger has a great deal to do with your conditioning. Unless you have advanced your skills in emotional literacy, the language you use to describe your feelings often doesn’t actually capture what you are truly experiencing. Having a broader understanding of the range of your feelings is valuable because you can get deeper insights into the why of what you feel when you know more about what you feel – and when you feel it.
There are a whole range or “family” of feelings that are degrees of anger. Anger is often lurking in the background of:
Learning the differences between feelings that we experience helps us to proactively respond to the thoughts and needs triggering the emotion. For example, irritation and impatience are often springboards to anger. If we recognize the sometimes subtle physiological reactions we experience when we are getting irritated or impatient, we can often avert moving into full-blown anger.
Anger can also act as a cover emotion. For some people, it is easier to show their anger rather than their hurt, sadness, grief or fear. It is important to understand with greater precision what it is we are truly feeling. Anger is a powerful emotion energetically that packs a significant physiological punch, especially on the heart. According to the Institute for Heart Math, anger can lead to incoherent heart rhythm patterns. Our hard-wired mechanism for the fight or flight response can take a damaging toll on our bodies if chronically activated.
The good news is that we can unlearn what we have learned to break the habits of anger. There is even encouraging new research that shows that learning certain inner technologies: self-awareness, cognitive insights, breathing methods, meditation and good ole’ self-disclosure can undo the physiological damage of repetitive and repressed anger. New evidence also shows that our other emotions, compassion, empathy and love, can be healing salves to the emotional and physiological wounds of anger.
Undoubtedly, anger can act as a force for change and good. Anger can motivate and energize us, calling us to take action. It can also control us and intimidate and provoke those around us.
To change our relationship with anger, we must first, get to know it more intimately – learning how deep the roots of our anger go. Second, we begin to understand the beliefs that fuel our anger, and most important, identify the needs that drive our anger. With these steps we can begin to recalibrate the healthy expression of anger in our lives.
Louise Altman, Intentional Communication Consultants
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Thanks Ronnie for your thoughtful comment. You are so right about anger derailing people at work, especially these days. It is completely understandable how many factors can trigger people’s anger in this economy with all of the additional pressure and burdens in most organizations. I also know that many of your readers have endured long waits for employment in this “post” recession period. It is so important for them to find constructive outlets for their feelings, which may include anger and resentment (not to mention fear).
In our experience many workplaces can be a minefield for emotional triggers. Knowling what they are is the first step to moving from reactivity to a chosen response.