Walks of Mind
Illuminating What Goes on in our Mind
Please enjoy reading this walk. It has been
created by John Cochrane for your interest and, hopefully, benefit.
The Many Faces of Anger
©John Cochrane 2005-2006
Anger is a challenge. It is not just our challenge to life around us but it challenges our sometimes rather cosy beliefs about what we are individually up to in life. We may like to think of ourselves as civilised and rational, as if those are qualities that prove that we are in control, but our anger can surprise and unsettle us. Anger is the great betrayer that reminds us that we are human after all.
But what is anger? Why do we get angry? Should we see anger as a ‘good’ thing or a ‘bad’ thing?
In the ‘Spectrum of Emotion’ walk we called anger: The motivation to engage with and defeat danger. Looked at in this way anger is basically a valid response to deal with perceived danger. But this is not how it often appears. There is much more subtlety and variability to anger than this simple starting point implies. In this walk we look at the ways that anger can show itself. We look at how we use and misuse anger and what is going on when we do so. We are going to be looking at this emotion from the outside in rather than from the inside out as we do in the ‘Spectrum’ walk.
When I look at my own use of anger I realise that anger is an emotion that I have spent a lot of time with in one form or another. Indeed, at one time I had a deliberate policy to use anger as a way of motivating myself to work harder and longer. And I have had times when I have tried, with greater and lesser success, to manage and control my anger.
It is only now that I have my basic understanding in place that I am better able to recognise anger for what it is, and to let it go. My more recent understanding of anger has given me a much more powerful way to live without it than my various attempts to ‘manage’ my anger through control.
Is Anger a Man Thing?
I have often wondered how much of my experience of anger derives from some genetic male preconditioning, or perhaps a surplus of some male sex-based hormone. After all, male aggression is well recognised. It is primarily men that go to war, it is primarily men that initiate violent crime, it is primarily men that engage in bar brawls. So is anger, and the aggression that often goes with it, an inherited male trait?
One of many obvious speculations is that anger may give males an increased ability to compete for the attention of females, and successful (angry) males may breed more. So males, as a sexual group, may indeed be more predisposed to anger than females. And if this is indeed the case then this would imply a genetic trigger or switch to enable anger in men and perhaps to suppress it in women. Genetically inspired anger would drive men to compete with each other, it could benefit male abilities in some hunting situations, and it would help groups of men to engage in territorial warring (though not necessarily their ability to fight well as a group). A suppression of anger in women might encourage cooperative behaviour and it might also reduce the chances of occasional infanticide. All of these would have a benefit in terms of personal and racial survival.
In actuality, and despite years of first-hand experience (as a man) and years of seeking answers to the question, I cannot confirm in my own mind to what extent I am indeed a victim of either inheritance or hormones. I have met many women that use anger in much the same way that I do and many men that do not. With the benefit of hindsight I realise that I was acting out my anger well before I was adolescent when, as I understand it, the predominantly male sexual changes really kick in.
I have also now had the very great honour to be able to observe the ways my own children behave as they grow and have gained, through them, a deeper insight into how I must have been at their age. I can see that a tendency towards anger does indeed seem to be present in some, and presumably in me, from a very early age. And I can see from general observation that a tendency toward anger that is not understood can certainly lead on to problems with inappropriate behaviour, rebellion, introspection, and competition during adolescence and beyond that will not be helped by hormonal stimulation during adolescence.
Also, of course, my children and I have been brought up in a society that glorifies the male macho image. In many subtle and not so subtle ways our male children are encouraged to display and use anger in certain situations.
Although I have been able to gain some insight into this nature or nurture question through personal observation, I wait with some anticipation for neurological and genetic science to give us further help and understanding. I believe that a great deal does indeed come from nature but that our innate behaviour can be radically modified by our experiences as we grow up.
Nature or Nurture? Can we Change?
The question of nature or nurture is potentially huge. It is the question of whether we are born the way we are or whether we are a product of our environment. As a context for this Walks of Mind as a whole, and emotions in particular, we are often looking at the way that evolution will have come up with particular solutions that will, I suggest, lead us to think, feel, and behave in certain ways in certain situations.
But if we are defined by our genetic inheritance then this implies that there is little prospect for change. We are stuck with what we are born with and personal development (and therapy) simply does not work. On the other hand, if our behaviour and our responses to life are learned, or significantly impacted by our upbringing, then the implication is that we can change. What we have learned once we can probably re-learn.
