There is much confusion and misinformation about anger. It’s probably the most feared and least accepted emotion in the spectrum of human emotions. Anger gets a bad rap because it’s often erroneously associated with violence but in reality, anger seems to be followed by aggression only about 10% of the time (Kassinove & Tafrate, 2002).
To a neurobiologist, anger is a heightened state of physiological activity in the body’s autonomic nervous system. The body spews a potent cocktail of hormones (adrenaline, noradrenaline, testosterone and cortisol) that elevate the blood pressure, gets the heart pumping rapidly, increases breathing rate and raises the body temperature. These changes leave us physically aroused, hyper vigilant and primed for a fight or flight response.
A psychologist views anger as a complex arsenal of emotional reactions to a provocation, such as a displeasing person or thing, or an unfair situation. In the short space between an anger trigger and behavioral response, our thinking often gets distorted – when we imagine, for example, that other people’s behaviors are purposely intended to harm us: the “everyone is out to get me” mindset.
The physical expression of anger is a manifestation of our body providing us with rapid, powerful energy that propels us forward to take some sort of action against the injustice.
Unfortunately, how we mobilize in anger is often destructive and creates chaos in our lives and relationships. If we are able to fathom the complexity of this often-misunderstood emotion and harness its energy, we could channel it towards constructive and lasting change that fulfills our needs.
Austrian psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor, Viktor E. Frankl said “between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response.” This is particularly pertinent to our distinction between the anger (the emotion) and the behavioral expressions of anger, which is our response. This article takes an objective, non-judgmental view of anger as a very human and primal emotion, and then explores the potential of that space in between where one can be taught, in a therapeutic setting, to challenge negative automatic thoughts and beliefs and respond in ways that are more empowering and likely to meet our needs.
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Could Anger actually be a Gift?
Marshall Rosenberg, the psychologist who developed Nonviolent Communication (NVC), urges us to shift from the perspective that anger is bad and something to be suppressed, to actually regarding anger as a gift – an alarm that demands attention – something to be listened to and a catalyst for change. In the hands of a skilled therapist, anger is indeed a component that can be worked with and analysed to uncover more vulnerable primary feelings that stem from a person’s unmet needs. Since much has already been written about anger as a negative emotion, let’s consider how anger can be positive. Let’s consider how your anger can actually be a gift.
Here are three ways:
1. Anger could connect you to your core vulnerable self.
The word emotion basically means “ to move us out”, “to mobilize us” to meet our needs (Rosenberg, 2005). The trouble with anger is that it is stimulated by a diversion – it is triggered by the judgment we have of others and created by focusing on the wrongness of others. This externalizes and transfers energy away from getting our need met, into energy designed to blame, condemn and punish other people and situations.
Good therapy facilitates an inner dialogue between you and your vulnerable core self. It helps you gain clarity about what’s really important to you. You are more likely to get your needs met when you communicate from a position of connection to your needs.
The next time you feel angry, delve beneath the surface feeling to identify the deeper primary emotions that your vulnerable self is experiencing quietly. This is easier said than done as an angry person in their moment of anger is habitually consumed with the desire for revenge, to get even, to defend their pride, and to create the feeling of power and importance. We tend to protect our core self, and hide its vulnerability with avoidance and surface distractors such as the outward display of anger.
We are unable to recognize that beneath the emotional fraud of hostility and anger, what we are really feeling is sad, hurt, scared or frustrated.
If you realize that beneath your anger is a profound hurt, instead of lashing out and yelling at another, you could calmly and clearly communicate your hurt and get closer to having your need met. This kind of communication is connecting and could actually preserve your relationship, instead of sparking a fight and creating emotional distance in your relationship.
2. Anger, in small doses, could give you a creative boost.
Researchers Baas, Dreu, and Nijstad in a series of studies recently published in The Journal of Experimental Social Psychology found that angry people were more likely to be creative – though this advantage didn’t last for long. The demanding nature of anger eventually leveled out creativity. This study joins several recent lines of research exploring the relative upside to anger – the ways in which anger is not only less harmful than typically assumed, but may even be beneficial in small doses.
In an initial study, the researchers found that feeling angry was indeed associated with brainstorming in a more unstructured manner, consistent with creative problem solving. Research showed that an angry (compared with a sad or mood-neutral) person tends to have more flexible, unstructured thought processes. This flexibility involves the use of broad and inclusive thought categories and the increased ability to find new connections between categories. The angry person is more likely to rely on broad, global cues when judging information and this kind of global processing tends to be associated with divergent thinking – literally seeing the bigger picture and being able to come up with more creative solutions and being able to express themselves more creatively.
Anger which stems from the same source as passion in the body, is also an energising feeling, important for the sustained attention needed for creativity to flourish.
So how do we channel anger into creative expression? Julia Cameron in The Artist’s Way, devotes an entire chapter on anger as a creative call for action, elaborating on the ability of anger to illuminate hidden aspects of a person’s direction and purpose in life. Firstly, she says, we need to take the sting out of anger by embracing it as a natural and necessary force for creation. Too many of us were admonished and made to feel guilty about expressing our anger as young children. When we welcome anger with all its darkness, we reclaim these disowned parts of ourselves that we have repressed in shame.
Secondly, by bringing awareness to the anger and allowing ourselves to feel it, we have to recognize anger as an emissary, an agent of change with a message for you. One needs to translate the message that anger is bringing to be looked at and examined in the light. Listening for its message can transform what is holding us back, make the changes that get us back on track and release the possibility for anger to open the doorway to vitality, creativity and wisdom.
3. Anger is the firestorm that could fuel the need for change and transformation.
This is anger’s ultimate gift. The change that may have seemed too arduous to even contemplate becomes possible given the fiery energy and power of anger.
Throughout history, a lot of the changes the world has seen, have been motivated by the passionate life force of anger. If you simply react in anger, you’ll probably end up creating more problems than you solve, but if you explore and examine your anger, both its outer focus and its inner origins, you can make beneficial changes that you might not even have dreamed possible.
History’s significant movers and shakers such as Martin Luther King, Aung San Suu Kyi, Gandhi, and Nelson Mandela, all used the inner message of anger to create transformation. Biographies are littered with examples, where the initial action for peace and justice is motivated by anger against injustice.
Consider great protest singers, such as Woody Guthrie, Bob Marley, Sinead O’Connor and Joan Baez. They used music as a vehicle for expressing social and political injustices in a manner that moved people emotionally and mentally. Angry music can feel uplifting and satisfying, ultimately transforming the culture and individuals within it. In their supremacy over anger, walking the path with it as an ally, they unleashed tremendous creativity to achieve their ends, mobilizing others and ultimately making an indelible mark on humanity.
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Baas, M., De Dreu, C.K.W., Nijstad, B.A. (2011). Creative production by angry people peaks early on, decreases over time, and is relatively unstructured. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 47(6) 1107 – 1115.
Cameron, J. (1992). The Artist’s Way, A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity. New York: Jeremy P Tarcher/Putnam Publishing.
Kassinove, H. & Taffrate, R.C. (2002). Anger Management: The Complete Treatment Guidebook for Practitioners. California: Impact Publishers.
Rosenberg, M. (2005). The surprising purpose of anger: beyond anger management, finding the gift (Nonviolent Communication Guides). Del Mar, California: Puddle Dancer Press.