How to Deal with Anger

Anger arises from poor perspective, and makes it poorer still.

Posted Nov 28, 2020

Source: Sim33/Pixabay

Anger is a common and potentially destructive emotion that turns many a human life into a living hell. It’s hard to imagine a truly substantial person such as Socrates or the Buddha ever losing his or her temper. By a careful meditation, we can learn to control our anger and even banish it entirely from our lives. So let’s do it.

In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle says that good-tempered people can sometimes get angry, but only as they ought to. Such people might get angry too soon or not enough, yet still be praised for being good-tempered. It is only if they deviate more markedly from the mean with respect to anger that they become blameworthy, either "irascible" at one extreme or "lacking in spirit" at the other:

For in everything it is no easy task to find the middle … anyone can get angry—that is easy—or give or spend money; but to do this to the right person, to the right extent, at the right time, with the right motive, and in the right way, that is not for everyone, nor is it easy; wherefore goodness is both rare and laudable and noble.

In the Rhetoric, Aristotle defines anger as an impulse, accompanied by pain, to exact a conspicuous revenge for a conspicuous slight that has been directed either at ourselves or at our friends. He adds that the pain of anger can be accompanied by pleasure arising from the expectation of revenge. But I’m not so sure. Even if anger does bring some pleasure, this is a very thin kind of pleasure, akin to whatever "pleasure" I might derive from saying "if you ruin my day, I’ll ruin yours" or "look how big I think I am". It’s hardly a pot of honey.

We can, says Aristotle, be slighted out of one of three things: contempt, spite, and insolence. In each instance, the slight betrays the offence giver’s feelings that we are obviously of no importance. We may or may not get angry at the offence giver, but we are more likely to get angry if we are in distress—for example, in poverty or in love—or if we feel insecure about the subject of the slight or about ourselves in general.

On the other hand, we are less likely to get angry if the slight is involuntary or unintended, or itself provoked by anger, or if the offence giver apologizes or humbles himself before us and behaves like our inferior. Even dogs, says Aristotle, do not bite sitting people. We are also less likely to get angry if the offence giver has done us more kindnesses than we have returned, or obviously respects us, or is feared or needed or admired by us.

Once provoked, anger can be quelled by the feeling that the slight is deserved, by the passage of time, by the exaction of revenge, by the suffering of the offence giver, or by being redirected onto a third party. Thus, although angrier at Ergophilius than at Callisthenes, the people acquitted Ergophilius because they had already condemned Callisthenes to death. Writing more than two thousand years before the birth of psychoanalysis, Aristotle seems to have put his finger on the ego defence of displacement, with the people’s anger for Ergophilius "displaced" onto Callisthenes.

There’s a clear sense in which Aristotle is correct in speaking of such a thing as right or proper anger. Anger can serve a number of useful, even vital, functions. Like fear or anxiety, to which it is somewhat related, it can help us to avert a bodily, emotional, or social threat, or, failing that, mobilize mental and physical resources for evasive, defensive, or restitutive action.

As I argue in Heaven and Hell: The Psychology of the Emotions, if elegantly exercised, anger can enable a person to signal high social status, compete for rank and position, ensure that contracts and promises are fulfilled, and even inspire positive emotions such as respect and sympathy. People who are able to exercise anger judiciously are likely to feel better about themselves, more in control, more optimistic, and more prone to the sort of risk-taking that promotes successful outcomes.

At the same time, anger, especially anger of the ugly, unconstrained variety, can lead to poor perspective and judgement, impulsive and destructive behavior, and loss of standing and goodwill. In the words of the poet Horace (d. 8 BCE): Ira furor brevis est: animum rege, qui, nisi paret, imperat [Anger is a short-lived madness: control your mind, for if you do not control it, it will control you].

So, it appears that the sort of restrained, measured anger that is justified, strategic, and adaptive ought to be distinguished from a second type of anger (let us call it "rage") that is raw, unprocessed, inappropriate, irrational, indiscriminate, and uncontrolled. The function of rage is simply to protect a threatened ego, replacing or masking one kind of pain with another, more tolerable one.

But even right or proportionate anger is unhelpful insofar as it is still anger, which is both painful and harmful, and harmful because it involves a loss of perspective and judgement. Here’s an example. Anger, and especially rage, strengthens correspondence bias, which is the tendency, when explaining the behavior of others, to overestimate the role of character traits over situational factors—a bias which goes into reverse when it comes to explaining our own behavior. Thus, if Emma forgets to do the dishes, I am under the impression that this is because she is lazy or irresponsible or even vindictive (character traits); whereas if I forget to do the dishes, I am all too ready to excuse myself on the grounds that I am busy or tired or have more important things to do (situational factors).

At a more fundamental level, anger reinforces the illusion that people exercise a high degree of free will, whereas in fact most of their choices and actions and the brain activity that they correspond to are determined by past events and the cumulative effects of those past events on their patterns of thinking and behaving. Emma is Emma because she is Emma, and, at least in the short-term, there is precious little that she can do about that. It follows that the only person who can truly deserve our anger is the one who acted freely, that is, the one who spited us freely and therefore probably rightly! Anger is a vicious circle: it arises from poor perspective, and makes it poorer still.

This does not mean that anger is never justified, as a short, strategic display of anger, even if undeserved, can still serve a benevolent purpose, as when we pretend to get upset at a child or a dog for the benefit of shaping its behaviour and character.

But if all that is ever required is a calculated display of anger, then true anger that involves real pain is entirely superfluous, its presence serving merely to betray… a certain lack of understanding.

The world is as it is and always has been: howling at the moon is hardly going to make things any better. And it is by truly, profoundly understanding this that we can banish real, painful, and destructive anger from our lives. But this, of course, assumes that we are able to accept the world for what it is.