Why we shouldn’t get angry – even about injustice

by on 6th April 2018
Why we shouldn’t get angry – even about injustice

Extract from The Anger Fallacy: Uncovering the Irrationality of the Angry Mindset

On a given day, your average man or woman will get angry once and annoyed several times. We say ‘man or woman’ by the way, because women get angry just as often as men, and just as intensely. They even get angry about very similar things, on the whole. The only gender differences that have ever been established over many studies and surveys are that in the heat of anger men are more violent, and women cry more.

Anger itself is a noxious feeling state — few would deny that. All along the spectrum, from barely noticeable finger-tapping impatience, through eye-rolling annoyance, all the way to door slamming rage, anger is an unpleasant feeling. As a colleague of ours likes to say, no one hopes to wake up angry.

And when most episodes have passed, the feelings we’re left with aren’t much better. Benjamin Franklin once quipped that ‘whatever is begun in anger ends in shame’. It turns out he was actually somewhat understating the case. The psychologists R. ChipTafrate, Howard Kassinove and Louis Dundin, in a 2002 study, examined the emotions people reported feeling immediately after an anger episode. Straight after the incident had passed, 44% of the sample reported feeling still irritated or annoyed; 34% said they felt depressed, 30% disgusted, 27% sad, 24% concerned, 23% guilty or ashamed, and 19% foolish. On the positive end, 23% of the sample reported feelingrelieved. As for satisfied, happy, triumphant or joyous, these were ticked by only 9%, 5%, 4% and 1% of the sample respectively. So it’s safe to say that after an anger episode, most people are feeling something negative—if not still annoyed, then probably sad or appalled or guilty about what happened. The only positive emotion they’re likely to be feeling is relief: ‘Thank god that’s over …’

And yet (and this is where anger is so unique), despite all this, people seem to cherish and cling to their anger. Among the negative emotions (like fear, sadness, guilt or disgust), anger has been shown to be the one people least want to reduce or control when they are feeling it, and the one theymostwish to verbalise or express.

When we discuss the emotion with clients or friends, it becomes clear many of them like their anger, or think it’s useful to get angry. This comes as no surprise. We live inan era where you can log onto Facebook and join the ‘I Dont Need Anger Management, You Just Need To Stop Pissin Me Off !!’ club. Where a popular Internet poster reads:Why is ‘Patience’ a virtue? Why can’t ‘Hurry the f*ck up’ be a virtue? An era many are describing as the Age of Entitlement. So an anger management book like this has two tasks essentially: First to convince you that reducing your anger is a good idea, and secondly to actually reduce it.

Oh, but we can hear you objecting: "Surely a little anger’s normal and appropriate sometimes?”

‘Normal’ and ‘appropriate’, perhaps, on occasion; but almost neverhelpful. Our aim is not to help you cultivate ‘normal’ prejudices, typical hang-ups, or average levels of intolerance. We are going for something, we dare say, a little more ambitious.

This book represents a path to greater peace of mind and functioning, not merely a guidebook to conformity.

Few would disagree that it’s annoying to be made to wait 11 minutes for an espresso. We say such annoyance is perhaps typical, but to not let it bother you, to look and understand, to be unfettered by angry, nasty thoughts and fully focused on more important things — be it your newspaper, your child, your day’s activities — that’s better still. We say the man sitting calmly with his paper is one up on the everyman jiggling his knee in impatience, albeit moderate, understandable impatience. Similarly, most readers will probably think it perfectly ‘normal’ for a man to be angry if he walks in on his wife engaged in vigorous acts of loving-kindness with the mailman; in fact, in most western countries, such anger is deemed so ‘appropriate’ that we’ll carve off half your sentence if you take a knife and stab them both, just so long as you do it in anger. Our focus is more on rising above the herd than on being just another average angry person.

Aristotle famously wrote:

Anybody can become angry, that is easy; but to be angry with the right person, and to the right degree, and at the right time, and for the right purpose, and in the right way — that is not within everybody’s power; that is not easy.

A lot of people nod their head at this quote, and every second anger-management book uses it. Of course on the surface it seems hard to disagree with it, as it is essentially saying ‘we should strive to be angry in the right way not the wrong way’. But it does raise a serious question: what is the ‘right’ way to be angry? In fact, what does ‘right’ even mean here?

If it means ‘culturally appropriate’ or ‘socially sanctioned’, then that would depend entirely which culture or subculture we were referencing and at what time in history. In some cultures, stoning a woman to death for adultery is the ‘right’ degree and way. We suspect Aristotle, whether he knew it or not, when he wrote ‘right’ meant ‘normal within the higher circles of Greek society circa 320 BC’. This would notably have involved approving anger at slaves for not pulling their weight, for example. Culture prescribes, loosely, whom to be angry at, how to express it, and what things you are to consider ‘right or wrong’. But we’re not trying to teach readers their culture’s particular version of how, where and at whom to be angry — that would just produce culturally normal angry readers; that is, French waiters peeved at Brits who can’t pronounce ‘croissant’ and African tribal elders angry at sons with only 2 wives.

