When’s the last time you were angry?
How did it feel?
For many people, anger feels very intense and can be accompanied by an increase in temperature, a quickening heartbeat, a racing mind.
When you’re angry, your oxygen intake goes up and your adrenal glands release cortisol and adrenaline.
You may have heard of “fight or flight” responses. I tend to think of anger as the fight response to a perceived threat, whereas on the other side of the coin, anxiety (or fear) is the flight response.
Note that I’m talking about anger very clinically right now because even though it’s a very loaded emotion, it’s still just a sensation in your body. It’s not inherently good or bad.
Do you believe that?
There is no moral component to anger or any other emotion for that matter.
There is only the question of whether an emotion is useful or not useful to you.
That’s the lens that I’d like you to apply to your anger right now.
It’s difficult to do.
Many of us have been conditioned to view anger in a certain way, so it can be confusing to explore our thoughts about anger. It’s possible that you don’t even know when you’re angry!
Many of us live in societies where men are socialized to express their negative emotions through anger. Women are socialized to express them through anxiety or sadness, which can make it tricky to identify anger.
These are broad generalizations, but it’s important to realize that you may have some unexamined thoughts around anger that impact the way you experience it and view it.
But what if you were to strip all that away from your anger?
What if you were able to look at the thoughts causing your anger and decide whether they’re helpful to you?
Anger can be challenging to explore because it comes out in a hot flash and it feels so sudden…but if you pay attention, you can see patterns in the thoughts that cause anger for you.
The next time you feel angry, get curious. Ask yourself what thoughts you had that may have led to the anger. Anger can be uncomfortable to sit with, especially for women, so it’s important not to accept “I don’t know” as an answer, or shame yourself for getting angry.
The irony of anger is that because it is such a physically strong emotion it can trick us into thinking it is making us powerful.
But when we cannot think clearly or make conscious decisions, we actually are *less* powerful. That’s why we so often regret the actions we take in anger, because they don’t align with how we actually want to behave when we are thinking clearly.
As you start to explore what thoughts lead to anger for you and whether these thoughts are helpful to you or not, it’s important not to equate correlation with causation. By which I mean, anger can sometimes happen in proximity to positive action, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it leads to positive action for you.
For example, I often hear people say things like “It’s important to be angry about sexism so we do something about it.” Or that “anger is important in identifying injustice.”
If people get angry about misogyny in politics, and they attend a protest, they may think that they’re attending the protest because of their anger.
But that’s because we’re taught that negative emotion leads to positive action, and I don’t find that to be true.
Usually what motivates us to take positive action is our hope that things can be different and that our actions matter and can change things. In my experience, negative emotions like anger on their own don’t tend to lead to positive action.
If you attend a protest, usually you are doing so in part because you either have hope that doing so may help change things, or you have a belief that it’s important to stand up for your rights whether or not they lead to change. It’s those thoughts that lead to positive emotions which then lead to action.
As another example, let’s explore what might happen if a coworker makes a sexist comment to you in a meeting.
Let’s say you get angry – your face is hot, your heart beats fast, your muscles tense.
Now, what do you do?
Maybe you snap something at them before you think through what you want to say.
Or run out of the room in tears.
Or sit quietly and fume.
Maybe then you obsess over your actions and experience negative thoughts about yourself, such as “that thing I said was so stupid” or “everyone will think I’m weak for crying in the meeting” or “I’m a bad feminist for not speaking up.” These thoughts may lead to shame or guilt, which could translate into anxiety or negative actions such as avoidance (maybe you avoid that coworker and plan your projects around whether they’ll be involved), or buffering (maybe you get home and drink a bottle of wine to try to quiet the self-critical thoughts).
But let’s imagine an alternate option: What if you could register the comment, feel calm, decide on purpose if you truly believed the comment was sexist and whether you wanted to say something about it? You could weigh your options, think strategically, and act accordingly.
Sounds like a dream, right? But maybe only achievable by replacing your brain with a robot’s brain?
I promise, being able to choose how to think and feel doesn’t mean you are uncaring or cold or dispassionate.
Look at me: I’m extremely passionate about women’s equality.
And I know that part of my own empowerment is keeping cool so I can think and feel the way I choose, rather than being reactive and experiencing my thoughts and emotions as being beyond my control.
You don’t need anger to alert you that something is going against your values.
Your thoughts are what do that. Your values are determined by your brain. So your thoughts can tell you whether something is in contradiction with your values without you needing a physiological response in your body to inform you.
Anger isn’t an essential part of any of that.
The same is true in your personal relationships – feeling angry at your partner or your child isn’t necessary in deciding how you want to parent, or how you want to “relationship” for that matter.
There’s nothing wrong anger; like any other emotion, it’s going to happen sometimes, depending on what we’re thinking.
But as with any other emotion, it’s helpful to get curious. Does your anger empower you? Does it allow you to think and feel the way you choose? Or does it lead to avoidance, feelings of helplessness, and buffering?
If you learn to change the thoughts that lead to anger for you, you may actually find that you have more energy and drive to enact change in the world.
To learn more about how your anger is impacting you, ask yourself:
- Is this thought helpful for me?
- Is it creating a feeling I want to have?
- How is that feeling making me act?
- Do I like the action I’m taking?
- What results am I getting when you take that action?
- Do I like those results?
When you strip away the social conditioning and ask yourself these questions, you’ll learn whether or not your anger is serving you.