Anger’s not the problem but aggression hurts us all

⚠️ Content warning: This article contains discussion about acts of violent extremism including domestic abuse, and briefly alludes to self-harm.

If you’ve ever been on the receiving end of an irate customer that’s demanding a refund, snide comments from a stranger on the internet, or even a toddler “throwing a tantrum”, you might think what I’m about to say is, well…a little unusual. The thing is, I believe anger is healthy. Stick with me, whilst I explain.

It’s healthy because, like all emotions, our anger is trying to tell us something; emotions have their own intelligence. They’re not “good” or “bad”, they contain their own wisdom. They tell us we’re facing injustice, we’ve pushed something down for too long, or maybe we’re just sensing something’s not quite right.

So it’s not the emotion that’s destructive so much, but the expression of it; these expressions – I call them the “emotion in motion” – can connect or separate us. In anger’s case, sometimes that expression – or display of anger – could be aggression.

Anger might not be what you think it is

Anger is sometimes referred to as a secondary emotion – ie, there’s a primary emotion driving it. This is why some refer to “The Iceberg of Anger” in an attempt to show what’s going on underneath.

As an example, anger can be driven by fear; you’ll recognise this if “fight” is part of your stress response. When we perceive immediate danger in our environment, our nervous system responds, perhaps by wanting to fight the “threat” (or fleeing it). It can be motivated by other things though, including grief, and to some extent can be driven not so much by what is happening, but what we think about (or how we interpret) what is happening. This is known as the ‘appraisal’ of our circumstances.

What’s underneath your anger?

Anger is also on a spectrum. On the one end of the anger scale you’ve got mild frustration and annoyance, moving up into irritated about half way. At the other end, all out explosive rage.

We may see displays of anger along this entire scale though, fuelled by intense feelings (and thoughts about what is happening) from micro-aggressions: like a snarky comment back at someone who’s annoyed you – to macro-displays: the extreme reaction of criminal damage and physical violence. So aggression can be verbal, not just physical; even silence (when it’s done as ignoring someone to punish them) can be an act of aggression.

Other styles can include “Misattributing Causation” – this means blaming the wrong person or thing for how you’re feeling (you’ll know this if you’ve ever screamed at the coffee table when you accidentally bashed your knee on it) – and “Inflammatory Labelling”; essentially, that’s name-calling.

Where’s the problem?

One of the scary things about aggression is that it can be addictive. How? Because aggressive displays can make a person feel “better” in that moment, even if they regret it later on. Their displays of aggression may also facilitate them getting their own way; they literally learn that their expressions of anger help them “win” – even if it means intimidating others – and so they show it more and more and more.

This doesn’t excuse their behaviour in any way: let’s be clear, aggression can be dangerous and damaging for everyone in the vicinity. This includes when anger is swallowed (by not knowing how to express it helpfully), which can turn in to depression (the etymology of that word meaning “something that’s been pushed down”) which can result in acts of self-sabotage, and even violence towards themselves.

Anger expressions can also include chronic judgement of self and others, like mandates about how everyone “should” look, be and behave, offering little room for movement (rigid thinking like this is known as a Fixed Mindset). And if someone doesn’t abide by that individual’s personal set of rules or standards, there can be a (false) belief that people who don’t agree with them “should” be punished.

You’re allowed to feel anger. You’re not entitled to hurt people with it.

That brings me on to entitlement. In the case of anger, underlying beliefs can keep the emotion in motion through a person’s false notion that their judgements are accurate, and unhealthy expressions of aggression (from trolling to acts of physical violence) are their “right”.

This style of anger – and the subsequent displays of aggression – can be rooted in what Dr. Ryan Martin refers to in his TED talk (influenced by researchers like Jerry L. Deffenbacher) as Cognitive Distortions; in this case, wonky – and fundamentally unhealthy – beliefs about power and control.

This is one reason why sending someone on “anger management” classes won’t always work if there is no attempt to address unhelpful beliefs around entitlement (i.e, not just specific behaviours) – especially if the person’s goal is ultimately to oppress and suppress.

Courses that provide tools for ‘managing’ anger may (albeit inadvertently) actually encourage someone to innovate new but unhealthy ways to express it, in order that they may achieve their harmful objective.

This is why it’s essential that facilitators keep a sharp focus on a person’s beliefs as well as individual accountability. In fact, if they don’t, it can lead to what I call “untouchable entitlement” – especially if that person is never held to account, they will believe they can do whatever they want – including seek revenge without consequence – and probably will.

By focusing only on behaviour rather than beliefs, individuals might just learn to use or develop passive-aggressive behaviours instead. This can include gaslighting, ghosting and manipulating someone into following their version of the rules or giving in to what they want. This might explain how perpetrators of domestic abuse manage to persuade services they have ‘fixed’ themselves and then go on to kill their partner, or in cases such as white male supremacy someone can convince authorities to let them have a gun licence renewed and subsequently murder people (as has happened in the UK), even when they’ve demonstrated violence in the past.

