THE BLOG

Is Anger a Motivator for Change?

04/21/2015 10:20 pm ET | Updated Jun 21, 2015
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What part does anger play in creating change -- personal change, organizational change, social change?

In a year that I've committed to exploring my own anger, this question just keeps arising.

On the surface, anger appears to be a powerful motivator for change. Some external force -- some person, some thing, some circumstance -- does something to wrong us. We react. We fight back.

But a year of exploration means digging below that surface level.

  • What story am I telling myself when I get angry?
  • What can I learn about myself from the patterns of my anger -- the things that get me angry, my responses, my justifications for responding in that way?
  • What is on the other side of my anger? What would I need to believe to be on that other side? What would I need to value, and what would those values look like in my actions?
  • And then most importantly, what does that mean I will do?

At a personal level, these questions are not just enlightening, but empowering.

What becomes clear is that anger can be a motivator, until it's not.

That's because anger is a defense mechanism. Our bodies are not wired to stay angry -- they are wired to receive that adrenaline jolt and then do something about it (which requires far more logical thought than anger allows for). It takes work to stay angry all the time. Just ask Fox News and MSNBC, who work 24/7 to keep us angry.

Anger is a warning, telling us that something needs our attention. Successful change efforts heed those signals and then choose paths to move beyond reacting defensively -- pathways towards the reality we DO want.

Successful efforts for change -- personal and social -- are built upon what is strong and fabulously human in all of us. Those efforts are built not upon our anger and reactiveness, but upon our capacity for bringing out the best in each other, our capacities for love and faith and friendship and love (worth saying twice). It's hard to refrain from quoting Dr. King here...

In this year of exploring my own anger, I am embracing those defensive sparks (ok, first I'm getting angry, but then I am embracing and learning from those sparks). They are leading me to ask those searing questions, to listen when I'm feeling unheard, to focus my energy, to step up and step out. Those sparks of anger are leading me to find my own best self.

And they are leading me to then ask those same questions beyond just me, to address the issues I care most about...

  • As societies and communities, what stories are we telling ourselves when we get angry?
  • What can we learn about ourselves from the patterns of our anger -- the things that get us angry, our responses, our justifications for responding in that way?
  • What is on the other side of our anger? What would we need to believe to be on that other side? What would we need to value, and what would those values look like in our actions?

And then lastly, and most importantly, what does that mean we will do?