What is anger?
The anger response is a natural part of being human. The original purpose of anger, way back in the development of humans as a species, was to get us ready to fight, so it increases our heart rate and blood pressure to speed up the flow of blood to our muscles; it also sharpens our senses and makes more adrenalin. So we get really ‘pumped up’ and bursting to do something physical. Then, because the ‘fight or flight’ choice had to be instant, the mechanism helps us reduce complex circumstances to simple ‘safe/unsafe’ terms. That means that to this day we ignore any information we don’t see in that second as relevant.
So, when angry, we tend not to ask ourselves why someone has done such-and-such, often leaping to conclusions and failing to consider all the angles. This means that events can spiral out of control very quickly, and there’s a higher risk of irrational decisions, over-reaction and instinctive aggression. That’s why one of the most useful things to do is to buy time/create space, before disagreement or confrontation reaches flashpoint.
Are anger and aggression the same thing?
No. Anger is an emotion. Aggression is a type of behaviour. You can be very angry without showing aggressive behaviour. Some people go unnaturally quiet when they get really angry. Aggressive behaviour is often what an angry person does in order to vent their anger, even though it doesn’t usually address what they’re really angry about. It’s rarely useful outside a combat zone and certain sports arenas, so should not be tolerated in the home or workplace. (You might like to look at the topic on Violence and Aggression.)
Is anger a bad thing?
Not necessarily: anger can be a good thing if properly channelled to a positive end. It is a perfectly natural emotion, and a powerful source of energy. You can use it to fire yourself up to achieve the impossible – or at least achieve a stretching goal, overcome injustice or right a wrong. Managed anger can help us get the outcome we really want. (There’s some great material on this in the topic on Personal Energy.) But anger’s a bit like fire – if you don’t control it, it can destroy everything. It can ruin or shorten relationships, your career, or even your life. The trick is to practise using it to best effect. Once you know how to stop blowing up, you might like to practise Assertiveness and Nonviolent communications.
Anger is not actually an instantaneous reaction to external provocation. It’s our choice. The moment of choice may only last a split second, but, with practice, you can extend that moment, to make the most of it and use your angry energy in the way most likely to achieve what you want. You can easily learn how. You need to create space to manage your own anger – to relax the tension and think out how best to achieve what you want; get a wider perspective; stick to the point you want to make; genuinely listen to responses, and always be prepared walk away if need be. (See also the topic on Emotional Intelligence.)
Managing or channelling your anger can be literally life– and career-saving. Chronic anger is linked with many physical ailments, some of which are life-shortening. It can also get in the way of peak performance and even cost you your job. This is because it can alienate those around you, lose you allies and increase your chances of being accused of bullying, harassment or other unacceptable behaviour.
So should I learn to suppress my anger?
Note that managing/channelling anger is not the same as suppressing it. Suppressing anger is just pretending it’s not there. That can lead to all sorts of negative results, such as eventual outbursts of disproportionate rage or long-term health issues, ranging from more frequent colds to heart attacks. So sitting on your anger will eventually turn it in on you, making you miserable, probably increasing your stress levels, and possibly shortening your life.
Managing anger is acknowledging its presence, taking action to control it, diverting it to useful ends, and practising ways of safely venting the associated adrenaline.
Should I let it out?
Although simply letting your anger out can seem like a good thing, the latest thinking is that this can feed the furnace and lead to wild outbursts of towering rage. It can also get in the way of peak performance and even cost you your job. This is because it can alienate those around you, lose you allies and increase your chances of ending up in tribunal or losing your job. Instead, channel your anger into useful outlets.
Anger versus confrontation
To some people, anger and confrontation are virtually the same, and confrontation is therefore to be avoided. In reality, whether that is true or not depends on what you mean by confrontation. Confronting inappropriate behaviour or language is generally to be applauded. There are, of course, more and less effective ways of doing that, and you might like to look at the topic on Difficult People and on Nonviolent Communication for tips and ideas. If, however, you see an assertive exchange of views in which each party respects the rights and views of the other(s) as an angry confrontation, you might like to look at the topics on NLP, Confidence, Assertiveness, Listening Skills and Negotiation.