Part one: Anger
If you’re interested in mindfulness, meditation or managing emotions, you've probably, at least once, heard something like ‘just observe any feelings that come up, non-judgementally.’ This is good advice. Emotions about emotions can be worse than the ones you started with. But how can you avoid judging the bad emotions? They’re bad! Here’s one way: get to know the bad guy and discover a softer side - a marshmallow core perhaps. That bad feeling is only doing its job after all. It might have good intentions. It might even have some positive outcomes.
So let’s get to know another side to a ‘bad’ emotion:
Whether you are the one feeling angry, on the receiving end, or a bystander, anger can have devastating results. You can’t positive-think your way out of that reality. But anger doesn’t have to involve causing or even desiring any kind of suffering or violence. You can be aggressive without anger and angry without aggression. Novaco, an anger expert who has seen a lot of the bad side of anger in his career, noted that the useful functions of anger are often forgotten because anger gets lumped together with aggression and hostility.
While less common than research on aggressive anger, there is a substantial body of research looking at useful or ‘adaptive’ parts of anger.
In itself, anger is not bad or good. It is a desire to correct perceived wrongdoing, injustice or unfairness. So the angry response could be a strong emotional energy directed towards righting wrongs. Aristotle believed that:
anger can be felt "at the right times, about the right things, towards the right people, for the right end and in the right way”
Photo credit: Prateek Katyal @kpbiglife
What can anger do for us?
Studies show that anger is often associated with positive outcomes such as increased learning, awareness or understanding, and solving the problem. According to research, anger can:
Increase motivation to overcome obstacles, achieve goals, solve problems
Improve performance and ability to solve problems
Increase optimism about ability to cope and act effectively
Reduce fear and attention to risk
Give courage to act
Years ago my partner was impressed enough by the difference a little anger made to my rock climbing ability that he sometimes risked provoking me. As I flung myself at a route that I’d been stuck on for ages, that anger made me less focussed on risk, more energised, more goal-directed and I temporarily saw myself as more able. That anger started to transform into focus as I climbed, and then switched to elation when I grabbed a previously elusive hold.
There are lots of anecdotal examples of people who have been key players in social causes such as equal rights, who credit anger at the injustice they experienced or witnessed, for their ability to pour motivation and energy into the cause. Studies have shown that anger at someone else's unfair treatment is more likely be associated with giving compensation to the victim than punishment to the perpetrator, and is more strongly associated with giving victim compensation than when not angry. Another study found that people who expressed anger in kickstarter bids successfully raised more funds compared to people who did not show anger, as they were seen to be more genuine and passionate.
Expressing anger can also be healthier than holding it in, reducing the risk of medical conditions statistically associated with suppressing anger, such as hypertension and coronary heart disease. But don't take this as a green card to go raging all over the place - remember Aristotle!
Photo credit: Arnaud Gillard @arnaudgillard
So what should we do when the blood begins to boil?
Bringing out the best of anger
Don't overdo it
Research shows that positive outcomes of anger are more likely if the anger you express is within an acceptable threshold - not too much, not too little.
Stay on task
Anger has been found to improve performance if it is aligned with a task / action – ranting or going off topic is not so useful.
Having good empathy and the ability to take other people’s perspectives is associated with lower levels of anger, and the ability to control angry behaviour and remain focused on the goal. Empathy and perspective taking are skills you can develop outside of angry episodes so that you are able to make use of those skills when tensions are high.
Pick your target
Expressing anger to someone relevant, and who can actually do something about the problem, is more likely to lead to useful results - including an improvement in the problematic situation and working relationships.
Also, be aware of power dynamics. Showing anger in the workplace to someone senior was found to be more likely to result in both parties recalling equal positive and negative outcomes, whereas if someone more junior was on the receiving end of anger from a superior, this skewed the experience towards more negative outcomes (although a surprising amount of positive outcomes were also recorded). So if you are in a position of any kind of power or superiority, be extra aware of how expressing your anger may be experienced by others.
Photo credit: Simran Sood https://www.instagram.com/fashionablyvegan/
Harness or transform
A coaching client of mine was angry at the unfairness of her situation. She told herself to let it go and accept that she couldn’t change anything, but it wasn't working. She was still angry. She came to the session wanting to learn how to manage it. Through the session she managed to transform the anger into determination, focus on action, and harness the energy from the anger to drive that action. Her perspective shift and having a plan reduced her anger to a manageable and useful level. One shift that helped her to see things differently was to stop focusing on the unfairness and aggravating behaviour of others, and instead look inward at what she wanted and needed, and the best way to achieve that. Part of what had kept her trapped and angry, was feeling like she couldn’t do anything and being afraid of conflict. But with the anger in control she was ready to have a conversation, instead of conflict. The nature of the coaching means that I didn't tell her to change her view or behaviour in this way, she came to it herself. And what she came up with was a game changer for her.
Trying to ignore anger and telling yourself to just accept the situation doesn't always work. One reason could be if accepting means putting your beliefs or values in conflict with each other. For example: acting on a belief that you should accept, and that being angry is a bad thing, can cause you to disregard your other beliefs that you should be treated fairly, and that you should strive towards your potential. So the anger stays.
What to do
Sometimes, maybe without even noticing it, people respond to that initial stirring of self-judgement, or perceived judgement by other people, of their anger, by defending and explaining it, and in effect, feeding it. Attention is focussed on the anger itself, and the cause of the anger, but only in terms of justifying the angry response. As the anger grows it is much more likely that brain mechanisms involved in decision-making, regulating behaviour, and being goal-focussed will work less well, reducing the chances of positive outcomes.
We say 'not a cloud in the sky' to mean 'idylic' or 'perfect', but actually the 'imperfection' of a cloud can be beautiful, and our 'imperfect emotions' can also have a beauty
To help, in non-angry moments:
Cultivate a new general understanding of anger. It's there for a reason and it can be helpful. Doing this outside of angry episodes means in the heat of the moment it is easier to 'observe the feeling without judgement' without getting into the explaining or justification, which can feed it.
Work on your empathy and perspective-taking skills so that the intensity of your anger is more manageable, and you are more likely to stay true to the fairness function of anger.
Develop an understanding of how your beliefs and values influence your reactions. This might help you to be able to harness, transform or diffuse the anger.
In the heat of the moment:
Notice the intensity of the feeling. It suggests this is about something important to you.
Focus on what you actually want or the task / requirements of the situation
Make an intentional decision about whether and how to act on (2)
So, anger isn't always so bad. And in fact, when you don't have the swirl of guilt, defensiveness and self-judgement added in, it is more likely that you can access some of its more useful qualities. I picked out just a little research for this post, but I have a lot more, so please get in touch if you are interested.
This post is intended to provide some interesting information about anger and will hopefully help you with non-judgemental observation of angry feelings you may experience. It is not recommending angry, aggressive behaviour and also does not replace professional support. If you believe you have a problem with anger that is impacting badly on your life or others, please consider seeking qualified professional help.