All of us have felt angry at some point in our lives. For some, this emotion is within easy reach, and is often the first port of call when faced with a failure or challenge of one kind or another. Whether we lash out at ourselves or those around us though, anger is often the manifestation of a far more fragile emotional reality.
When we feel angry it’s easy to miss the speed with which our brain shifts into this heightened mode. Faced with a situation which threatens us in some way it is often impossible to track the lightning-fast progression of thoughts into actions. Before we know it, we may have snapped at a loved one or stormed out of the room – it might take all our energy to conceal our anger at something someone has said or done to us.
Can anger be justified?
Of course, sometimes anger – or some form of it – may be justified. Aristotle, whose idea of ethical virtues we examined last time, identified ‘Righteous Indignation’ as being among the primary moral virtues. However, in the minutiae of everyday life we are unlikely to encounter the high-minded ethical quandaries or miscarriages of societal justice that the philosopher perhaps had in mind.
Humans are evolved animals that have had to overcome millennia of existential threats. Within this process, our capacity for fear and anxiety often served as a useful evolutionary tool, keeping us alert to dangers and quick to rouse ourselves to fight or flee. Within this context, anger was a powerful force that allowed us to exert control over our threatening surroundings. When faced with conflict, anger let us draw on hidden reserves of strength to fight back against vicious animals or neighbouring tribes
How does this conflict appear today?
While these existential threats have receded in our modern world, conflict still plays a part in our daily life, although in much altered form. Now, conflict more frequently exists in the realm of ideas and world-views whether at work or at home, and, just as in our early history, the spectre of conflict inspires in us a need to exert control.
Within our primal brain, control is the antidote to feeling under threat – therefore when we experience feelings of simmering anger it’s an excellent idea to stop and analyse our feelings from this perspective. What is the threat we are perceiving? Is it a threat to our worldview? Our sense of competency? Our social standing? Our conception of self? Underneath the perception of ‘threat’ is the primal emotion of fear, and in all of the above the fear is a fear of loss.
Viewing anger as a fear response gives us a more nuanced and empathic understanding of this emotion both in ourselves and those around us. By learning to let go of what we fear to lose, or to hold onto it with a lighter grip, we can find a way to defuse anger for good.