In this article, we are going to flip the mirror around and change our outlook: What can anger teach us? While we may be in the habit of learning lessons from emotions that we label as “negative,” we seldom do the same with anger. Instead, we tend to try to control anger and resist its sway. But have you ever wondered why we continue to carry anger with us throughout our evolutionary process, if it doesn’t serve an actual purpose?
Throughout our evolution, anger has been one of the long-standing emotions included in the mosaic of who we are as humans. We’ve always been aware of its presence, but we’ve often considered it a bad thing. So much so that Sappho made this observation about society around 650 BCE: “When one’s heart is filled with anger, one should hold one’s garrulous tongue.” In 2019, this expression still serves as a mirror for the society we live in. That’s why we’ll be flipping this mirror around and figuring out why evolution continues to keep anger alive.
Anger stimulates, energizes, and protects us against danger. That’s why it’s still part of our system. In this sense, anger can be a very functional emotion. Anger triggers a warning signal in our bodies that prepares us to manage an existing challenge, danger, or problem. And in some instances that surge of anger can help us survive life-threatening situations. Yet for most of us, our anger is misplaced and disproportionate to the situation before us. By becoming more aware of how our anger sets off a series of emotional and physical reactions within us, we can better understand what underlying sources of frustration we have.
Imagine that you were alive 10,000 years ago. If a hunter cut you off while you were on a hunt, you understandably get angry. The will to live, find food and not starve would have fueled your anger. And a different story would be written in that forest — the anger might have changed how you acted towards the other hunter. But does the same logic still hold true when someone cuts you off in traffic? How real is the threat to your life in that scenario? Is it possible that what really angers you in that situation is not being taken seriously on the road?
Anger can warn us about problems we may be having. It signals that we have a problem we need to solve. Let’s say that you’re waiting on a document from your co-worker so you can complete your year-end report. But your co-worker repeatedly fails to give you the document in time. You slowly grow angry towards him. You may create many scenarios in your head where you finally lose it. But what would lead you to a productive solution in this situation: actually acting out one of these scenarios in real life, or trying to see the real reason behind your anger? Could it be that what really angers you is that the delay in getting the document will result in a delay in turning in your report, meaning that you’ll be chastised by your boss, lose respect from him and maybe even jeopardize your relationship? If that’s the case, where is your anger really directed — at your friend, or the anxiety you feel that is prompting you to come up with such scenarios?
Anger can also reveal our own needs to us. Let’s say you’ve gotten home at the end of a long work day and are looking forward to relaxing with your girlfriend and watching a movie. But then the doorbell rings unexpectedly. It’s your mother, standing at the doorstep with a pot of soup she’s made just for you. Of course, now that she’s here, she stays longer to enjoy a cup of tea with you. There are two contenders for anger in this scenario: the mother who only wanted to support his son but isn’t appreciated, and the couple who had been about to order pizza. The mother feels the need to be seen and appreciated; she wants to connect with her son. The son, however, feels the need to relax physically and mentally without any social responsibilities after a long day. If the mother and son give into their anger in this moment, instead of controlling it, they’ll inevitably say things to each other that they’ll regret later on. But if they examine what they’re angry about instead, they can form a healthy dialogue and prevent a repeat of the same situation.
Anger can motivate us as well and give us courage. It can push us to take the steps we want to take. It’s perfectly natural to grow angry when we’re passed over a promotion that we think we deserve. But neither the other candidate up for promotion nor our boss, who we feel is overlooking us, is to blame. Losing our temper with either of them, when we don’t even know if there is a guilty party or not, will not help us. But instead, it’s possible to turn our anger inward in this scenario and examine ourselves. In this case, our anger may push us towards shaking off our hesitancy and meeting with our boss so that we can show him what we are truly capable of.
Another thing anger can do is give us awareness. If your little sibling or child uses the walls of your home as their own canvas to paint, then of course you’ll grow angry. But are you angry because of the kid, the fact that the walls of your carefully decorated home are now messed up or that you repeatedly have to clean them up? It’s important to remember that this kid is just a kid. So any strong reaction we show to this behavior may not give us any kind of result. Even if it does, reacting that way may even end the career of a talented artists before it begins. So, explaining your point to them calmly and creating different spaces for the child so they can be as artistic as they want can be a great way to help them gain awareness.
Anger can reveal who you are to yourself. What do you want? What do you expect from whom? And perhaps most important of all, why do you need these things? Why do you feel that need — what part of your being do you find lacking?
Translator: Zeynep Sen