We are interpreting ‘right’ to mean, ‘in the individual’s best interests’ or ‘most likely to make you happy’. We can then operationalise anger’s right time and place and degree as never and nowhere and nil, with these rare exceptions:

  • unskilled physical fighting
  • unskilled method-acting of angry scenes
  • one-time negotiations with ‘weaker’ opponents with whom a relationship is unimportant, and provided they have no opportunity for deceit or revenge and that any onlookers you may have future dealings with won’t think less of you because of it, including yourself

But anger is natural; we’ve evolved to feel angry; it’s part of being human. Proponents of anger often allude to evolution as a justification for anger. Anger, they argue, is a hardwired biological emotion and everything we have been hardwired with must be optimal for our survival.

Actually both of these assumptions are dubious. As humans we are all capable of anger, and genetically some individuals may be more predisposed to it than others, but there is no gene for hating people talking audibly on their mobile phones on buses. In other words, the neurological apparatus of anger may well be hardwired in humans; but its activation at any time is based on cognitions, which are learnt.

Secondly, not everything that once made us fitter (for survival and reproduction) still makes us fitter. Anger readies the organism for physical fighting: It’s not for nothing that in moments of rage testosterone and adrenaline course through your veins, your heart pounds, your muscles tense, and blood pools in the thighs and other major muscle groups. You are geared to fight. In a time before language, before laws, before civilised societies as we know them, fighting was no doubt a frequent and crucial part of daily existence (of early homosapiens). In that context, angrier individuals may have dominated calmer or more tolerant ones: they were quicker to dispute resources or status, keener to fight, and hormonally supercharged if a fight ever eventuated. Not surprisingly, anger literally bullied its way into the gene pool.

The thing is, what was once adaptive is no longer necessarily adaptive today. We just don’t physically fight that much anymore, especially as adults. In prisons, in gangland, or in rougher neighbourhoods, this may arguably still be the case today, but think honestly: how many times in your life have you gotten into a genuine fistfight? And how many of those times were after the age of 18? We’re guessing very few. For our parts, we can think of no more than about half a dozen fights in our lives combined, none of which occurred in adulthood. Our next question is this: Have any of your fights been ‘adaptive’; that is, instrumental in securing status (e.g., ‘cred’ in your group, or dominance over someone) or resources (e.g., food or sex)? We can confidently say that none of our fisticuffs has ever has been adaptive (and some were decidedly maladaptive).

The only exceptions I can think of in my own life have been formal sparring in the context of karate. However, anger is not helpful when it comes to skilled fighting. Anger is an ancient emotion, one that overwhelms any newer learning. As such anger makes you a bad fighter if you’ve learned fighting as a complex skill that isn’t yet entirely automatic. If someone’s on the ground and you’re just pounding them, it could be helpful; if you’re swinging a baseball bat or a lamp in fury, then your anger might add velocity to your swing. But if you need to focus your attention on footwork, technique, tactics, or complex sequences of moves, anger is an impairment. This is how Mohammed Ali beat Foreman in the ‘Rumble in the Jungle’ — one of the most famous boxing matches ever contended. Ali was overpowered by his bigger, heavier opponent. So he wore his opponent down by putting up his guard and hanging back on the ropes. Every chance he got, Ali whispered in his ear: ‘Is that all ya got? You have no punch, you can’t hit, you’re swinging like a sissy, you’re missing, let me see ya box’. He was baiting the bear. Foreman, infuriated, continued to swing big heavy punches to the point of exhaustion and stupor. Finally, when the big man was so spent that he was reduced to flailing about like a drunkard, Ali struck a flurry of well-placed blows that knocked him out.

Anger is part of being human; this is true. Humans can be suspicious, proud, self-righteous, and tribal creatures. But they also possess the capacity for compassion, forgiveness, and understanding. These faculties are equally built-in standard issue features of evolved human hardware.

Manypopular treatments for anger take therather defeateststance: "If something pisses you off, it pisses you off — you can never change the way you feel about something.” That is, they assume that it is unavoidable to be outraged by injustice, offended by insults, resentful of past wrongs, frustrated by setbacks, impatient in queues and annoyed by incompetence. They believe the most we can do for the chronically angry is work around their anger: help them to avoid triggers, solve all their problems, calm their arousal state, and distract them from their thoughts. That’s why it’s generally called anger management, not anger treatment. The anger will always be there, the rationale goes, but individuals can learn to ‘manage’ it, a little like chronic pain, or herpes. And this is why the anger management industry contains a plethora of such titles as, ‘Channel your Anger’; ‘Harness your Anger’ and even ‘Honour your Anger’.

