In Defense of Anger

How often do you suppose that someone with a broad smile on his face is told that they need to learn to “control” their emotions? Do you think people who smile at everyone are ever told that the world is full of bad things happening to good people, and that a constant smile may be encroaching on those who are unhappy for a justifiable reason today? How many times have you encountered someone who started laughing to himself and thought, “if he can be laughing at nothing now, he is bound to laugh at me and my pain” ?

As with almost every human based scenario that can be imagined, this one has probably happened to someone, somewhere on the earth. Yet I will be bold enough to assume that most of you would find the situation described above as silly at best, ridiculous at worst.

Now let’s change things up a bit, while keeping the same premise in tact.

How often do you suppose that someone who yells out loud at something which bothers them is told that they need to “control” their emotions? Do you think people who scowl and seethe at everyone are ever told that the world is full of kind, wonderful things, and that their anger is likely encroaching on someone’s ability to maintain a positive outlook on their day? How many times have you encountered someone who in frustration kicked a piece of debris across the street, or maybe slammed his fist down onto a table and thought, “my god, if he can get angry enough to pound his fist onto furniture, he can certainly get angry enough to pound his fists into me” ?

You may or may not identify with the second scenario either. But I bet it sounds less “out there” to you. Not as contrived. More socially acceptable. And I imagine quite a bit of you would agree with the second set of statements, despite the fact that they are in most ways the same as the first set of statements. With one difference that should be obvious by now; in the first scenario, the subject is happy and in the second the subject is angry. In both cases, an emotion is involved, though according to most, only one needs to be “controlled”.

We live in a society which is conditioned to believe that anger is a negative emotion. That it serves no purpose, is destructive, and makes us want to be further away from the angered. We even threaten those that are angry with, “if you don’t stop being angry, I am going to leave”. We don’t tell people they are too happy to be worth our time. (Though in the interest of full disclosure, I have come close with a few people.)

It is ironic that in such an angry society we find it not only acceptable, but perhaps expected that we “fight” against anger. Flatten it. Avoid those who dare express the trait, and measure our maturity in terms of how often we get angry. As though the very definition of immaturity is to feel anger.

Over the years I have been the target over and over again of people who do not approve of my getting angry at something.  I do not express or even feel anger now as much as I did ten years ago, but if you are to believe the sanctimonious among us, I still get angry way more often than I should by virtue of the fact that I ever do so to a degree that people are able to detect it.

Why do we do this? Years of hearing it have led me to a few conclusions, and probably all of them apply to a degree, though it depends on the person eschewing anger at any given moment. At any rate, three big ones come to mind.

The first is simple fear. Somebody is angry…are they gonna kill me?

Then I think anger is a buzz-kill to many people. Somehow they have over the course of their lives brainwashed themselves into thinking that life is so grand, there need never be a reason to express anger about anything. It’s either part of “God’s Plan”, or “That’s Life”. Either way, they have established a personal psychology which, like a house of cards can collapse in short order if they have to interact with someone who is angry, even if they are not the target of said anger. This to me is a better example of immaturity.

Then we have the “anger as destruction” crowd. To them, anger destroys the spirit. It lowers the level of energy in the room to darker levels. Brings bad karma, signifies attachment, or whatever term you wish to use. By not being angry, such people argue, you are pushing yourself towards an evolution of the spirit. This denial of baser reactions strengthens you for some kind of enlightenment. (This one tends to ignore the many examples of spiritual leaders becoming angry at some point over their life stories.) For such people anger is an excluding force that replaces all emotion or thought patterns within consciousness. Anger, even if it does not start out so, will, by necessity, grow into an all consuming fire that will suck the air out of the person and all of their relationships. As though one who is angry is incapable of also feeling love at the same time. As if anger and self-control are mutually exclusive.

To an extent all of these reasons for hating anger assume that the default state of our existence should be happiness. That anything which deviates from happiness and contentment in unnatural. And while it makes perfect sense to want to spend most of one’s time being content, does it make as much sense to conclude that the infinite experience of being human has one fixed point to which we all are to pin our existence? That there can be but one fulcrum for the pendulum of our lives, and that fulcrum is calm happiness?

Many have argued with me that it is not anger per se, but the manner in which people express anger that is unacceptable. That it is the yelling, the cursing, the throwing of objects that brands someone as “immature”, “out of control” or “dangerous”. And yes, if you go around beating people up when they make you angry, you need help. However, too often people leap to that conclusion with no evidence to support the charge. Such as the table pounding situation.

