When we think about anger many of us will think about all the negative, painful, damaging consequences of our anger. Due to this, we will see anger itself as bad or negative. We might think that every time we get angry it causes us some kind of harm. Is it the anger that is the problem or is it haw we react to our anger?
Anger is not good or bad, positive or negative. It just is. It is a natural emotion that we all feel from time to time. We would not say that joy or love or happiness are negative. Where does this idea come from?
It often comes from how anger was modeled for us as we grew up. Think back to your childhood. Was there a lot of arguments or fighting between your parents? It might not have been your parents it could have been from other family or friends. The fact is somewhere along the way anger was modeled for you as having a painful outcome.
Now there is this idea that to be angry means to be violent or aggressive or loud or whatever. Anger is not the reason for this. It is how we use that anger that is negative. The way we express our anger is not the anger itself. We can express our anger in both helpful and hurtful way.
Let’s explore some people in history who were angry but used it in a positive, helpful way. The first person that comes to my mind is Mahatma Gandhi. He is not the first person we think of when we think of angry men. He was not violent or harmful with his anger. He used the anger he felt toward the way things were in India to make a positive impact. I wonder if he would have been as successful had he started yelling and throwing things? I wonder if using his anger to harm the people he felt responsible for his pain would have had the same impact.
How about another person. How about Martin Luther King, Jr.? Much like Gandhi, he was angry at the way people of color were being treated. He too channeled that anger into positive change. He allowed his anger to fuel his campaign to bring about civil rights in the USA.
Cause vs. Stimulus
There are two things that most of us will confuse when it comes to anger. That is we will confuse the stimulus for our anger with the cause. Then we think that it is not our fault we are angry it is this traffic that caused my anger. To challenge this we need to explore cause and stimulus much deeper.
Let’s look at the example of traffic. I think everyone has found anger while stuck in traffic. At first glance, we might think sure it has to because of the traffic that I am angry. If I wasn’t sitting here I would not be mad. I will admit that I have fallen victim to this exact thought from time to time.
The find the cause of this anger we will do a quick thought experiment. It is Monday morning and you are on your way to work. You are in a decent mood, after all, it was a nice relaxing weekend. Then from out of nowhere, you are grinding to a halt. Traffic is stopped because of an accident up ahead. You were really in no rush to get to work. There is nothing pressing that has to be. How might you react in this situation?
Now we will look at a different scenario. It is 5 o’clock on Friday. You made big plans to take your wife out to dinner for your anniversary. It is your favorite restaurant. You have been thinking about the meal and the wonderful evening with your wife all day. Just like above you all of a sudden get stuck in construction traffic. This time what is your reaction.
If you are anything like me I can tell you exactly how both situations will go. If it was the situation on Monday. I would be slightly annoyed. It would last just a few moments then I would turn up the radio and relax until traffic starts to move again. If we are looking at the Friday night situation there is a very different reaction. I would be livid. I might start driving aggressively I would be frustrated with everyone ahead of me. I would just be pissed off the whole ride.
What is different in those two situations that would cause such a sharp change in behavior? The stimulus in both is the same, you are stuck in traffic. The cause is different. The first one I would not be in a hurry and I would not see it as terrible. Sure there would be that first twinge of frustration but it would subside as I think about getting to enjoy some music for just a bit longer. The second one is where I start to believe that the whole world is out to get me. The thoughts would be something like, “Of course this happens today! The one Friday I make planes and everything goes to shit. Yep, that is my life.” That way of thinking is what caused the anger.
We have to be able to separate the two, cause and stimulus if we are ever going to be able to find a way out of destructive anger. With time and practice, we will be able to navigate what is really at the root of our frustration and anger. To really do this effectively we must find the unhealthy beliefs at the root of the cause for that anger. We have all learned ways to interpret the world around us that can be wrong or damaging.