"Feeling angry is a universal human phenomenon. It is as basic as feeling hungry, lonely, loving, or tired." - Theodore Rubin
It’s probably not surprising that people do not have a lot of positive things to say about anger. Whether you enjoy the occasional outburst or find yourself seething, you’re likely to feel bad (or be made to feel bad) about experiencing this emotion at all.
In fact, our perception of anger has changed pretty dramatically in the last 50 years. Where people were once “hotheads,” they are now “acting out their hurt and shame in unproductive ways.”
In fact, psychologist, Dr. Stephen Diamond sees this trend as problematic. He believes pop psychology, and many therapists, regard anger as a “smokescreen” emotion instead of a “primary emotion.” In other words, anger used to be something everyone felt and experienced as a natural part of being human. But now it’s regarded as a veil people use to hide other emotions such as shame and anxiety.
Diamond believes anger deserves its due as a primary and useful emotion: “It is an assertion of the individual's most basic right to being an individual. As in other species, without this capacity for anger, or even rage, we would be unable to defend ourselves or those we love when needed. To fight for freedom and what we truly believe in and value."
Others agree and scientists have found anger has a useful side for physical and mental health. In this American Psychological Association article, When Anger’s A Plus, author Tori DeAngelis reviews a myriad of studies showing that displaying anger can elicit positive outcomes and can increase a person’s sense of control (even though the illusion may be false). Other studies have found that letting anger out, versus suppressing it, or even “letting it go” is also a good thing and leads to better coping.
So why does anger get such a bad rap?
Well, it can be a bit of a controlling emotion if it’s not constructively used. It is notoriously linked to heart problems (as you see in films -- red faced, yelling men with blood vessels popping out and then . . . heart attack). It can also increase risk taking behavior (think aggressive driving) and weaken your immune system.
But perhaps the real reason we’re leery of anger is its portrayal, or the belief, that anger leads to violence. But according to Howard Kassinove, PhD, co-author of Anger Management: The Complete Treatment Guidebook for Practice, "Anger seems to be followed by aggression only about 10 percent of the time, and lots of aggression occurs without any anger."
The real trick, according to Dr. Lisa Najavits, who works in PTSD research, at the Boston University School of Medicine, is recognizing constructive vs. destructive anger. Constructive anger can be observed, recognized as it builds and controlled. Destructive anger, however, can be frequent, seem to come out of nowhere, and often turns into outward aggression towards others or inward self destructive behavior (addiction, self harm).
Dr. Diamond believes the modern day trend, of not giving people the space to be constructively angry, is making people’s anger problems much worse. Not allowing people to experience anger without guilt and shame leads to an ongoing negative and repressive loop.
“Chronic repression of anger creates resentment, bitterness, hostility, hatred and, in some, an overpowering, irresistible rage. For many, to feel angry is to feel out of control, irrational, unenlightened, uncivilized, and this frequently leads to fear, shame and anxiety. And more repression. So which came first in this vicious cycle, the chicken or the egg?”
So if your spouse forgets your anniversary or your friend cancels your get together at the last minute, go ahead and let yourself be angry. Then express your anger and disappointment in a constructive way and move on. And if they call you a hot head, show them this article and tell them to stop suppressing their own constructive, primary emotions.