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Swati Desai, Ph.D., LCSW

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To Be or Not to Be -- Angry!

Posted: 10/08/10 05:02 PM ET

Lately, I have felt a lot of anger and aggression in the air -- no need to list the reasons, just think about financial insecurity and the middle class. This irritable mood (sometimes fueled by depression) reflects in people being on the edge even in their personal lives, reflected in the increased calls to hotlines and to helping professionals. A common complaint is "I am not sure why but I feel so angry!"

I have come across two extremes on the anger spectrum: people who aspire to eliminating all types of anger from their expressions and people who feel self-righteous about their anger and defend the inevitability and the real value of anger. Then there are the rest of us, who go back and forth between feeling justified in our anger, acting out or suppressing its expression, occasionally regretting it, occasionally feeling triumphant, and yet frequently not sure whether to be angry or not to be angry!

Let us respectfully note that there are plenty of times when angry expression seems to offer an enticing answer to our pain and fear. This is why eliminating angry expressions does not make sense to most of us.

You yell at the AT&T service person about how you were given misinformation and you get a discount from your next phone bill. Anger can intimidate people into doing what we want. After breaking up in a dysfunctional relationship, what keeps you from going back is the anger against your partner's actions. Anger can give us the necessary distance. After repeated reminders to your kids on finishing homework before going on Facebook, the only thing that seems to keep them in line is to see you giving a very angry (just lost it!) threat of taking their computer away for the whole week. Anger can give quicker results than negotiations. You get justifiably angry against your spouse's controlling demands for keeping the apartment clean, and the one thing that seems to make them reduce their demands is the fear of your angry outburst. If not anger then it seems like we are condoning what went on. To express anything other than anger makes us look vulnerable and weak. Anger can make us feel powerful and in control. For fighting any injustice, obsessive anger is what makes ordinary people take action. It could be action against drunk driving, campaigning the use of plastic water bottles, starting support groups, promoting laws for appropriate punishment and prevention.Anger can be a powerful motivator for fighting wrongdoing.

Anger just seems to happen. Then we realize that expressing anger gives us a sense of relief, a feeling of clear thinking, and bravery that would not be possible without anger. Of course, when anger leads to random violence and abuse, then in the world we live in, we do not want to condone it. We have laws against such violent un-institutionalized expression of anger. So let us leave such "violent" cases aside.

Given all the above, why do we even have the question "To be or not to be angry?" Barring the "violent" cases, expressions of anger seems obviously useful and essential. Why even ask the question?

Here is what I think. Let us not get caught in answering the all-encompassing question of the need for anger. One thing seems clear: if we want good relationships with people, then the unfiltered expression of anger is a killer! If we think about our personal lives -- partners, kids, parents, friends -- angry expressions (angry tirades, outbursts, without any apologies) almost always seems more harmful than helpful. It creates distance (spouse would stop confiding), it pushes people away (your teenager will not communicate with you), it stops people from understanding your point (argument will lead nowhere), it exaggerates the negativity in a degree disproportionate to the trigger (you could feel uneasy about the things you said after your anger goes down), and it destroys any sense of safety. The clear thinking which we seem to feel when we are angry, does not remain very clear after the anger subsides. Anger is known for distorting our perception and destroying our intelligent instincts. Most importantly, holding anger and revenge is such a painful process that it leaves scars on us and anyone in our vicinity.

Here is what I suggest. Remember the two following messages combined from Viktor Frankl and Buddhist thinking. 1) In between the feeling of anger and the explosion of anger, there lies a moment. Stretching that moment is what gives us freedom from our own patterns! 2) Use this moment to observe your anger -- no suppress, no express, just simply observe -- no need for any immediate action. As you observe, allow yourself to decide if your anger is really fear or hurt. Decide the "why, how, and what purpose" for the angry explosion. Take action -- only after this.

Yes, to perfect this skill will require a long process of self-awareness and training of mind, but there is good news! If we simply understand these two messages, that itself will make an immediate difference in increasing the happiness level in our environment. While we are still under training, yes, there will be moments of impulsive anger. May we have the courage to hold compassion for the recipient and to say sorry if we regret our own words!

 

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