So, much of what we explore in this collection of walks is that balance between nature (predefined behaviour) and nurture (learned behaviour). In this walk we investigate a very variable emotion, one that shows as behaviour and experience that is very much linked to our environment. Societies have quite strict ways of dealing with anger, though these may change significantly from society to society. This is where nurture, the way that our personal experiences impact and drive our on-going behaviour and thinking, becomes vitally important. This is perhaps more so for anger than for the other core emotions; love and fear.
How we get on in society, how we are appreciated by others, how much and in what ways we are trusted, how successful we are at getting the things that we want are all impacted by how we express, or suppress, our anger. The choices that we make about our anger are of very great importance, and particularly those choices that we made in our early years that have now become part of our basic beliefs.
It is the differences between societies and the differences between individuals within a society that point to the importance of nurture. It is also clear that individuals do indeed change their own behaviour patterns through circumstance and through choice. Both of these indicate that we have an ability both to learn from life and to re-learn, and hence imply that nurture is a strong influence on our developed adult personality.
If we are, to whatever extent, a product of our environment then we also have a capacity to change. If we have the capacity to change then we are (at least theoretically) empowered, we are freed from the ‘human condition’. But to change requires choice, the expression of free will, and choice will be most beneficial if it is informed choice, and hence the importance of works such as this.
This is especially important with anger. Because there appears to be a significant sexual difference, which implies an inherited capacity for anger, and significant on-going cultural pressure to display anger in some ways and not in others, the task of finding out how we as individuals have learned to use and suppress anger becomes more challenging. To change our own behaviour requires us to understand what is going on for ourselves as individuals and to understand this within the context of our society.
How do Anger and Fear Relate?
So, if we require an understanding of anger to proceed how do we start to gain that?
The first part of the exploration that follows includes some ideas that go back to first principles. Although we have a basic definition of anger already, from the ‘Spectrum’ walk, we are not taking that as the automatic starting point for this one. In that walk we look at anger as a basic motivation of behaviour and in this walk we are looking more at our experience of and the expression of anger and working from that toward a more general understanding of what anger actually is.
One of my first observations is that anger and fear often seem to be very closely associated. A clear example of this can be seen in the way that parents of small children may behave when they lose track of a child. I have experienced this myself as well as watched it play out in others, and I know how strong the feelings can be as well as observing how extreme the behaviour can become.
When a parent realises that their child has gone, that the child is not in sight, their reaction is often of panic, of fear expressing itself as confusion and a demand to ‘know’. As long as the child is lost (from the parent’s point of view) the fear remains and tends to predominate. There are a whole series of secondary behaviours that the parent may employ, including shouting, rushing about searching, enlisting and organising help, visibly struggling to maintain self-control and rationality, and so on. As soon as the child is found the parent moves rapidly through relief to anger, and the anger is often expressed directly to the child. The anger may come out even though the child may still be experiencing their own fear and isolation and expressing their own upset.
Whatever is going on here is profound, involving deep feelings and emotion, rapid changes in state of mind, and expressed behaviour that is probably very much at odds with the parent’s normal intentions about how they wish to be with their child. It seems that fear can change into anger very rapidly.
Another example of this that seems very common is when we are getting anxious or overwhelmed, for whatever reason, and we show this as becoming short tempered with those around us. Many of us sometimes ‘cope’ with stress by behaving as if we are angry. When we are ‘pushed’ towards our limit, we can get into blaming anything and everything around us. Sometimes we feel fear but we act anger.
One possibility to consider is that perhaps fear and anger are simply two faces of the same thing. Perhaps one can change into the other very quickly because underlying both is a single state of mind, a single passion or emotion. If this were to be so then what we describe as fear and anger would actually be more to do with the appearance of something rather than the thing itself.
And this leads on to a further realisation; what we act out is often a modified or controlled version of what we experience. There may be quite a considerable difference between what we feel and what we show as behaviour. This is a basic principle of self-awareness and self-control, a life skill that we tend to learn early in life.
But what about the other way round? Can an appearance of fear show when we are feeling anger? There are indeed some examples of this, or at least something very close to it.
