The upside of anger
Anger in society
Anger gets such a bad press and women, in particular, who show anger are often avoided, criticised, or even laughed at. Our society often dismisses anger. Anger is seen as a negative, toxic thing. We are encouraged as children to push our anger down, and we continue to do that as adults. But what happens to that anger when it is continued to be pushed down? The answer is that it can cause depression and other mental health issues as well as giving us a lack of closure on certain issues and disempowering us.
Admittedly we don’t want a society where there is raging, screaming and punching without anyone batting an eyelid. There is a point where anger needs to be managed in order to respect and even guarantee the safety of those around us, but in order to manage our anger effectively we need to meet it and understand it.
‘Anger is one of her innate ways to begin to reach out and to create and preserve the balances that she holds dear, all the things that she truly loves. It is both her right, and at certain times and in certain circumstances a moral duty’ - Clarissa Pinkola Estes, Women Who Run with the Wolves
The science bit
The science of anger is that brain scans show that it stimulates the left anterior cortex, associated with positive approach behaviours. Anger even appears to be incredibly rewarding, even pleasurable, in studies showing predominant left-brain activation when angry subjects believe they can make things better.
Inspired by the findings on anger, neuroscientists have begun to move away from thinking of any emotion as either negative or positive, preferring instead to characterise emotions by ‘motivational direction’ - whether they stimulate approach behaviours or avoidance behaviours. Viewed within this framework, they say it’s not strange that anger produces happiness. ‘The case of anger’, reports a team of Spanish scientists led by Neus Herrero, ‘is different because although it is considered or experienced as negative, based on findings of increased left-brain activity it produces a motivation of closeness, or approach’. When we get angry, in other words, we ‘show a natural tendency to get closer to what made us angry to try to eliminate it’,
Listen to anger
So, pushing down our anger can be detrimental to us because nothing gets solved, resolved, or even accepted. Clarissa Pinkola Estes even points out, in the above quote, that it may be our moral duty to meet our anger and act on it. Great things have been achieved through tuning-in to anger. The film Erin Brockovich, based on a true story, shows a young woman, angered by the contamination of drinking water in the southern Californian town of Hinkley. Despite her lack of formal education, she was instrumental in building a case against the Pacific Gas and Electric Company of California in 1993. Martin Luther King stated that anger can lead to positive transformation: ‘The supreme task is to organise and unite people so that their anger becomes a transforming force’.
Of course, when we are angry, we don’t always have a big cause to fight. We may be angry because someone pushed in front of us in the supermarket, or because we are stuck in traffic. It is worth checking, first of all, if there is anything we need to do to put right the balance of justice. If somebody at work is constantly stealing your ideas or undermining you in public, perhaps it is time to say something before the situation escalates or increases stress levels at work. It may be that an intervention could also stop them doing the same thing to others.
Managing and getting to the root of anger
As already suggested, there can be a point when feeling angry can have a detrimental effect. For instance, carrying anger around for years can be more harming for ourselves than it is for the people we feel angry towards. It can also be far from ideal if we find ourselves snapping at the smallest of things on a regular basis. For example, if we are getting overly angry about someone pushing in front of us in the supermarket, or when there is excessive traffic, it can be exhausting and stop us from getting on with the important things in our lives. There are ways to expend or manage this anger such as exercise, meditation, or playing a musical instrument. An option in the future may be to visit an anger room (a phenomenon popping up in the US) whereby you can pay to visit a room with old furniture and other items which you can smash up to your heart's content.
Whilst this approach may be helpful in the short term, it could well be necessary to try to get to the root of the issue if you believe you have deeply held anger or if you are snapping for no apparent reason. Counselling can help with this as can creative expression in the form of art, talking things through with friends or family, or writing therapy.
Whilst it may sometimes be necessary to address our anger when it is becoming detrimental to the well-being of ourselves or others, anger can be a useful and informative energy. This is particularly the case in our current world where some would say there is plenty to get angry about. If you are angry about our plastic-ridden oceans, or the children who are living in poverty, why not take a stand? There are plenty of people who would thank you for it.
- Pinkola Estes (1992) Women Who Run with the Wolves, 3rd edition, London
- Ellison Rodgers (2014) Psychology today, Go Forth in Anger
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About Beth Roberts
I am an integrative counsellor in Abingdon, Banbury and Oxford. I have worked in a general counselling service, with young people and survivors of abuse. I value how unique we all are so my counselling is tailored to your personality and circumstances.
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