We do not share this scepticism. It is possiblenotto be outraged by injustices, offended by insults or frustrated by setbacks. People can learn to rethink these things, to blame less, understand more, and take insults and setbacks in their stride. We can take you a step further than straightjacketing your anger — we can get you genuinely calm in the face of previously aggravating triggers. Rather than damming your anger, or damning it for that matter, we believe we can go right up-stream and stem the tide. Our aim is to reprogram the way you process triggers at the outset — not merely resign ourselves to avoidance, distraction, drugs, relaxation and damage control. At treatment’s end, ideally, there would be nothingtorepress or distract from, no symptomstorelax; conflicts wouldn’t need to be avoided. That’s the difference.

This is not radically new, of course. It’s the essence of what’s called ‘cognitive therapy’. We are just hoping to offer an enhancement or an extension of what has been done in this field already.

Think about it: Are there not some ‘issues’ that you find irritate other people but not yourself? One very angry client said to us once:

My mother gets so worked up if people reply ‘good’ to the question, ‘how are you going?’ She upbraids them every time: ‘it’s well, not good. You can’t "go good” any more than you can "walk slow”’. I catch myself thinking, ‘Jesus, mum, relax! Who cares?’. Last time I got to thinking that, I suddenly understood what it must be like to be aroundmea lot of the time. I get angry over plenty of things that don’t bother other people.

Have you ever had these sorts of reflections, watching an angry customer or an angry driver? If you have, then you are part of the way there, without even knowing it: you have seen anger from the outside, you have experienced what not feeling angry about something feels like. The rest is just a matter of extension.

Even without having tried especially hard to work on your anger we’re sure there are a host of things that used to anger you but no longer do. Did you not use to get peeved when your mother tried to put sunscreen on your face? You wouldn’t now (you might find the gesture endearing). Did you not hate some of your teachers at school? What would you think of them now? Have you never been reminded of episodes from your youth and shaken your head at the pettiness of some of your gripes? Have you never looked across at your child or loved one and felt a pang of sadness at the way you’d spoken to them the day before? Have you never gotten all in a huff over a misunderstanding and later apologised for it? You’ve already glimpsed what it can feel like for anger about a particular issue to come and go. So losing your anger altogether is just a generalisation of that process.

We don’t however believe in telling the angry how to behave when they’re angry. So much anger management is basically some variation of, ‘don’t get angry — be nice! let it go! forgive!’. We have many misgivings about such treatments. First and foremost: When angry, people don’t want to employ them, and whennotangry they often do them quite naturally without being told to. Besides, we also don’t believe it alwaysisthe best move to drop it, put up with it, be nice.

Let us take, for the sake of discussion, Carnegie’s How to Make Friends and Influence People— an age-old classic, over 70 years in print and over 15 million copies sold. Carnegie’s specialty area was sales, marketing, public speaking, business leadership and interpersonal skills. His book is not aimed at an angry population, but contains many of the dos and donts we see in anger management books and manuals, so our reluctance to champion his advice is relevant here. What is Carnegie’s advice regarding how to ‘win people to your way of thinking’ or ‘change people without giving offense or arousing resentment’? Well, here are a few of his key principles:

  • the only way to get the best of an argument is to avoid it
  • show respect for the other person’s opinions; never say, ‘you’re wrong’
  • begin in a friendly way
  • be sympathetic with the other person’s desires
  • begin with praise and honest appreciation
  • call attention to people’s mistakesindirectly
  • talk about your own mistakes before criticising the other person
  • let the other person save face
  • use encouragement.

Well, to begin with praise and honest appreciation ourselves, we believe this advice is all sound, and that Carnegie’s classic is a wonderful read. Unfortunately we don’t give it to our angry clients, and this is why: The angry don’t wish to avoid arguments (anger provokes attack not retreat). They don’t feel respect for the other person’s opinions (if they did, the opinions wouldn’t anger them). They don’t feel friendly (they’re angry). They don’t feel sympathetic with the other person’s desires (they’re sympathetic with their own). They certainly don’t feel admiring or appreciative (almost the opposite of angry). They don’t wish to be indirect (anger does not make you feel like tippy toeing around someone’s feelings). They are not thinking about their own mistakes (if they were, they’d feel contrite). And finally, they don’t want toencouragethe person or let them save face (being angry, they want to punish the offender or put them down). So the problem in a nutshell is this: however good the ‘rules of engagement’ are, in the heat of anger you’re not likely to want to use them.

In fact we’ve never met an angry person who didn’t straight up agree with Carnegie’s pearls of wisdom in the calm of our office. In essence, Carnegie-type advice is like advanced training in good manners. But at the moment of anger you are feeling in some way wronged, insulted or taken advantage of. Why on earth would anyone wish to be polite toward someone who had just wronged, insulted or taken advantage of them? Are we expected to bite our lip when someone insults us, they ask. Are we to feign friendliness when someone has deliberately wronged us? Are we to pretend politeness around a scoundrel or a cheat?

And if your anger is more than mere annoyance — if it’s enough to get your heart racing and your hackles raised, do you think you evencanact friendly and respectful? Convincingly? If anything, politeness through gritted teeth can sometimes more biting than outright hostility.