When faced with a seemingly aggressive person or group I may experience anger (along with a fear of attack) but show behaviour that is placating, or I may experience cold resentment that comes out as deferential behaviour. In both cases however I am aware of an internal struggle going on between fear and anger. Even though my behaviour may superficially show as submissive my anger will still tend to seep out, perhaps as sarcasm or ‘having the last word’. This is much more a passive-aggressive behaviour pattern, where my anger, my aggression, is held back and what I attempt to show is passivity.
Another example may be where two gangs of adolescents are baiting each other. Individuals may adopt attack and run-away behaviour. As part of a group they share ‘anger’ about the opposing group and when they expose themselves as individuals they may show that anger overflowing into action which is very closely followed by fear. Again here I am suspicious that this has more to do with individuals trying to prove themselves within their own peer group than a valid expression of emotion. And when the emotion is truly active it is more about fight and flight, a struggle between conflicting emotion, than about anger changing into or being expressed as fear.
A final piece is to look at whether anger and fear can appear in isolation. If anger and fear are actually two faces of the same thing then this would imply that they are likely to always be present together. Overall I’d say that my personal experience is that they can indeed appear on their own but that fear is often present in some form if anger is. I can have fear on an amusement park ride without any noticeable trace of anger. I can have fear of the dark with little indication of anger. Similarly I can be in a rage in situations where my fear is not obvious, when my computer crashes for the umpteenth time or when I hear of crimes like rape and torture.
Although anger and fear may both be present at the same time, and though there may be a passive-aggressive or fight-or-flight conflict between the two, I am left believing that they are actually separate emotions that can grow out of each other and override each other in different situations.
Some of the Faces of Anger
But how about the various forms of anger? How many ways can we experience anger and in what situations?
A look in a typical dictionary does not add much to our knowledge I’m afraid (anger is ‘a feeling of displeasure or hostility’), but does indicate some common terms: anger, fury, rage, wrath, resentment, ire, indignation, annoyance, irritation, outrage, vexation, frustration, tantrum, hatred, petulance, and so on. That’s quite a list.
Let’s take a brief look at some of the more common forms of anger, and see if we can learn something along the way.
Rage and Going Berserk
At the extreme end we have rage and fury. These seem to me to be anger that is, or is in imminent danger of becoming, out of control. My experience of rage is that is broadly directed, if at all. Road rage, or air rage, or a fighting rage seem to have much to do with an accumulation of otherwise unexpressed anger, or blame, that has reached a point of undeniability and comes out as extreme and out-of-control behaviour. Fury is more specific. Fury, for me, may be more about a specific event, situation, or thing (person/group). Fury also has a contained form, a cold fury that is possibly a precursor to rage. Fury also tends to lead on to behaviour, or the threat of behaviour, that is extreme and apparently out of control.
Rage and fury can illicit fear in others, and this may be used by a bullying individual in a manipulative or domineering way. It seems likely to me that the appearance of rage can be a well-developed act that perhaps originally came out of male competitive fights. After all, it would be more effective to give an appearance of rage and have your opponent give up without a fight than to engage in direct, and risky, aggression. It may be that the original Berserkers discovered that a well-publicised and obvious show of frenzied aggression resulted in demoralised enemies.
Anger and Hate
Being angry is recognised as a state of mind that, although it is very common, also seems to elicit strong reactions in others. I know that when I find myself in the presence of someone showing their anger I may get angry myself or fearful. I may get into placating, or reasoning, or consoling, or avoiding, or confronting. Whatever my own reaction is, it is often aimed at shifting the angry person out of their angry state.
Angry anger is usually directed as well. We are angry at a particular person or event. This directedness of anger is supported by a judgment (this person is at fault, or this event should not have happened…) and a blame (and they should pay..). The judgment and blame allows us to hold ourselves as in the right and, as we are in the right and hard done by, we have the ‘right’ to be angry and since we are justifiably angry we can also behave in ways that otherwise we would not. We can be rude and dismissive, we can be inconsiderate and uncompassionate, we can be outwardly judgmental, and we can demand to get our own way.
In community terms anger seems sometimes to be acceptable and sometimes not. Perhaps it is seen as a dangerous mental state when it is expressed by individuals but may be expected in some group situations, for example during political protesting, while engaged in or supporting a sporting event, and when a group of people come together to support a ‘wronged’ individual.