Denial also feeds in to this, as does intransigence; we see this when confronting some “conspiracy theories” with facts, and people defensively double down. Soraya Chemaly says in her book Rage Becomes Her “Denial is rarely based on facts or reasoning. It is a visceral emotional defence that overrides reason, critical thinking and deliberation.”

This is why, even when convicted of violence, some will show no sense of remorse because of their false entitled belief that it was somehow for “the greater good” – which incidentally, they will have been taught through engagement with society somewhere along the way. What they really mean is they’ve helped to create or maintain a system of power and control.

Society plays its part

This is further reinforced by others “liking” the aggressive actions of others (for example, on social media) – an expression of rage is endorsed – and so the reactive, addictive pattern continues. Those who express anger unhealthily may seek out others who do the same (even if not realising it) to legitimise what they do; e.g. they justify their position with “If others do/say this, then it must be ok”, even if it feels morally or ethically wrong to the rest of us.

We observe this when someone dismisses their own aggressive actions of verbal abuse as simply “banter”, when it is in fact a clear expression of (false) entitlement that has caused harm to another person (ie, bullying).

Society also perhaps unwittingly colludes with unhealthy expressions of anger when it says things like “hurt people hurt people”, not realising how harmful and dismissive that is to those on the receiving end. It’s the same when some say things like “boys will be boys” or “he hurt you because he likes you” or derail conversations around women’s safety and male violence; all unhelpful reactions centred on dominance, that harm everyone including men.

Trying to convince someone then, that their beliefs are unhelpful or unhealthy, will be challenging work if they are being encouraged by others. There is power in numbers, especially when they’re all feeling angry about the same thing. Therefore it’s imperative that we acknowledge how entitlement, dominance, intransigence and denial can filter in to the extreme end of unhealthy expressions, instead of dismissing someone’s actions as simply “anger issues”.

In fact, researchers in Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) like Liberty Day from START and the University of Maryland say “There is no current research that suggests mental health conditions are a cause of violent extremism”. What we do know is how unhelpful expressions can lead to radicalisation. William Braniff, Director of START, goes on to highlight three “N’s” to be aware of:

  • Need: A personal need to feel important and significant
  • Narrative: an ideology that positions that need (for example, a toxic yet common script that women should “know their place” and a minority of men falsely “justifying” their anger on the “rise of feminism”)
  • Network: a group of people that think similarly to them (meeting another need, through a sense of connection and belonging), which may even erroneously endorse and encourage unhealthy expressions of anger like violence, to keep their narrative alive. (This is proven by the growing number of forums and posts on social media displaying misogyny and acts of racism).

Where an individual or group takes no responsibility for their expressions and the wider impact they have, they will continue and potentially escalate. In these cases, silence really is complicity and it can feel like collusion to those being harmed. Those with unhealthy expressions of anger can be held to a higher standard by all of us, especially if we are to create an enlightened society. This includes Big Tech doing their part.

We know that violent communication can lead to acts of violence and so it’s vital that, for example, social media companies take unhealthy expressions of anger seriously as early as possible. We cannot meet hate with hate. Principles of non-violent communication (NVC) can be considered, and where control is a motivating factor, sometimes the only way we can influence change is to take power away.

What some describe as “Cancel Culture” may in fact be a useful tool if done correctly, e.g. by removing a platform that prevents someone from spreading or inciting hatred (and therefore violence), rather than trying to erase the person. (It can be interesting to check the motivation of those who rage against this concept, and what motivates their actions. E.g. How is power showing up in their discourse?) Others can help by safely challenging toxic narratives, opening dialogue with friends about feelings in general, or creating a larger group that models healthier expressions of emotion.

Manage The Moment

Having said all of this, it’s important to reiterate that people do have the “right” to feel anger, remember anger is a healthy emotion. People feel what they feel, whether we agree with it or not.

It’s what we do with how we feel that will either take us towards trouble or recovery. Where anger is rooted in faulty beliefs, we may need to step back and be open to where that’s coming from, and acknowledge the harm we may cause ourselves and others if we don’t.

In cases of systemic injustice, principled moral outrage can be a healthy approach when individuals or groups channel this energy meaningfully, through for example raising awareness, signing a petition or taking part in peaceful and lawful protests. When we understand the driving factors underneath our anger, and the cost of how we express it, we can learn to put space between what we think, feel and ultimately what we do.