I know women who have broken up with men simply because they slap a table in anger. Because the next time, “it could be my head“. Really? Someone passionate who vents by banging a table, or tossing the blender that has broken down for the 15th time out into the backyard is de facto guilty of being a future abusive boyfriend? There is no difference at all between grabbing you during an argument, and grabbing, say, a pillow? You want to talk immaturity?

Yet anger remains an easy tool for instant indictment. Neighbors hear a man yelling in the next apartment, it has to be domestic abuse. Not that perhaps he is weary of being cheated on, or trying to get through to his wife that her drug problem is ruining their marriage. The voice was loud, he was angry, and so, it was the wrong thing to do. Just the very nature of being aware that someone was angry negates any and all justifications for actually being angry, because justified anger can only ever be quiet, hidden anger. Only when we bottle it up and keep it to ourselves are we even approaching the so called “correct” way to handle an emotion that ideally we shouldn’t be feeling at all.

It works in so many cases, because you can point directly to the things that the babies inside of us squirm about…loud noises, passion, the possibility that the world may not be fairy land, and that we may at some point have actually done something to hurt someone else. We assume the loudest and angriest is probably the guiltiest in any confrontation, because it takes extra work and depth to look into the actual details of a situation, and we don’t want to go there.

Even those who feel anger is destructive don’t go there. How often does someone like that ask, “why are you angry” instead of telling someone to not be angry? If you feel that anger is destroying someone, do you attempt to save them somehow, or do you say, “Dude, you harsh my mellow, I would really prefer we not hang out anymore.” Helpful.

Then there is the great hypocrisy among many “anti-angry” folks. Many have that one subject, or that one situation wherein not only will they allow themselves to get very angry, but actually pride themselves on it. As though they had the sole definition in the universe for “acceptable anger”. (Many mothers posses this quality; to them, anger pertaining to the treatment of their children is acceptable, and even commendable.)

A person can be too angry, too often, and express it in ways that are too extreme. But you know what? One can be too happy, too often as well. One can be calm to the point of extreme. The way people express their contentment with their lives can also be disruptive to other people, and destructive to themselves. Yet excess of those emotions carry a far smaller stigma than excess of the so called “negative” ones. And to be frank, that makes me a little angry.

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5 Comments

  1. I'm a card-carrying member of the 'anger is destructive why waste your time with it' camp. 🙂 I don't know that it's any amount of societal conditioning that's made me this way. That is to say, I don't think I'm this way because anyone taught or ingrained in me the concept that anger is destructive and is something that should be controlled. But I suppose I did learn it, simply by observing my own environment growing up, where anger was always destructive and only ever bred more anger – it never resolved problems or paved the way for compromise. Ever. So maybe that's part of the reason why I grew up being so chill and easy-going. I'm probably the most confrontation-averse person I've ever met. But I'm happy this way, and it's served me well over the years. If I speak out about someone's expression of anger, it's usually when the expression is especially explosive and seems disproportionate to the inciting incident. When I tell my husband or my best friend to chill, what good are you doing yourself by getting so pissed off about something out of your control, it's not necessarily because I think they're wrong or immature for expressing their anger visibly. It's just me genuinely not understanding why or how anyone would want to embrace that type of energy. But we've had the “choice” discussion already 😉

    I did want to address the domestic violence issue a bit. Maybe it seems ridiculous and far-fetched to you, because for you there's a huge leap from banging your fist on a table and physically striking another person. But it's not such a leap for abusers. And maybe I'm just sensitive about after working with DV victims. Explosive anger like that can be a scare tactic, to keep the victim under control, so to speak, without actually hitting. It's a complicated dynamic. True, it's not exactly fair to paint all men with that brush because of some, but really… should a woman take that chance? And as a man who knows that these things happens and knows how those actions may be perceived, why *isn't* it good/better/the right thing to change that behavior in yourself accordingly?

    Sorry, I'll get off my high horse now 🙂 You just always post things that make me think and want to speak.

  2. Oh yeah (because my first comment wasn't long enough, right? lol) I also wanted to say that I have been made fun of for being happy and smiling all the time. Some people point it out as a positive, and some people attempt to point it out as a positive, yet I get the distinct sense that they mean it as a slight dig. So it goes both ways. I don't suppose anyone has avoided me for being too happy (though I don't really know) but if someone wants to avoid me because of something I have no intention of changing,then… oh well. Too bad for them.

  3. Thanks for your thoughts. I guess to me everything has two sides. Part of the natural balance of things, whether it be society or someone's soul. And that ignoring or castigating those who get angry is a bit like denying part of the whole.

