My take on anger
I wrote the following in my book Release Your Stress and Reclaim Your Life. I think it applies here as well.
On one recent morning in the gym locker room, I encountered a raging debate about guns. Well, not really a debate. The participants all agreed with each other. I did not hear anything rational being spoken.
Instead, a diatribe about gun possession ensued with each participant trying to top the others with their outrage over a recent New York State gun control law meant to address violent crime. Everyone sounded angry, but I wondered if it was just blustering or a flexing of testosterone-fueled emotions.
Anger does not come directly from experiencing or learning about a particular event. The anger comes from a combination of thoughts about a situation and feelings of great displeasure. When someone shows extreme anger, you might be tempted to tell him or her not to have a stroke. That’s not bad advice since blood pressure and heart rate usually rise to match the degree of anger felt and expressed.
So why do you get angry? The closest I could come to a satisfactory answer is that anger is an emotional response to a feeling of being wronged, denied or offended. In other words, you are not treated the way you feel entitled to be treated. People, the weather or God may disappoint you or offend you. It does not matter whether you are entitled to what you want. You have a sense in your mind of what is right and how you should be treated. Let’s look at a few examples.
Someone punches you for no good reason, at least none which makes sense to you. You have boundaries and you expect them to be respected. Being bumped crosses that boundary, punching is worse. You tell yourself this is not right and respond emotionally with a feeling of anger. The amount of anger you feel depends on the degree of intrusion into your life as you see it.
If someone brushes against you, it is likely that you will feel a much milder emotion which you could call annoyance. If you are physically harmed, you are more likely to feel angry. This feeling could escalate to outrage. What if, after such an incident, you noticed that the person who bumped you was blind? Would you still be angry? We don’t always consider the circumstances of what our experiences.
You also become angry when you are denied something to which you feel entitled. Lack of respect is a good example. You feel entitled to respect and become angry when denied that respect through what you view as prejudice.
Think about being made to sit in the back of the bus, using a separate water fountain or being barred from accommodations at a hotel because your skin is not the right color. With some historical perspective, most people learn to see such rules, formed from prejudice, as hateful. Yet prejudice and insensitivity have not vanished from our society.
Racial slurs, denigration of sexual orientation or disparaging your national identity can send you into a tizzy. Sometimes it happens so often that you become numb and smolder inside rather than erupting in an angry outburst.
You can also become angry when people attack your religious, political or social values. Their attacks might or might not be directed personally toward you, but you could still consider them as a provocation and react as though a personal attack was intended.
Possible Sources of Unexplained Anger
Sometimes anger seems to appear mysteriously in you or in others who also occupy your world. Where did the anger come from? A clear answer doesn’t always appear evident. Its origin might not be obvious but may arise from the inner workings of your mind or someone else’s. Let’s look at a few possible sources of anger. Margarita Tartakovsky offers some possible explanations. Let’s consider them.
- You have weak boundaries. Perhaps you have difficulty saying no. You may try to deliver whatever others want from you. Perhaps you don’t stop to think whether you have anything useful to contribute, whether this is a good use of your time, whether the matter is important to you or whether you have other priorities which take precedence. Such people are often considered martyrs. They wear themselves out doing what everyone else wants them to do and then complain that people take advantage of them. Such people could use some help learning the appropriate use of the word no. It does not mean that you need to be mean about it, but there are plenty of polite ways to refuse a request or set limits on how much you are willing to do.
- Maybe you aren’t getting enough sleep or you’re drowning in to-do lists. You might not be taking care of yourself or allowing others to demand more of your time than is reasonable. In the movie Dirty Harry, the main character makes the observation, “A man’s got to know his limitations.” That goes for women too. In order to be able to do anything well, you need to take care of yourself with good restful sleep, good nutrition and a balance of restful and enjoyable activities. Just above, we talked about trying to do everything that others expect you to do. Your to-do list might demand more of you than is reasonable.
- Maybe it’s depression. You could be depressed and not realize it. Your relatives might see your depression before you see it or before you are willing to admit that it might be a possibility. Depression is a mental, emotional and physical condition which saps your strength and sometimes even your will to live. Being irritable is a common result of depression, and you might find others’ even reasonable expectations of you as well as the demands of your daily life draining and leaving you in a chronic state of irritability.
