I’ve been thinking a lot about anger lately. You need only pick up a magazine or check the internet to find articles about ‘managing your anger’ or ‘letting go of your anger’. It sounds a little like an unruly pet that just keeps following you around. From the time we are small, we are told anger is bad. We learn techniques for controlling our anger, not speaking in anger, not acting out in anger. We are taught not to show anger and not to respond to anger.
So what is the purpose of anger and what is managing it all about? My hypothesis is that anger must be a messenger of some sort, quick to notify us when something feels wrong. I was told once that ‘anger is fear’. Imagine riding your bike past parked cars. Without warning someone opens the car door in front of you. You swerve and avoid a potential accident. In the instant you swerved you were fearful, but that fear quickly gives rise to anger. What a stupid move! What was that person thinking? I could have been killed! Is the anger in this situation our way to get back in control? Do we move to anger because it’s too difficult to experience the fear?
Anger is our response to so many situations today. They range from minor affronts, real or imagined, to physical or psychological abuse, betrayal, unfamiliar cultural practices and traditions, political ideaologies. Almost anything can make us angry. In the same way our popular culture has compressed the richness of language to a few expletives that express everything from a question (WTF) to disgust (F that), anger has become the F word of emotions.
Leon F. Seltzer, PhD wrote an article for Psychology Today entitled ‘What Your Anger May Be Hiding’. He refers to Steven Stosny’s book Treating Attachment Abuse (1995) in which he explains that one of the hormones secreted during anger arousal is norepinephrine. This hormone is an analgesic (which causes pain relief). When people experience the pain of ‘core hurts’ including feeling ignored, unimportant, accused, guilty, untrustworthy, devalued, rejected, powerless, unlovable or shamed, their body produces a chemical that is designed to numb the pain. The emotion they experience is anger but its function is to make a physical or psychological insult hurt less.
This explanation casts anger in a different light. Perhaps our efforts would be better spent trying to understand what precipitated our anger instead of trying to ‘manage’ it or ‘let it go’! It takes courage to admit fear, rejection, powerlessness, or shame. None of us wants to feel that vulnerable, but the alternative is to carry the anger until we make peace with the pain it’s covering. Anger takes its job seriously and will never stray until you make the choice to uncover the source of your pain.
Anger is a demanding companion. It inhibits close personal relationships. It’s exhausting to control, it can have physical consequences (high blood pressure, poor eating habits). It is unpredictable and can behave badly in work or social situations. Your pain may be the result of things that happened to you when others had control over your life or it may be the result of fate. Either way you can choose not to let your history dictate your future.
Healthy adults recognize that they have the power to rewrite the old scripts that are the source of their pain. Paradoxically, anger is there to remind them to take charge, unlock the cage and free themselves. When they do, it will leave quietly.