I wrote a post yesterday on rage because I had finally been able to articulate what I felt / did not regarding a particular incidence of great anger.
It was a relief to put some words, some coherence to that situation, to be able to identify when a tick of anger turned into something greater. However, there are two things that were unaddressed yesterday:
- While anger was the end result, it was not the cause
- How we handle anger as a culture
Anger is a secondary emotion
If you talk to anyone who works with the mind and the emotion, from the clinical therapist to the meditative guide, they will agree with that statement: anger is a secondary emotion. In most cases, something else made you react in anger. Often times it is fear, of feeling trapped or helpless, desperation, or a desire to protect yourself from shame.
Family has a unique way of bringing out a fair amount of anger because it is very easy to get into a mental state of desperation. It’s your family — you can’t just walk away! Therefore, you feel obligated to stick around and deal with their ‘nonsense’, and in some families, directly addressing anger is a no-no, and in other families, letting things go is a no-no, and I would bet those are the same families… They just yo-yo from one side to the other.
Anger in the United States
We are not so good with addressing anger in this country. We focus on optimism, positivity, and happiness. We make it very clear that anger is “not acceptable.” Therefore, we often fail to use it as a signal to dig deeper to get to the root cause. We also don’t attempt to address it in the broader context or culture that we’ve created.
Instead, depending on where and how you grew up, you may have heard things like:
“Good people don’t get angry.”
“Angry people are ugly people.”
“Why can’t you control your temper?”
“What’s wrong with you?”
What does it look like on television? Anger is used as justification for great violence and vigilantism. Anger is shown to only be used by bad people with bad childhoods and trauma. Anger, when used in justification of righteous acts, is rarely given real consequences.
It’s all mixed messages and while there are some pockets of popular culture that do attempt to address it more completely, those are harder to find. It is simply not fair and not true, and this has serious implications.
A culture that doesn’t address anger appropriately or give it space tends to leave people thinking that if they get angry, often, that they have “anger issues.” (We have a lot of ‘issues’ and ‘addictions’ in the US for every variety of thing – that says more about us as a culture than anyone as an individual, I think). Then that leads to all sorts of medications, lots of self-administered for the purposes of making you chill out, numb, tire yourself out, excite you, et al., but never gets to the heart of the matter.
We spend our time treating symptoms and the underlying roots get gnarlier and more tangled, day by day, as we encounter the things that upset us periodically, but we don’t know that’s what is upsetting us and so it’s akin to battering your head against a wall, bleeding, profusely, and slapping a band-aid on it.
That won’t solve much.
Everyone gets angry. It is human nature. It doesn’t mean you are a “bad” person; it just means something did happen to you and something underneath is churning, and instead of locking yourself in a room and punching walls, or instead of locking yourself in a room and talking down to yourself, and instead of hiding / numbing / pretending, wouldn’t it be easier to just address what’s underneath?
Yesterday, I was insensate with rage… at someone who was insensate with rage, too, because he was displaying all of the markers of aggressive anger, the other person involved in the conversation was displaying all of the markers of passive anger, and I was somewhere in the middle.
I was fighting madly to stay in that middle, in the assertive range, but with one person yanking me to just “keep quiet” and the other person just yelling, cutting us off, being condescending and contemptuous, I plunged deep into the red zone where I was just on the edge of saying something I couldn’t take back–
I finally threw up my hands, literally jump-stomped my floor, muttered something under my breath, and walked away. However, my head remained hot, my pulse a furious drumbeat, my entire body tensed and tight, for hours… hours, after.
The conversation started badly and in retrospect, we should have ended it there. He started in the red zone and I hate belligerent, bullying behavior. It gets my back up. It always ends badly.
However, I am glad it happened because now I could see it, whereas years before, I couldn’t, and so I didn’t know why. Anger, in and of itself, is a painful thing to experience – it doesn’t feel nice and tends to feel even worse after the fact – but, it is an incredible signal to figure out what is going on if you are able to step back and work through it.
We can, and should, all be better about anger: avoiding situations that unnecessarily trigger us, stepping back when we sense it heading in a bad direction, and addressing things afterwards when there has been time to cool down. We all get angry because we’re all human – this is not a reason for shame.
But, if anyone ever tells you that this is easy, that they never get angry… they’re lying. To you, but most of all, to themselves. And that is no blessing.