Anger is often expressed when we are in resentment. If someone says ‘I feel resentful’ their actual feeling is likely to be a low-level grudging anger. Resentment is much more than just anger, though anger is one of the main feelings that we allow ourselves to express when we are in resentment. The anger can be ‘hot’ or ‘cold’, where ‘hot’ anger is the direct expression of passion and ‘cold’ anger is more calculating; a grudging anger. Resentment, and the anger that may come with it, seems nearly always directed toward something or someone.
When the anger and resentment grow they are often characterised as hatred. Again, the anger being shown as hatred can be hot or cold and can quickly turn to fury and on to rage as control is reduced and, typically, as self-righteousness is increased.
Annoyance, Irritation, Frustration – Low-Level Anger
These are also obvious anger contenders: irritation and frustration. Both of these seem to me to be a form of low level anger that is more ‘acceptable’ in general society than directly expressed anger. I find these two quite difficult to separate. Irritation is perhaps about some external event or issue that I do not want and frustration is more often about something that I want but I am not getting. I can be irritated by something that frustrates my plans.
Ah ha! Perhaps these two actually are the same thing, a conflict between events and my desires, but described from a different point of view? Irritation is the annoyance that we feel when we focus on the external event/issue and frustration is the annoyance that we feel when we focus on our internal desires.
And the ‘annoyance’ that we are conscious of is anger about a distraction, the distraction of reality not going the way that we want.
Hidden Anger - Boredom
Now we get into less obvious forms of anger.
Boredom describes a situation where we may feel, or claim to feel, very little. Our feeling may be one of numbness, which can be thought of as a denial of feeling. However, when we look at the behaviour that goes with boredom we actually behave in ways that appear very similar to frustration. In boredom we are dissatisfied and hold our situation to blame for our disquiet. We tend to describe that situation as monotonous or uninteresting.
I realised as a child at school (a place that seemed at those times to represent institutionalised boredom) that my boredom actually came from me rather than from what was going on around me; boredom was a state of my mind and not a product of reality. Once I realised this I had a much better chance of stepping out of boredom by consciously looking for something of interest in my situation.
What I did not realise until much more recently was that boredom is an expression of an unspoken demand that my life be interesting. When life does not come up with the goods, when life ‘fails’ to interest and entertain me, then I start to experience boredom. Looked at this way, boredom is a suppressed state of annoyance. The annoyance is maintained by blaming reality for not being what we want it to be. By blaming we mentally maintain that our state of mind, a state of boredom, is due to our situation and that it is the situation that has to change.
A suppressed state of annoyance, a feeling of numbness. But we have already identified annoyance as an expression of anger, so that implies that boredom is basically anger that is internalised, suppressed, denied, numbed-out. With this insight I can see that my own state of boredom is actually anger and I can also understand why my children show some of the behaviours that I associate with anger, whilst denying that they are angry, when they complain of being bored.
Hidden Anger – Sadness/Sorrow
My dictionary describes these as a mental suffering or unhappiness – not much immediate insight there.
In my experience, sadness is often about a particular external event or loss and sorrow relates to self, I experience sorrow when I am sorry for myself and sadness when I dwell on ‘what might have been’. In both cases I may also have regrets.
Sadness and sorrow are not directly like boredom; we do not numb out and we don’t always get a strong sense of blaming. Indeed, the feelings can be very deeply felt. I typically get a feeling of hollowness (close to hungriness), an opening of the back of my throat and maybe even tears, tension around my face and throat, and I also get a sense of resignation.
That sense of resignation is a big clue – I am believing that there is nothing realistic that I can do, that I have to accept my loss and move on. Whatever it is that I am sad about, or sorrowing over, I am accepting as being unchangeable. Instead of going into blame and anger, I am suppressing or swallowing my judgments and blame. In effect in sadness and sorrow we are swallowing our anger; keeping our anger hidden inside ourselves and hidden even from ourselves.
It may even be that we are also holding ourselves to blame. This will add to our resignation – we only have ourselves to blame. And if we are to blame then don’t we also deserve to suffer? The discomfort of sadness/sorrow becomes justified and we have an additional reason to stay in our unhappiness, perhaps even to wallow in it.
But what happens if anger is swallowed in this way? One consequence is that, as long as the issue is still in mind, there is a struggle going on. Part of our mind is choosing to hold back the anger and another part is wanting to express it. We experience the struggle as ongoing sadness and sorrow. In fact I suspect that the physical feelings of sadness/sorrow are linked directly to this struggle; my throat opens and my stomach prepares to empty itself (nature’s way of getting rid of something that has been swallowed but is indigestible) and my mouth closes and my face tenses in an effort to keep on swallowing.