Here’s what might help:

1. Know your early warning signs: If you know that you tend to have unhealthy expressions of anger, then you could start to register what that looks like through embodiment practices (e.g. how your body responds when you feel it). Do you notice your fists clench, your face starts to flush or your heart starts racing? Remember, this can be the ‘fight’ part of your stress response, that implies you may be sensing danger, even if none is present. Do the work to learn how to pause before the emotion escalates, and check your appraisal of the environment to see if it’s accurate. Perhaps you’re being activated by a memory of being hurt, rather than something that’s happening now. Where are you on the anger scale and what can you do to prevent you moving in to unhealthy expressions of anger? Consider also what may be underneath your anger. Perhaps grief – or fear of loss – is driving how you feel. Grief doesn’t just belong to the death of a loved one, but anything that mattered to us that’s no longer there, like a breakdown of a relationship or being made redundant. (I talk about loss in my book Answers In The Dark: Grief, Sleep and How Dreams Can Help You Heal).

2. Check your entitlement. Think about whether you tend to blame, shame or complain a lot. One way to measure this is maybe keep a “should/shouldn’t” diary for a week, and see how many times you believe that people – including yourself – are getting it wrong somewhere. It could be a boundary violation, where you feel somewhere has overstepped the mark but again it’s worth evaluating where this position is coming from.

You might identify themes around how much of your anger faces outwards (e.g. other people are the problem) and how much of it you direct towards yourself. Also consider whether any sense of entitlement is based on a rule book that’s no longer valid. For example, you might think people “should” keep busy, or you “shouldn’t” sit for five minutes and rest, based on an old idea that sitting and doing nothing is “lazy”. Self-care is essential not selfish, especially when we’re struggling.

Check your old beliefs and how they might be harming, not helping.

3. Find an “off ramp“: If you or someone you know is being impacted by unhelpful expressions of anger, organisations like Refuge and the Respect phone line in the UK are there to help. You might also find peer support useful to hold each other accountable, as long as groups don’t endorse or encourage unhealthy expressions of anger. Speak to your healthcare provider to see if they know of such resources in your area.

4. Build a Big Tent Approach: This is where communities come together to address societal problems, rather than working in silos. This might be particularly helpful if the source of your anger is a lack of action on a local issue that’s causing a strain. You might decide to work together with the support of agencies in your area that can help solve the problem. This has been helpful in cases for example where knife crime has been a problem, and communities have worked together across faiths, policing and other local authorities to send a clear message that violence won’t be tolerated whilst simultaneously providing off-ramps to young people who may need to exit dangerous groups.

5. Sit with it. Ultimately some people may need to learn to regulate their emotions, especially where expressions are turning harmful towards themselves and others, and definitely where entitlement is playing a part. Sometimes, for example, people ‘act out’, using their anger as an “excuse”, because they haven’t learned how to disagree meaningfully, how to handle rejection or how take no for an answer.

Yet people have the right to say no, whether it’s that they don’t want to be in a relationship anymore or they don’t agree with what’s been said – whether we like it or not – without being subjected to any form of abuse. As a society, I definitely think we need to learn how to handle rejection more skilfully.

Learning to sit with the pain in a way that’s helpful can move us towards meaningful recovery; ultimately we all pay the price for anger that’s not processed effectively. The Buddha (loosely) said that holding on to anger is like drinking poison and expecting someone else to die. Sometimes we have to accept things as they are, as the sage Shantideva once said (paraphrasing) being frustrated with someone who isn’t going to change is like being angry at fire for being hot. It is what it is.

We used to think punching pillows helped, but some now argue all this does is leave you feeling tired, and potentially authorises violence as a coping mechanism in your brain. Thich Nhat Hanh echoes this in Anger: Buddhist Wisdom for Cooling the Flames by emphasising don’t hit anything. Instead, researchers like Jill Bolte Taylor argue that giving ourselves 90 seconds of breathing space can make the difference between coping helpfully or not. Mindfulness can be useful for taking each moment as it comes – regulating the breath helps to activate our relaxation response – but this may need the help of a teacher (rather than an app) or perhaps doing your own reading on what helps and what doesn’t. Books like Mindfulness and The Art of Managing Anger (which suggest reframing our language – eg., acknowledging you feel anger, but that’s not who you are), and Why We Get Mad by Dr. Ryan Martin may be inspiring. (More books may be added to this list).

Finally, take some time to think about what contributes towards your feelings of anger, especially if it’s overwhelm (lack of time, energy, space and so on). Learn to measure your window of tolerance, and when things might be getting on top of you. Spinning too many plates at once can mean we take our eyes off the things that matter, including our own health and well-being; tiredness can definitely take its toll, and even hunger can make us irritable. So be gentle on yourself, take care of the basics, and maybe think about a meaningful plan of action. We all deserve to live a calmer, happier more peaceful way of life.

Our feelings are our most genuine paths to knowledge.

Audre Lorde
Answers In The Dark is available on Amazon and Hive.

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Published by Delphi Ellis

Therapeutic counsellor, well-being trainer and author working with grief and mental health, helping people get their sparkle back. Explores dreams on telly. Avid tea drinker. © Delphi Ellis - Helping You Sparkle™ 2006 - 21

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