- Maybe it’s anxiety. Anxiety is a state of feeling worried and on edge. After a while you may tend to second guess everything you do, fearing that you are not good enough. You might also fear that others will not be satisfied with what you do and will not appreciate your efforts. Anxiety causes stress, which drains your body and emotions leaving you to drag yourself through life in a chronic state of irritability. This in turn easily leads to anger and the unfortunate ways you might react to it.
- Maybe it stems from wanting to control what is outside of you. You might become irritated by watching people act in ways you don’t think they should. In this case, you put yourself in the position of judge for other people and set yourself up for frustration and anger when your expectations are not considered. If you expressed them out loud, you might realize that you are expecting too much of others since God did not die and leave you in charge.
Tartakovsky refers to Julie de Azevedo Hanks’ observation that sometimes people are not aware of their anger because they do not pay attention to it and instead make snide comments designed to hurt others in a subtle way. Becoming aware of your anger is the first step toward making sense of it and learning to manage it.
More Thoughts on the Cause of Anger
Tristan Loo offers another definition of anger. He sees it as “a strong emotion of displeasure caused by some type of grievance that is either real or perceived to be real by a person.” He notes that you can become just as angry about an imagined slight or offense as you might with real words or actions intended to harm you in some way. Loo points out that anger is not a bad thing at times, such as when you are under attack. Yet if you grab onto it mentally and won’t let it go, it becomes part of your personality, and becomes destructive to you and to those around you.
Here we begin to understand that it is not what someone else says or does which creates your anger. It is how you interpret what happened and what significance you give it in your own life. You might be unaware of this process within you and might blame someone else for making you angry. In reality, you make yourself angry by what you tell yourself about incidents you see as responsible for your anger. We will look at this process in more depth a little later.
Internal Sources of Anger
As we have seen, the things we become angry about might begin with what happens within us or outside us. Let’s consider Loo’s lists of provocations to anger. First is a series of internal provocations:
- Emotional reasoning–Most people think of reason as an intellectual process, using logic to seek understanding and reach rational conclusions. Rather than seeking an understanding based on facts, emotional reasoning is the process of viewing events, statements and actions of others from the sole point of view of how they affect you and how you feel about them. This often leads to misunderstanding of situations by not taking into account the other person’s motives and any circumstances outside your immediate awareness.
- Low frustration tolerance–You might be in a state of chronic anxiety, which keeps you tense and makes it more likely that you will react with annoyance to anything that does not go your way.
- Unreasonable expectations–You might have strong feelings about how others should act toward you or speak to you. This involves ignoring circumstances in which others see themselves, seeing only your own viewpoint. All you care about is whether others live up to your expectations. You don’t consider circumstances which might influence a reasonable person to act in a way differing from your expectations.
- People rating–This involves attaching negative labels to others, perhaps because of some slight or difference of views. When you view others through this lens, you are more likely to interpret anything they say or do in a negative light.
External Sources of Anger
Countless external events and circumstances can incline toward anger. Loo groups these possibilities into four categories:
- The person makes personal attacks against you. No one likes to be attacked. We have looked at attacks which place you in danger. You will understandably react strongly while finding ways to avoid the attack or to combat it. Verbal or written attacks can also produce anger. Your reputation is at stake and someone is undermining it.
- The person attacks your ideas. Someone disagreeing with you might be unpleasant but is to be expected at times in the course of daily life. Putting down your ideas as wrong or ridiculous is sure to offer you an opportunity to react with anger.
- The person threatens your needs. This usually results from someone else being angry with you. Threatening to interfere with your survival or well-being is even more likely to invite your anger especially if you see the other person as capable of following through on the threat.
- You get frustrated. Your ability to manage frustration in any particular circumstance is weakened by any number of factors. Loo lists four contributors:
- stress and anxiety
- drugs and alcohol
- recent irritations
All of these can lower your ability to deal successfully with the sources of frustrations. The more of these that apply to you, the harder the task will be.
In the next post, we will consider types of anger and targets of anger.