    I'll also admit to finding the whole “I'm afraid he'll hit me” thing to be among the most puzzling, in this day and age of empowered women. I can't quite meld the notion of women both wanting to be seen and treated professionally and socially in the same manner as men after all these years, yet still feeling in an instant that she is going to be battered when a man raises his voice. I mean, that is what a lot of people do when they are angry…should a woman seeking to be treated like everyone else expect a man who yells to tone it down because as a woman, she is intrinsically more likely to suddenly feel threatened?

    I also wonder how many women, in the presence of another woman who is yelling and screaming feel that their safety is suddenly threatened. Because I dare say that if it is only a “man thing”, that is exactly what the nature of the problem is.

    Which is why I don't accept flat out the notion of “changing myself”, because in that context it is almost like saying I need to change something about myself, just because I am a man, which would otherwise be acceptable and no threat if I were a woman, and to me, that isn't fair to anyone.

  4. Oh Ty… are you trying to coax the claws out of me? lol I don't think anyone expects you (or anybody else) to repress every last shred of anger as though it doesn't exist. That's not realistic. Hell, even I get angry (*gasp!* the horror!)

    I have to say, I'm a little bit offended by your implication that it is somehow un-feminist for a woman to experience fear or even just a bit of hesitation when a man's anger manifests physically (even if directed at an inanimate object). Fear is not any more of a choice than anger. If anything, it says a lot for female empowerment that a woman can see an undesirable trait in a man and kick him to the curb, saying “I'm not going to wait to see if escalates any farther because I'm better than that, I'm worth more than that, and if he isn't willing to compromise with me on this, I'll find someone who is.” The simple truth is that social equity has nothing to do with the fact that most men are still physically larger/more powerful than most women, and most spousal abuse is male against female, and most abusers don't start out hitting a woman on the first date – it starts with small things and escalates from there, so women have to decide for themselves where they draw the line to head off the cycle.

    As for fearing a woman who expresses anger in the way you describe, I say it depends on the woman. Is it my mom? Then hell yes I'm afraid haha. But honestly, I don't see as many women expressing anger this way. Yes, they get angry, but many (I daresay most) don't go around punching tables or anything like that. And that's likely a societal pressure, too. We're conditioned (not always purposely, and sometimes on a subconscious level) that “ladies don't behave that way.” And anyway, like I said before, if a woman's anger manifests physically, I'd probably be less afraid only because I could probably kick her ass 😉 A 6-foot 250-lb man… maybe not so much.

    The discussion of anger (how to express it, what's unreasonable, how much is too much), especially in the context of potential domestic violence, isn't an affront to you personally, or to men in general. Nor is it, in my opinion, some kind of reverse sexism or feminist shortcoming. I mean, I don't *think* you're basically telling women to just “deal with it” in the name of feminism, right?

    I'm not telling you to change anything about yourself unless you want to. It's your choice, and any time you change something about yourself it should be for your own personal growth (that you want for yourself) and not because of anyone or anything else. But that doesn't mean there won't be occasions where we look at something within us and think “hm, maybe that should change.” And if you're going to rally against constraints/attitudes that you admit are currently the majority, it should come as no surprise that you'll then be part of a minority opinion.

  5. No, I am not trying to coax any claws. (Unless that is some kind of sexual thing?)

    Nor am I honestly trying to tie it into feminism per se. I see where one could make feminist or non-feminist statements based on what I have written here, but it is nothing quite so political as that.

    I mean to suggest in the end, that snap judgement about someone's overall worthiness of being loved are wrong. I have made the same point to you about judging a man to be lazy because he is unemployed or under employed. This incessant need to deny the nature of people because of the preconceptions we have about that nature.

    Because then, when does it end with anger? You don't hit someone, (man or woman). True. You don't threaten to do same. Okay. You don't ever raise your voice to someone…that's on the fence with me.

    But when the anger is not even directed at the person, and has nothing to do with them…the idea that somebody can't go out in the backyard and throw a few rocks at the trees? Kick a few cans around? Should he not even be allowed to do that in his own backyard? You say he doesn't have to do it. Maybe or maybe not for some people. But I say his partner doesn't have to follow him out to the backyard, watch him throw stuff in anger about his job, and THEN opt to be scared that he is going to hurt somebody.

    In other words, if you can't be with somebody who is being natural, at least let them be who they are on their own without your support in bad times.

    Also, you mention fear being unavoidable. Perhaps it is and perhaps it is not. I will go only so far as to say though, that if the fear response is just inbuilt and unavoidable in some people, so is the response to express anger. I don't think we can start splitting hairs about which emotion is “legit” and which is not. Hence the thesis of my post.

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