Perhaps your flight is considerably delayed; the team you've supported for years is getting humiliated on the field; your insurance company has rejected a claim for a ridiculous reason; or, you saw a provocative text on your partner's cell phone. In any case, you're angry.
Anger deserves appreciation. Designed to produce action in response to the violation of social norms or to remedy situations that are wrong, anger alerts you to circumstances that are unjust and tells you that you're having a reaction to something that should not be as it is. Often anger is conceptualized as a disruptive emotional force, but it is meant to be an adaptive internal signal that cues self-protective action. Actually, anger is a good emotion that sometimes is misunderstood or irrationally misused.
Getting caught up in how this emotion makes you feel and what it causes you to think may be part of the problem when an expression of anger goes badly. When anger is triggered, your sympathetic nervous system creates arousal in the form of physical agitation, muscle tension, and strength that prepares your body for action. Blood pressure, body temperature, and heart rate increase--you feel hot. The impulse related to what you feel is to strike out at someone or something. Situations that elicit anger demand that you are physically ready to appear aggressive. Anger is designed to protect the self, and, in doing so, results in a greater willingness to take risks (Lerner & Keltner, 2001; Lerner & Tiedens, 2006). In order to accommodate what anger makes you feel, your corresponding thoughts are negative and this cognitive restructuring helps you to carry out the actions required.
It's important to pay attention to what exactly is triggering your anger and to protect yourself accordingly. In some situations expressing anger, rather than inhibiting it, might be counterproductive. Suppose someone you love or respect is emotionally hurtful to you. Your anger might jeopardize the relationship, especially if you want to lash out, get away, or make the other person experience guilt for how they made you feel. If you express your anger the focus might then become your angry reaction and not how the other person triggered it. In such a situation your anger is simply informing you to protect yourself from someone who is hurting you. But the importance of remaining attached to the person who is hurtful may obscure the fact that the person to whom you are attached is hurtful. Your anger may be trying to tell you so. In such a situation, the expression of hurt or sadness may be more productive in resolving the issue than expressing anger.
A situation in which you experienced an offense to your sense of self may leave you with repetitively triggered anger whenever that situation comes to mind, whether you were passed over for a promotion, betrayed, cheated, or hurt in an intimate relationship, among many other possibilities. Your emotional system is simply doing its job reminding you to protect yourself or find a solution. But like a recurring nightmare, you may not be able to extract this anger from your mind until you understand why it is being triggered, figure out what you can do differently now or in the future, or simply succeed in finding a happy ending in your favor that lets you rest.
The cognitive consequence of anger in response to being morally offended is seen in the complex relationship between anger and empathy. When you are angry your empathy is automatically diminished for the person who is the object of your anger. What your anger is doing is rallying resources, both physical and cognitive, to stop someone who is doing whatever it is that may be threatening to you. A perceived injustice requires action and necessitates that you are not inhibited about hurting someone else. Anger suppresses the inhibition to empathize so that you can carry out the necessary interaction. Empathizing with the other will keep you from doing what needs to be done in order to protect yourself, and is akin to making excuses for behavior that has hurt you. Anger will cut off your empathy for their pain and help you to focus on your own self-protection. Even so, how you express your anger is also critical to self-preservation since exaggerated, inappropriate, or maladaptive expression will not allow the recipient to accept your message.
Does getting back at someone who made you angry actually help you? The emotion of anger results in a willingness to endure the consequences of punishing someone who has betrayed you (de Quervain et al., 2004; O'Gorman, Wilson, & Miller, 2005). However, researchers have found that thinking about punishing someone, or even punishing them, will cause you to continue focusing on your anger towards that person (Carlsmith, Wilson, & Gilbert, 2008). So wanting revenge or seeking it can keep you from moving on and truly regaining the sense of yourself that was lost in the betrayal. It is highly likely that wanting revenge when you are wronged is a result of humiliation or shame that accompanies an injustice (see a previous blog on "Shame: A Concealed, Contagious, and Dangerous Emotion"). Although the relationship between anger and shame is widely recognized, recent research has considered when anger is shame-related and when it is not (Hejdenberg, J. & Andrews, B., 2011). Although it is often assumed that having an angry temperament is related to shame, the study disconfirmed that effect across genders. According to the findings, shame is related to anger that is felt after specific provocation, such as criticism. Thus it is important to determine what triggered your angry response, consider other emotions that may be hiding behind your anger, and recognize that, ultimately, you determine your own sense of self.
Any emotion taken to an unhealthy level is dysfunctional, whether it's sadness, guilt, or excitement. Anger management has to do with having sensible reactions to situations that elicit anger, and an ability to sublimate or deal in ways that are healthy. It is not that you shouldn't be angry, but anger does not have to result in expressed aggression. Being able to cognitively consider consequences, recognize a course of action that would resolve the situation, and respond in healthy, regulated ways are essential to using your emotions for the self-protective and informational purpose for which they are intended.
For more information regarding my books about emotions: http://www.marylamia.com
This blog is in no way intended as a substitute for medical or psychological counseling. If expert assistance or counseling is needed, the services of a competent professional should be sought.
Carlsmith, K. M., Wilson, T. D., & Gilbert, D. T. (2008). The paradoxical consequences of revenge. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 95, 1316-1324.
DeQuervain, D.; Fischbacher, U.; Treyer, V.; Schellhammer, M.; Schnyder, U.; Buck, A.; & Fehr, E. (2004) The neural basis of altruistic punishment. Science, 2004, 305(5688), 1254-58.
Hejdenberg, J. & Andrews, B. (2011). The relationship between shame and different types of anger: A theory-based investigation. Personality and Individual Differences. 50(8), 1278-1282.
Lerner, J. & Keltner, D. (2001). Fear, anger, and risk. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 81:1, 146-159
Lerner, J. & Tiedens, L. (2006). Portrait of the angry decision maker: How appraisal tendencies shape anger's influence on cognition. Journal of Behavioral Decision Making. 19: 115-137.
O'Gorman, R.; Wilson, D.; & Miller, R. (2005). Altruistic punishing and helping differ in sensitivity to relatedness, friendship, and future interactions. Evolution and Human Behavior 26 (2005) 375-387.