Hidden Anger – Grief
Here the dictionary is slightly more useful as it describes grief as a deep mental anguish (typically around death of a loved one) and also gives a reference to annoyance or frustration (in it causes me grief). Already there is a link to anger, but where does this link come in?
Perhaps the most widely shared understanding of grief is following the death of a loved one. Grief can also be experienced following other losses, the loss of an ambition, loss of health, or loss of a lover. The key piece here is the experience of loss.
It seems to me that grief actually starts with an expression of love, but of a love denied. It is also an expression of desire – a desire to hold on to that which we love (perhaps as an attachment) and a desire to unmake reality. Our mental anguish, our mental turmoil, comes from our wanting to continue to express our love and connection but being faced by a reality that seems to deny our ability to love.
Grief can be particularly confusing and painful when we are in it or when we remember it from some event in the past that we have not yet truly come to terms with. Although grief is an extremely personal experience I believe that there are some common threads that it can be important for us to understand. Bear with me while I don my consultant’s hat and talk in general terms.
I believe that in grief we are often, at least in part, wanting to deny the reality of separation, wanting to deny the reality of an ending. Our attempt to deny reality comes from our unspoken belief (a fear) that we will not be able to stand losing the object of our love. We fear that we will lose the benefit of loving. So we attempt to hold back the love that we continue to feel. This is similar to sadness and sorrow combined but felt much more extremely. With grief we are swallowing both love and anger. We swallow the love because we fear that if we let ourselves feel it then it will become unbearable and we swallow the anger because we judge it inappropriate.
In grief our mental state and our feelings are often mixed. We may be confused by the actual nature of the ‘loss’ that we have suffered. We may be upset or angry with the situation, with the cause of our loss, and that is in addition to the feared loss of benefits of our love.
There are some important realisations for us to make when we experience grief:
Once we have these realisations in place we can move on from the pain of grief. Quite literally, when we come clean about the anger and realise that we can still love and that we will not be consumed by our self pity, then our internal struggle ends and the physical feelings that go with the struggle subside.
Only when we start to let go of the anger can we also honestly begin to express our deeper feelings, recognise and mourn our loss in an authentic and honouring way.
Hidden Anger - Loneliness
I don’t know about you, but I have often felt lonely but I have rarely been absolutely physically alone. Loneliness is very much a thing of the mind rather than a direct consequence of being alone. Of course, there is being ‘alone’ in a mental sense as well as being alone physically, and this is where my sense of loneliness most often comes from. When I believe that I am on my own to cope with a particular situation or in terms of my thoughts, wants, desire to share, or sexuality then I will ‘feel’ lonely.
The physical feelings and thoughts that go with loneliness are very similar to sadness/sorrow. I have a thought or belief that I am on my own, a demand to stop being alone, probably a bunch of self-judgments about why I am alone and a bunch of judgments, and probably resentment, for those around me who are not giving me the companionship that I want.
I am being sorry for myself and it is the feelings of sorrow that predominate. And just like sorrow, loneliness is based on an internalised anger about my own state, although unlike sorrow I am not so much believing that there is nothing that I can do to change my situation as believing that things should be different. I am hard done by because I am missing something that should be there.
When the judgments are strong then I will tend to feel the anger that goes with the resentment. When the judgments are weaker I will feel the sorrow that is ‘self’-centred. And I will feel the hard edge of determination when the demand to go out and find a companion is running. I find myself moving from one mental state to another and from one set of feelings to another, but at its core will be my belief that I am suffering a situation that I clearly do not want, that things should be different. In loneliness I believe myself to be alone and I believe that I should not be.
We are going to take what looks like a quick detour here, because this shows up a behaviour pattern that tends to repeat, and applies in many other situations as well. A belief such as “I am alone” is not so much the statement of a simple objective truth as a judgment coming out of a hidden and unrealised want. Instead of clearly identifying my want, I am focused on the judgment that I do not have that which I want. But the judgment that I do not have what I want is only there because I have the want in the first place.
