If you look around at the world today or spend any time on social media, you’ll see a lot of things to be angry about. If you don’t see anything that makes you angry yourself, you’ll still be hard-pressed not to lay eyes on more than a few angry people. There’s an unending litany of horrible events being presented to us to garner our rage because it keeps us interested — it focuses our attention while simultaneously distorting it, like looking through the rounded bottom of a semi-opaque plastic cup; anger presents tunnel vision as a symptom and that keeps us glued to our screens. It keeps us clicking.
Most people don’t stop to consider their anger. They pause to think about the things that make them angry, with alarming frequency (and volume) — but they’re not stopping to consider what purpose it serves. They’re not spending time deciding if their anger is serving or hurting them. There are reasons for this. For most people, anger feels good — it releases adrenaline and dopamine. Anything that feels good, we tend to assume is good for us — but I’m here to posit that anger has one and only one valid purpose. Using it for anything other than what it was evolutionarily intended for is harmful to you and everyone around you.
I find nature to be one of the greatest teachers. Spend some time watching any wild momma bear with a couple of their children and you’ll see them snap at their cubs when they misbehave. But that’s it, that’s the extent of it. One quick snap or nip, then it's released. It’s not even clear that they are angry because they don’t hold on to it. An animal doesn’t identify with its emotions, because it has no sense of self — it doesn’t think “I am angry” which perpetuates the anger.
She has the anger for as long as it’s useful, but she isn’t the anger, she doesn’t become what she feels.
For wild creatures an emotion is a rain-cloud passing overhead — you can’t make it go away, but you can’t hold on to it either.
What do these momma bears nip at their kids for? For hurting them or for doing something that might hurt themselves. This coincides with the only other time you’ll see a wild animal look angry — when they’re confronted with a threat to their physical well-being. Go ahead and tell your dog they’re ugly. See if they care. Your beta fish might get angry when it sees something prettier than it within its environment — but even this is indirectly protecting its offspring. Anything prettier than it is a legitimate threat to its chance of reproducing.
Now stop and look at the last time you watched a friend rage in the comments on Facebook (or the last time you did it yourself). What were they protecting? The only correct answer is something intangible. They were protecting their sense of self, one of their beliefs, or an idea. Did their anger help? Did it convince anyone to change their opinion? I’d bet cash-money that the answer is no. Their anger depleted any value behind their words and made it harder to take them seriously.
Your anger only feels good for you.
It’s unpleasant to experience for anyone else and if you’re not expressing it in person it makes your thoughts much more enjoyable to just ignore.
Your angry fits in person are not doing you any favours either. They’re harder to ignore and much more unpleasant than reading all-caps text on a screen. I know this for certain as I currently work in customer service, spending my days answering billing questions for a Canadian cell-phone company on social media. People here are rarely happy about their cell-phone bills. But I’d rather deal with the rage over Facebook and Twitter than ever go back to taking calls on the phone about it.
If you’re repeatedly using your anger on your partner or your family for the little things — forgetting to feed the fish, not putting the toilet paper on the roller — you are both weakening the effect and usefulness of your anger in conveying how you feel and building the recipient’s resentment towards you. Why should it matter if you’re angry when you’re angry all the time? They may stop forgetting to feed the fish in the morning after you rage at them for an hour about it. They’ll also hate you a little bit every time they feed those fish, though.
I didn’t learn this the easy way. I had to go into weekly anger management sessions with a counsellor as a kid to avoid being sent to one of those Scared Straight boot camps my mom loved watching on Maury. I was angry and violent with my younger brother too often for minor annoyances. I wouldn’t just yell, I’d hit him for the stupidest things. I feel bad about it now, in brief moments, daily. I would still feel a deep and overwhelming rage all the time, but after my first anger management class, I never hit him again. I don’t remember another occasion where I even yelled.
A lot of my opinion on this topic was formed by my fundamentalist Christian upbringing (very past tense, if you’re not religious don’t leave yet), and Jesus’ wonderful idea described in Matthew 5: 38–39 of turning the other cheek.
38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’39 But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.
I disagree with huge chunks of the bible these days, and even these verses could be problematic, but like many things, it is improved if you look at it in context. In our modern age, if somebody slaps you across the face, most people would call that assault. Back in Jesus’ day a slap across the face was a standard-issue insult, though, like Shakespeare’s bitten thumb or spitting on someone’s feet in present-day New York. It wasn’t a big deal, it was just annoying. Turning the other cheek wasn’t masochistic it was just cool. It was posting your own photo on r/RoastMe. Being able to laugh at yourself.
You might prefer the Buddhist expression,
“Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one who gets burned.”
They also say,
“You will not be punished for your anger, you will be punished by your anger.”
These get to the root of it. Used for the wrong purposes, your anger will only hurt you. It’s drinking poison yourself and expecting the other person to die. True anger briefly experienced is unavoidable but try and be aware of why you’re experiencing the anger. When you notice yourself becoming angry try and unearth what you’re trying to protect. For this is the purpose of anger and the only valid reason to be angry — to protect something you love.
Are you trying to protect your self-image? Then let it go. Your self-image doesn’t exist, you might not even exist. To the extent that it does exist, I promise you shouldn’t love it. It’s a bunch of stories you tell about yourself that likely aren’t helping you and could never capture the vastness of your every human moment and the eternal wavering dance between certainty and doubt. When you think of yourself five years ago, do you feel pride, or do you cringe internally like the rest of us? Why waste anger defending a person who five years from now you’d rather pretend didn’t exist?
Do you find yourself boiling inside when you’re waiting in line? This is you trying to protect your time, but more accurately, it’s the gap between expectation and reality. First, ask yourself which is easier for you to control, your expectations or your external surroundings? The answer should be obvious. Second, ask yourself, is your anger making the line move faster? No. Nothing is going to make the line move faster short of the three people in front of you experiencing a synchronized bathroom-related emergency. I guarantee that holding on to your anger will make every second you wait feel three times as long though.
So next time you feel yourself getting angry and you start typing up that response on Facebook seeing the text as red, remember the momma bear and her cub. She’ll get on her hind legs, stick her fur up on end and roar if you get between her cubs and her. She doesn’t get mad at her cubs for being dumb though — that’s what cubs are supposed to do. She’ll snap if they hurt her, or if they’re about to hurt themselves, and then she’ll let it go. Nobody saying anything on Facebook is ever a threat to you or your loved one’s personal safety. If they’re starting a lynch mob in person, then go to the lynch mob and give it your mean momma bear best. Tear them to pieces. Commenting angrily on their status though will a.) never change their mind and b.) just make Facebook show it to more people.
If you want to work on your anger, here’s my advice.
Buddha was asked, “What have you gained from meditation?” He replied, “Nothing! However. Buddha said, let me tell you what I lost: Anger, Anxiety, Depression, Insecurity, Fear of Old age and Death.”
Try and talk to yourself about your emotions differently. What will really help with this sort of self-talk and internal awareness is practicing meditation.
You are not your anger, you aren’t angry. You’re experiencing anger, you just have it for a minute.
It’s a fleeting house guest and it’s not a welcome one. Try and watch yourself be angry instead of engaging with the anger, surf it like an emotional wave from rising to crest to absorption back into the vast and formless feelings-ocean.
Have you had problems with anger? Let me know your tips for taming your temper in the comments below.