Lots of people are angry these days. Social conservatives are angry at secular liberals, and liberals at conservatives. Democrats are angry at Republicans, and vice-versa. People are angry at the police, and the police are angry at the mayor.
That’s not such a bad thing, according to the American Psychological Association. I went to the 135,000-member organization’s website to see what it had to say about anger. According to the APA, “Anger is a completely normal, usually healthy, human emotion.”
I completely disagree. Anger is mostly an ugly emotion. Much of the time it’s the result of unrecognized inner conflict. It’s also frequently a psychological defense, a way of blaming others for one’s own unresolved negativity.
Granted, people are often better off expressing their anger (please—not abusively!) rather than suppressing it. Yet why is this anger arising in the first place?
The APA goes on to say that anger is only a problem when it “gets out of control and turns destructive . . .” This is a trivial observation, and it’s not even accurate. Anger can be a problem long before it gets out of control. Consider a man who is speaking in an angry tone to his spouse. He’s not yelling, so he’s not necessarily out of control. He certainly doesn’t think that he’s out of control. Yet his anger is likely misplaced. If maintained over time, it will be harmful to himself and the relationship.
If anger is okay until it gets out of control, does this mean that bullying is okay until it gets you expelled from school, or that promiscuity is okay until you get a sexually transmitted disease?
I’m not saying there’s never a time or place for righteous anger. And yes, brief flashes of anger can arise in even the healthiest people. But anger that persists can quickly and easily cloud one’s judgment. The emotion is also closely associated with the victim mentality. Certainly, anger can be an instinctive, even primitive fight-or-flight reaction to a sudden threat or provocation. Some people, as well, do need anger to get motivated and to express some power. Yet I’m trying here to present a more evolved perspective on anger. We’re trying to grow and become wiser. What does that mean with respect to anger? I know personally that I have a lot less anger in my system as a result of inner growth.
If anger is healthy as the APA claims, who are we supposed to feel this healthy anger toward? Terrorists? Polluters? Child molesters? I can be disgusted by such people when I happen to think about them, but I don’t feel anger. If I went around being angry, I’d just be a negative, cynical person, entangled in feeling helpless about the ways of the world. Persistent anger would handicap my efforts to contribute to the good in the world. It would weigh me down and block my creativity.
People might wonder: Isn’t anger a normal reaction to, say, seeing a man punching a lady on the street? Anger might be a common reaction in such a case, but it’s not the healthiest reaction. Springing into reactive anger, a man passing on the street might indeed intervene to successfully rescue the lady. But his anger would still represent some degree of weakness, meaning the man felt he couldn’t have initiated a rescue attempt without resorting to anger. A more suitable response, in contrast, would involve integrity, courage, and healthy aggression. Anger need not be present at all. Intervening in this manner involves the quality of one’s character and a need to maintain self-respect. This rescuer appears on the scene not with the same angry energy as the attacker but with a moral authority that represents order and justice. That composure in the rescuer is more likely to produce a peaceful outcome.
Yet the APA says, “Anger is a natural, adaptive response to threats; it inspires powerful, often aggressive, feelings and behaviors, which allow us to fight and to defend ourselves when we are attacked. A certain amount of anger, therefore, is necessary to our survival.”
Wrong—it’s healthy aggression, not anger, that’s necessary to our survival. Anger is negative, while healthy aggression is not.
Anger is often nothing more than an illusion of power. As mentioned, angry people produce that illusion because inwardly they’re too unevolved to feel or express real power. Real strength or power is expressed with calm, assertive clarity, as a statement of inner confidence, with the intention to avoid violence and resolve a situation. Anger, on the other hand, can be abusive, and it can make violence seem necessary or appropriate. As well, many situations are not as black-and-white as the above example of a sidewalk attack. Anger is instinctively reactive, and it can’t be trusted to represent a wise or objective response in the many gray areas of human interaction.
The absence of anger enables us to be patient and to refrain from reacting impulsively to a provocation. Anger can cloud our mind and makes us less able to respond to a challenge with a clever, witty, or cutting remark. Anger usually has a negative overtone. Some situations, as mentioned, might allow for an appropriate righteous anger, but anger is often provocative in itself. It’s more likely to cause a negative, defensive reaction rather than a favorable response from others.
African-Americans didn’t charge forward with anger during the Civil Rights struggle of the 1950s and 1960s, although if anyone was “entitled” to be angry it was surely them. Their great success was due to the peaceful, dignified, and highly intelligent manner in which they protested and campaigned.
The APA does say at one point in its discussion that, “Expressing your angry feelings in an assertive—not aggressive—manner is the healthiest way to express anger.” I’m saying, however, that anger is not healthy to begin with. Many members of the APA are academic and research psychologists, and they don’t look deeply enough into their own psyche to understand, at a personal level, the inner dynamics that produce negative and self-defeating reactions. Lacking depth, mainstream psychology has now become a force that unwittingly resorts to the practice of normalizing neurosis (see Neurosis Unbound).
Let’s look more deeply into the source of anger. As mentioned, this negative feeling is a disagreeable, often painful reaction that frequently serves as a cover-up for (or defense against) recognition of one’s own participation or entanglement in inner conflict and unresolved negative emotions.
Much of the time, then, anger as an outburst of one’s own negativity, as well as an attempt to justify that negativity. Where does that negativity come from? It’s produced when we become entangled in unresolved negative emotions let over from childhood. These negative emotions include feelings of being disrespected, belittled, refused, controlled, criticized, rejected, or otherwise victimized.
As adults, we find ourselves replaying and recycling those painful emotions in the new and varied experiences of our life. Anger, then, is often a symptom of our entanglement in deeper forms of emotional pain. Not only is the anger a painful symptom of the deeper conflict, but it’s also a psychological defense, a form of blaming others and a denial of one’s own unconscious participation in the sense of victimhood. As a defense, blame is unconsciously employed to cover up one’s compulsion to replay and recycle unresolved negative emotions.
Anger is frequently a reaction to feeling helpless about some situation. But the angry person is tripping over his or her own sense of helplessness. The individual is interpreting a situation from a passive perspective. The anger that arises—a false and phony aggression—is a compensation for this underlying sense of helplessness that the individual may well be emotionally entangled in. Anger is also aroused when a person’s egotism or narcissism is offended, sometimes by a minor insult or even just a passing comment.
If you’re brave enough to see all of this in yourself, you can escape from the emotional triggers that hurl you into anger. At that point, you’ll clearly see for yourself there’s nothing “completely normal” or “usually healthy” about anger. Getting rid of it is a victory for human progress.