When I express a want or desire as a judgment (eg I am lonely, I am poor, I am powerless, I am bullied, I am ugly, I am unpopular, ..) then I am also creating resistance to change. A statement that starts ‘I am’ has an absoluteness about it that implies an unspoken ending ‘and that is how it is’ or ‘and nothing can change that’. The unspoken ending then directs the way that I behave.
If I hold it that ‘I am lonely’ (‘and nothing can change that’ or ‘and that’s just the way it is’ or ‘and I always will be’) then I shall tend to miss opportunities for friendship and connection. Even though I have a want for change, I shall actually tend to behave in ways that come out of my unspoken belief that the situation is unchangeable. My behaviour may show as shyness, or perhaps a trace of resentful aggression, or cynicism, or mistrust, or jokiness, or patronising behaviour. This puts others off from connecting with me - after all, I know that it is no use acting friendly or believing that there is truth in someone else’s apparent friendship because nothing can change my loneliness. In my mind I am believing that all relationships will fail and I will be lonely once again – look! Its coming true, they’ve already lost interest and turned away.
Judgment is a proposition or a theory dressed up as a fact. When I hold a judgment I tend to accept it without question, and I act out of it. Judgment tends to be absolute and so implies finality – it implies that things will stay as they are. Judgments about our self or our condition can imply to us that not only do we have a situation that we do not want, but that we are stuck with it. This may surface as a fear, that we will never find a (suitable / perfect) friend, or a perhaps as a self-judgment that we are fundamentally unloveable.
The key to breaking the judgment is to seek out the full truth about the want or proposition that lies under the judgment and separate off any fear about the future. For example, the truth about “I am lonely” is that I want friendship and connection and I cannot guarantee when, how, and where this may happen.
The importance of this detour is that it illuminates something important about loneliness. When we experience a feeling of loneliness we are often falling into believing our own worst judgments and fears, and keeping ourselves trapped because of it. Our feelings of loneliness are often about the sorrow we feel when we believe ourselves unable to change our condition or achieve what we actually want in terms of meaningful relationship.
Hidden Anger – Depression
Depression is a complex and varied state, and I am not going to attempt to encapsulate or analyse it in a few words here. And, I am not looking at acute, clinical, or trauma-related depression, nor depression that seems to be related to neurological causes. However, I think there is something that relates long-term low-level depression to the series of states of mind that we have been exploring here.
Depression may include many of the states already mentioned; anger, sadness, sorrow, loneliness. Depression also can include an experience of exhaustion, perhaps of resignation, and of an inability to cope. For myself, when I experience a depressive state of mind I am aware that I have slipped into thinking that I do not want my current life as it is and that when I think of all the possible futures that I can go for, I don’t want any of those either. In this doom-laden and resentful thinking I am likely to be predicting that my life will be getting worse rather than better.
Well no wonder I experience exhaustion, this is a definition of ‘nothing is worthwhile’. I am believing that no amount of effort will give me what I want because there is no life that I can see that has what I want in it. If no effort is worthwhile and no amount of effort will bring me what I want then all my effort basically must be wasted effort. If all my efforts are wasted then I can never have enough energy to achieve escape. In my extreme I am not only believing that my life is hopeless but also that I am unable to cope with it as it is, that I am overwhelmed and going to stay that way.
This kind of depression is, for me, full of anger. Anger at my situation, anger at my hopelessness, anger at life, anger at my exhaustion, anger at my entrapment. And, yet again, I have it that my situation is hopeless so my anger will not get me anywhere either! So I pretend to myself that I am not angry, I resign myself to my life of inability and under achievement.
This thought process is full of illogic and unchecked assumptions and judgments of course. One way for me to get myself out of this self-induced state of depression is to get some reality into my thinking. But that takes us away from the purpose of this walk, which is focused on anger. If you want to deal with your own depression then continue to read on and I suggest you read or re-read the walks on difficulty and deep beliefs and relate those work directly to your own particular experiences.
So What is Anger? In the last few sections we have visited some common states of mind and we have identified anger in each. In several cases the anger is denied, but I am convinced that it is there nonetheless.
If anger is in all these different states of mind, with their different feelings and natures of thought, then anger has the seeming of being a very variable emotional state.
There is at least one common thread that runs through all of these though, and it gives a surprising insight into anger, but one that seems so obvious that it is easy to miss the importance of this insight. In all these cases, in all these experiences, we are faced with something that we do not want.
