Anger has served humans well during evolution, and will continue to do so. In the quest for resources, humans often fail. In so doing they become hungry for success. The hungrier they get the angrier they get. The anger motivates to keep trying; to focus, endure, refocus, and endure even longer until success happens. In modern western society businesses compete against each other. Competition encourages aggression and those who succeed are those who channel their aggression successfully. We cannot negate anger, nor can we deny it, otherwise it becomes suppressed and it can spring upon us without warning causing us to do violent and terrible things.
When someone is angry it is their body telling them to do something. The trouble is people are not always sure what to do. All of a sudden there is an increased availability of energy to do things with. It is free energy, and as Johnny Rotten ex Sex Pistols once said in a song: “anger gives you energy”. The secret is how to make that energy work for you.
Definition of anger
Anger is physiologically detectable. When we feel anger adrenaline is secreted and our sympathetic nervous system is activated. Our body optimises resources in readiness for attack. An angry person has certain facial markers such as redness in the face, a glare in the eyes, a furrowed brow and pursed lips. In addition their body rises up and fists might be clenched. Most people can easily detect anger in another.
Benefits of this definition
The main event
Humans are a naturally aggressive species and coherent use of anger is an important part of our emotional repertoire. People who are able to successfully channel their anger and aggressiveness can lead productive and fulfilling lives. Those who fail to do so can become troublesome and costly members of society.
Before we go any further I need to define what what I mean by the word aggression in this presentation. Some sources, especially legal ones, tie aggression to actual instances of violence. We shall use the Mirriam Webster definition which is still more representative of common usage of the word. There are two meanings here:
- a forceful action or procedure (such as an unprovoked attack) especially when intended to dominate or master
- the practice of making attacks or encroachments, especially: unprovoked violation by one country of the territorial integrity of another
A person can look aggressive, a rugby team can play a game aggressively, a grizzly bear can rise up aggressively. The word aggression helps define a way in which adrenaline derived behaviours can be expressed that the word anger does not. The aggression does not need to lead to violence. Some aggression does lead to violence but the act of aggression should be conceived as being separate to the violence.
Anger has huge motivational properties that can stimulate people to go out and do things. Achievement requires a certain level of focus and determination. Whenever an obstacle is met a flight or fight response might be elicited. If the flight response is always activated then achievement will never occur. If the fight response is activated in enough quantity and in the right circumstances, then success is much more likely. Humans only succeed when they rise up to the challenge. Rising up is greatly enhanced by the presence of adrenaline driven behaviours.
On the flip side anger often leads to destructive behaviour, which not only prevents achievement but also creates additional negative consequences. A person who lashes out at their own personal failures and causes injury or death to others, not only fails personal targets but creates distress and damage to others. The destructive consequences of angry behaviour fill each news cycle with stories of murder, revenge, domestic violence and war. It is a newsworthy emotion.
Such expressions of anger may be coherent and the perpetrator may feel fulfilled in the expression of it but their actions would be judged as socially unacceptable and they may find themselves facing a court of law. Just because a person can express coherent emotion does not mean that their behaviour is socially fit and proper.
Other problems occur with anger when a person can no longer express it coherently and the emotional energy becomes suppressed. Such people may experience depression or other psychological disorder associated with the stored emotion or lack of self-expression such as learned helplessness.
Anger has characteristics that make is suitable for processing and channelling.
As previously described, anger provides motivation to do things. This can be harnessed and channelled into positive outcomes. People who habitually use their very coherent anger to destroy their own and other people's opportunities can be taught to use their energy differently and channel it into constructive pursuits. Sports, business ventures, hobbies, all sorts of things can be used to channel aggressive behaviour. Similarly those with repressed anger can be encouraged to tease out their stored rage into changing the way they use their body, their voice, their posture.
I used to consider myself the angriest person on the planet. When I got angry I used to channel it into my voice, possibly to the detriment of the neighbours’ peaceful enjoyment. I used the energy to expand my vocal apparatus, which includes the chest, nasal and neck cavities. Without damaging my voice I would work it hard and long until I was satisfied I could do things I couldn’t previously do.
Challenge to audience
Humans are a naturally aggressive species and we can learn to channel that anger into constructive outcomes. We should understand our anger better so that we can learn to live with it and harness it better.
References and further reading