Growing up I mistakenly believed that anger was inherently a bad thing. Every time I felt my adrenaline start to pump or my blood begin to boil I tried my best to turn it off. Over time, I got pretty good at it but in learning how to control my anger I discovered a surprising side effect in the form of struggling with accessing and using my own voice. In learning how to control my anger I accidentally mastered the art of being-nice-no-matter-what.
As I got older I realized that life called for a greater variety of dispositions than “being nice” and the deeper I explored the issue of anger the more I realized I didn’t have an accurate understanding of what it was. Even now, as I look for a story that illustrates the strengths of anger I find that popular culture reinforces this limited view and overlooks the directive properties of anger. Bruce Banner turns into a destructive monster when he gets angry and becomes The Incredible Hulk. Inside Out portrays Anger as a volatile little man that when provoked spews fire from his head like a volcano.
These examples in pop culture demonstrate the much more pronounced characteristics of anger that actually resemble rage. The difference between anger and rage is that rage is an unhinged reaction to fear. While it can create similar desired outcomes that are called upon by anger, it does so in a very destructive and reckless way. I might even go so far to say that anger and rage are two very different things.
In my work as a therapist, people that have an “anger problem” typically come to therapy to learn how stop being angry. I try to communicate to them that anger is there for a reason and the best thing to do when we feel angry is to try and slow down and listen to what it is trying to tell us.
Anger evokes a desire to stop something that needs to be stopped.
In a heated political season, all sides of the table have an angry undertone. If you listen closely to their anger you might hear a fear that ellicits a desire to manipulate and control the outcome. Rage starts to bubble under the surface because there is fear there after all.
When unfelt anger leads to fear and rage the outcome is messy but it was ultimately born of a strong desire to put a stop to something. We feel this stubborn anger when we sense an injustice is being or has been done. Great things can happen when this anger is acknowledged felt and communicated in a constructive way.
Anger evokes a desire to push through barriers.
When we harness the desire to stop something we can do so by creating a barrier. While anger can give us the strength to remain unmoved sometimes anger needs to be a moving force to break through barriers. Fear can create a fortress and make otherwise intelligent people blind to injustices around them. When this happens, we have a responsibility to compel our comrades into action and move forward into conflict in a powerful and meaningful way. We do this by using compelling anger to promote a sense of urgency and take action.
Anger tells the truth
Perhaps the greatest benefit of anger is that it is a mainline to truth. This is why people become so passionate in heated debate. They are fighting for what they believe to be true and it is of the utmost importance that they defend and fight for this truth. With truth being in the eye of the beholder we must also be able to listen to the opposing value. One day, you may be presented with a piece of undeniable evidence that is new to you and if that day comes, your truth may change.
The truth is that anger has great strength but without balancing these three pillars, anger risks turning you to a sinking stone, a raging fire, or an idea not fully formed.
Are you able to listen to the underlying desire that is awoken by the fires of anger? If you can find it within yourself you will begin to see it in others as well. With quiet reflection and patience you might find that the fires of anger can burn together for good.
Andy Smith, LMFT is licensed therapist based in Nashville, Tennessee. He is passionate about helping creative people heal from trauma, depression, anxiety and grief.