When we are in a rage we are very clear that we are in rejection mode, when we are angry there is something going on that we do not want to be happening, when we are sad or grieving we are not wanting to accept a loss, when we are lonely we are not wanting to be on our own, and when depressed we are not wanting life itself.
Please take a little time to consider this seemingly simple observation. I have known many people miss the point here and so not ‘get’ the importance of this aspect of anger and yet this is the key to understanding it and to changing how we are with it. This is the key in the lock that allows us to stop anger being something that happens to us and allows us to understand it and choose a different path. This is the key of understanding that can stop anger ruling us, right in the moment when it is most important for us to claim our own authority.
In the walk on a spectrum of emotions we consider anger as a motivator, and we can see now how that view fits in with our daily experience of anger. Anger in its ‘hot’ form energises us to action and in its ‘cold’ form gives us endurance. Anger, as a motivator, gives us the energy and fortitude to put right that which is ‘wrong’. It is the righteous medium of correction and retribution. Anger seems to offer us the energy to overcome adversity, or at the very least to survive it.
But I maintain that we regularly go beyond that. Left to itself anger becomes something else.
Anger is our attempt to deny the reality of something that we do not want. Anger is what we do as an attempt to get reality to change, to get reality to be the way that we want it to be. Like a child throwing a tantrum, we put energy into denial and hope that through that act of denial reality will bullied into changing its mind and get back to where it should be. Don’t take my word for this, check in with your own experiences. Relive your own feelings and thoughts and behaviours and see if this is not what you were really up to.
And the more I understand that my anger is just my attempt to deny or correct reality the more I appreciate how often I am mistaken about reality and how ineffective my anger actually is. Reality cares not a jot about my anger and no amount of anger will directly change reality. My anger-derived actions may bring about changes, but they are more likely to be destructive changes than if I act out of something other than anger. The energy that I get out of anger to deal with or survive adversity is also a sham; I either have the energy to cope or I do not and anger does nothing to magically create more, it merely channels my energy in particular directions. My anger turns out to be often misplaced and it will tend to make my circumstances worse rather than better.
On top of that, when I internalise anger or when I am being run by it I experience discomfort, unhappiness, and displeasure. Anger is the disruptor of peace, the destroyer of pleasure.
And How do I Get Off it?
Long before I had any of the insights in this walk I attempted to ‘manage’ my anger. Indeed, I have attempted to control my anger in different ways for as long as I can remember. I have long known that anger is potentially counter-productive but I have also believed that I can get energy from it. I have attempted to control my anger so that I get the benefit of energy, of motivation, but so that I do not find myself overcome by it.
But control is the booby prise. I became highly skilled at control, as many of us are, but ultimately I have come to realise that control is not a successful way of dealing with anger. Control will fail from time to time and the energy that comes from anger is a destructive rather than a constructive energy. Living with a continuous anger is living a life of despite.
My realisation that anger comes from my attempt to deny reality gives me the vital insight and ability to do things differently. When I accept reality as it is, in the moment of my experiencing it, then I find that anger just does not occur. It’s as if in accepting the truth of the moment I am able to just let go of anger and instead I get to see the options that I actually have available to me. I see more opportunity and I engage with life more directly. I am more confident and more at ease.
When I notice that I have anger, or any of the various faces of anger, I know that at some level I am in denial of reality. When I ask myself ‘how am I wanting reality to be different?’ I get the chance to let go of my anger and get back into choice about my life.
This is an important walk for me, because it reflects a major change in the way that I motivate myself in life, and that change comes from asking myself a very simple question: will I accept life just as it is? This is at the core of many philosophies and personal development programmes but we have got to it through an unusual route.
The walk started with general considerations of anger. Anger in society, anger as an inherited trait, anger in relation to fear. The main walk, however, is about the ways that anger appears, as behaviour and experiences of feeling, and explores the common links between these. Anger has many ways of appearing, including some ways that are not always recognised as being anger at all. Many of these ways of experiencing anger include an unconscious attempt to internalise the anger, to deny that it is there at all, to swallow the anger.
There is a brief detour in the walk to look at how our ability to make judgments about ourselves, others, and our lives can lead on to reinforcing the very situation that we are wanting to change.
The walk reaches a simple overall conclusion that anger comes as an attempt to deny the reality of something that we do not want. This conclusion highlights what the problems are that go with anger, it is an often-ineffective reaction to life, and also indicates how to stop using it.