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Can Anger Be Good?

March 16, 2018

Yes….is the short answer. Lest I give ragers permission to rage, I’ll explain further.

All emotions contain both information and gifts. Our emotions contain messages that no other dimension of our experience provides. If we don’t experience an emotion, we lose access to important information about ourselves and our experience. Also, each emotion comes with its own gifts that improve the quality of our relationships. Believe it or not, anger can improve the quality of our relationships! Crazy, right?

The Information in Anger

The information or message for us in the emotion of anger is “I’ve been violated” or “Someone / something I value has been violated,” or “This is not what I wanted / expected / hoped for.” All meaning, something is not right here!

Often times, our anger is prompted by a violation of our values. Even though we might not know for sure what those values are. Other times, our anger is triggered by unmet expectations. Regardless of how reasonable or communicated or clear those expectations might be.

Anger can be like the lightning rod that points us in the direction of our values, our unmet needs, our boundaries. It provides us with important clues to our inner world, the assumptions we make, the ideals we hold, the projections and presumptions we place on others and the world.

The Gifts of Anger

The gifts of anger, when received, demonstrate how anger can be good for us and for our relationships. The gifts of anger include boundary-setting, direction-setting, and motivation.

Anger helps us identify for ourselves and others what’s okay and what’s not okay, helping us to set clear boundaries. Anger has a way of clarifying what’s important to us, providing direction, making clear what was previously foggy. Anger can give us the energy to right a wrong, to take a stand, not just for ourselves but for others, as well.

Anger, when experienced in proportion to the situation, and addressed with care for others, can be an appropriate response that fosters healthy relationships.

“Good fences make good neighbors.” This saying is so old and has been adopted by so many cultures that no one quite knows its origin. Anger is like an emotional fence that helps us to maintain a healthy separation from others, to stay differentiated from others. It helps us know where we stop and others start. Even Benjamin Franklin said, “Love thy neighbor, yet don’t pull down your hedge.” Smart man.

What Do We Mean By Anger

Some people think of anger one way: bug-eyed fury. That’s not how most people experience anger. Anger is not binary, on or off. And it’s not one volume, screeching or silent. Anger is an emotional spectrum from mild irritation to outrage.

All of the following emotions fall somewhere on the spectrum of the emotion of anger: (in no particular order) annoyed, frustrated, irritated, ticked, impatient, perturbed, dismayed, infuriated, outraged, bitter, indignant, mad, seething, cross, enraged, provoked, rankled, riled, livid, vexed, appalled, spiteful.

Some people insist they don’t feel anger, perhaps because they’d prefer not to think of themselves as angry (or want to be seen that way). However, they often recognize feeling irritated or frustrated or annoyed or impatient. All of these emotions are nuanced colors within the emotional color palate of anger.

Feeling Angry ≠ Acting Angry

Many people conflate the concepts of feeling angry and acting angry. We are used to hearing things like “I am angry!” Meaning I = Angry. Feeling, being, and acting are all merged into one. When I = Angry, there is no space for observation or choice.

However, we can feel angry and not = angry or act angry.

We have a choice point between our internal experience of our feeling and our behavior. We may not recognize that choice, and it’s there. Acting angry may feel almost involuntary for us, until we learn to understand ourselves, what is triggering our anger and how to press pause to determine an appropriate response. Feeling angry and expressing it in ways that both connect and separate us is essential for a healthy relationship, personal or professional.

What’s Lost by Not Experiencing Anger

If we don’t access our anger (and some people don’t), we lose the information it would provide. We don’t acknowledge or connect with the violation or the unmet need. As a result, we tolerate behaviors from others that those who experience healthy levels of anger wouldn’t tolerate. And our toleration of otherwise intolerable behaviors teaches people how they can treat us.

If we don’t access anger, we don’t enjoy its gifts. We may not set boundaries. We may not take a stand for ourselves or others. We may allow people to manipulate, take advantage of, or unintentionally overwhelm us with work or emotion. Not accessing anger has significant implications for the quality of our life and relationships.

Why People Don’t Get Angry

If anger has all of this information, these gifts and these obvious advantages, what keeps people from experiencing anger?

Author and addiction specialist, Dr. Gabor Mate, spoke to this question in a recent interview with Tim Ferriss. Dr. Mate connected the dots something like this:

For the first many years of our lives, we are reliant on the care, love and attention of others (usually our parents) for our survival.

During that time, we learn many things, including what’s okay and what’s not okay within our family. If we have parents that were, for example, raised by rageaholics, they might tell us, in so many ways, that “Good little children don’t get angry.” They may chide us or ignore us for our anger. What we learn from that is “Angry little children don’t get loved.”

We need love to survive. So we think, “I’d better not get angry.” We learn not to access anger in order to survive.

Instead of accessing anger to set boundaries and create separation, people who have been taught not to access anger may tend to move toward or merge with persons they are in conflict with, making the other person’s feelings and responsibilities their own. The fear of the loss of connection may cause them to lose the boundary that defines them.

Recognizing Suppressed Anger and the Cost

Many people who suppress their anger, don’t see the cost. They may feel that not experiencing anger is a good thing, a benefit to themselves and their relationships. They may be rewarded for their good behavior. They may have an underlying belief that anger is bad or wrong. They may fear the loss of the relationship more than they fear the loss of themselves.

Leaders who don’t experience anger may encounter a number of challenges that impact their leadership.

They may keep poor-performing employees too long. They may suppress their own opinions or give up their authority or defer to others to not “make a fuss.” They may take on more work, more responsibility than is theirs to take. They may rationalize reasons not to delegate, not wanting to put more work on others. As a result, they can easily become overworked and overwhelmed by all that they feel they need / have to take on.

They do all of this, consciously or unconsciously, to stay in relationship. They prioritize their relationships over themselves. (And this shows up in their EQ Profile results.)

Coaching Leaders Who Don’t Access Anger

Leaders who don’t access anger often don’t draw clear boundaries. The two tend to go hand in hand.

Without clear boundaries, leaders tend to take on more than is theirs to take. They feel responsible for not only the work but also the emotions of others. As a result, they feel overworked and overwhelmed.

Oftentimes, these leaders can’t see where or how a boundary could be set. They can’t see the option of asking for help or saying no or not stepping in to catch every falling knife. Drawing boundaries is foreign and uncomfortable for them. They turn a blind eye to the personal toll it takes on them.

A common approach to coaching these leaders would be to inquire about the cost to the leader of taking on so much; to explore how not asking for help and not saying no impacts their health, their well-being, their effectiveness.

The leader may reluctantly admit, “It’s true, I’m burnt out. Yes, I’ll ask for help. Yes, I’ll say ‘no’ next time. Yes, I’ll let my peer / boss / direct report do their own work.” But none of that happens.

In my experience, the way to help leaders who don’t access anger to set boundaries, or say no, or ask for help, is by connecting them with the cost to their loved ones.

When leaders take on too much responsibility, and work longer hours due to not setting boundaries, it often results in less quality time with the people they love most. Their loved ones and their relationships pay the price. When a leader realizes that they might be compromising their most important relationships because of a challenge with setting boundaries, then they can be coached into finding their voice, defining what’s okay and what’s not okay, and connecting with themselves.

Coaches can use the value of the leader’s most important relationships to help the leader draw healthy boundaries elsewhere.

What about you? Do you have clients who don’t access anger? How does it show up? How do you help your clients draw boundaries? Let us know in the comments!

Posted in: Emotion: Anger|Emotional Intelligence

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