Evolution of the Self

On the paradoxes of personality

The Rarely Recognized Upside of Anger

Sure, your anger should be controlled—but don't try to obliterate it either.

I’ve published so much on anger’s toxicity that it may seem a bit strange that I now feel the need to write something far more positive about the emotion. Not that I don’t continue to see anger as in most respects hazardous—to your relationships, as well as to your physical and mental health. But there’s one aspect of anger that, at least in certain contexts, makes it invaluable.

To begin with, it’s essential to realize that anger is the one emotion that warrants being seen as moralistic. It has everything to do with values: the system of ethics you’re personally devoted to. In fact, if you weren’t capable of making an indignant assessment that something or someone was unfair, the feeling wouldn’t exist at all. And by getting irritated with what you regard as wrong or unjust, you can experience the immediate—and substantial—gratification of occupying the moral high ground (just one of many reasons that anger can be so seductive!).

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For example, if you’re fired from a job you believe you’ve performed well, and your boss can offer you no credible explanation for letting you go, you’ll almost automatically experience the disgruntlement of anger. After all, your fundamental sense of fairness has been violated. And the same holds true for situations in which you feel taken advantage of or exploited. On a somewhat less personal level, if you firmly believe that the minimum wage should be raised and you learn that Congress has refused to allow this, your perception of injustice will also lead you to experience righteous anger.

So what's so positive about your annoyance or umbrage? Simply that in various circumstances when you’re not getting what you want—and think you deserve (or the exact opposite)—your angry reaction represents a vital affirmation of self-worth. It’s a self-confirming protest against what offends your moral standards, what feels inequitable or reprehensible to you. Experiencing such anger vindicates your position, and frankly affords you a most comforting sense of moral superiority over that which opposes you. Moreover, it reduces the odds that you’ll slip into a pessimistic attitude of passive resignation virtually guaranteeing your defeat.

So, in such circumstances, can you appreciate how much your anger might help you maintain crucial feelings of honor, importance, and self-respect? And that this underlying respect for your own position is actually what drives your feelings of animosity? Whether your anger is expressed openly or cautiously held inside, it enables you to preserve your dignity and uphold your principles (even though, admittedly, in certain instances such principles might be entirely self-serving). In the face of what’s thwarting you, you’re forcefully confirming to yourself what you think is right: what should be—vs. a reality largely out of your control. Your sincerely felt protestation restores in you at least some sense of control. And however illusory this non-accepting “control” may be, it may yet be all that the situation permits.

I’m quite aware that such righteousness can easily morph into self-righteousness. Which, of course, is the unadmirable stance that only your position is justifiable and that everyone else is either wrong or wrong-headed. And such a bias, narrow-mindedness, or arrogance certainly isn’t anything I’d advocate. For setting yourself up as an adversary to others whenever they disagree with you is hardly good for you, or your relationships. (And, for that matter, it’s not particularly ethical.) No, the anger I’m referring to here—though it might appear defensive, sanctimonious, or mean-spirited—is really something else entirely. And I’ll provide a single example of why such righteous (but not self-righteous) anger can be crucial in maintaining a positive self-image and state of well-being.

Say, you grew up with a parent—or parents—who were hypercritical of you. They set unrealistically high, un-meetable expectations and routinely went out of their way to fault you for something or other. Regardless of how hard you tried, you could never quite please them. Whatever you did was somehow perceived as not good enough. No matter how competent your performance, or lofty your achievements, either the bar was always raised higher if you were to receive their approval, or your successes were dismissed as no more than what was expected of you, and so hardly worth being acknowledged.

If, defenseless, you bought into their repeated negative evaluations, you’d likely end up chronically depressed (something I’ve observed many times in clients I’ve worked with). You would have developed what’s been termed a “shame-based identity,” never feeling you were—or could be—good enough. But let’s say you didn’t swallow whole their incessant put-downs, grimaces, or neglect. Maybe you had close friends that frequently gave you a very different, and far more positive, message about your value. Or your essential okayness and acceptability was regularly confirmed by a grandparent. Or the parents of one (or more) of your friends. Or a teacher who, realizing that something was very wrong with how your parents were raising you, took you under their supportive, encouraging wing. And so on. In short, if there were an equally strong counterforce to the unfavorable influence of your emotionally abusive caretakers, it’s likely that you’d feel not disapproval of yourself but righteous anger toward them.

Obviously, this anger—the one emotion so intimately associated with affirming personal worth and dignity independent of your caretakers’ negative assessments—is, psychologically, nothing short of life-saving. It’s an anger (or indignation) that helps you feel good about who you are despite your parents’ doing so much that, otherwise, would lead you to feel bad (to very bad) about yourself. Research has demonstrated that before the age of eight, a child is unable to formulate a view of themselves that’s distinct from their parents’ regard for them. But if this child is regularly validated by others and can attribute to these individuals the same (or more) authority than they give to their parents, the grievous wound of their caretakers’ not accepting them for who they are can be greatly ameliorated.

Doubtless, as a side effect of the child’s having to adamantly de-legitimize the parents who’ve so regularly invalidated them, they might end up with some diffuse, longstanding issues around anger. But I think most of us would agree that such anger is still less detrimental to their healthy development than the depression that invariably ensues if they feel they’re worth less than others—or hopelessly inferior to them. For in such cases, their depression is tightly entwined with their inability to like themselves. And obviously, living out a life with something approaching self-contempt is utterly incompatible with feelings of happiness or peace of mind.

So if, regrettably, a person has internalized their parents’ negative perceptions of them, it’s hardly possible for them to experience anything resembling inner contentment. And, as regards rectifying such an unfortunate situation, it may in the end be a lot easier to clear out the emotional residue of old anger than to reconstruct one’s self-image from scratch.

Note 1: If you’d like to have a look at earlier—and much less favorable—posts I’ve published in Psychology Today on the subject of anger, here are the titles and links:

“The Anger Thermostat—What’s the Temperature of Your Upset?”,

“Anger Always Makes Sense,”

"What Does Donald Duck Have to Do with Anger Control?"

“Anger—How We Transfer Feelings of Guilt, Hurt, and Fear,”

“A Powerful Two-Step Process to Get Rid of Unwanted Anger,"

“What Your Anger May Be Hiding,”

“Mad =Angry + Crazy + Dumb” (Parts 1 & 2),

“The Paradox of Anger: Strength or Weakness?”, and

"Afraid to Rage: The Origins of Passive-Aggressive Behavior."

Note 2: If you found this post useful or interesting, and think others might as well, please consider forwarding its link to them. Moreover, if you’d like to explore additional pieces I’ve written for PT—on a broad range of topics—click here.

© 2014 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.

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Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D., who holds doctorates in English and Psychology, is a clinical psychologist and author of Paradoxical Strategies in Psychotherapy.

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