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A Guide to Deciding if You Should Be Angry

Our emotions are complicated, and sometimes we don't know how to feel.

People tell me all the time that they see two sides to anger problems. On the one hand, they see people who get angry too often and don’t express it in healthy ways. On the other hand, they see people who don’t get angry enough. I hear stories of individuals who have been truly wronged and yet don't seem to care as much as they should. And of course, this may lead to them being taken advantage of.

The truth is, trying to decide if you or someone else should be angry is a messy business. It is a wildly subjective question with no real clear answer. At the same time, though, part of being an emotionally wise person means being able to critically evaluate our feelings, what they might mean and where they are coming from, and to act on them.

So, here is an attempt at laying out some guidelines for whether or not we should be angry in a given situation.

First, ask yourself two questions.

1. Was I or someone I care about treated poorly or unfairly?

2. Is someone or something blocking my goals?

I used to think the answer to question one was pretty simple. Chances are, if you were feeling angry it was because you had been wronged. From an evolutionary perspective, anger exists because it alerted our human and nonhuman ancestors to the fact that they had been wronged. Emotions are primitive means by which we are alerted to injustice (anger), danger (fear), loss (sadness), opportunity (excitement), etc. So, feeling anger likely means you’ve experienced an injustice (or had your goals blocked; see below).

That said, it’s become very obvious lately that there is a difference between being objectively wronged and thinking you were wronged. I’ve seen a lot of examples lately of people reacting to verifiably false information with intense anger, so it seems like maybe this question is trickier than I once thought. The best advice I can give you on this is that in some situations, before you act on your anger, you have to go out of your way to confirm that the information you are acting on is correct and that you understand the facts.

Sometimes we haven’t been wronged, but there is something blocking our goals that leads to frustration and anger. Consider, for example, weather-related traffic on the interstate. In such an instance, no one is really responsible (I suppose you can point to things like “people not knowing how to drive in snow” or “poor city infrastructure” but those are a bit of a stretch most times). More importantly, you aren’t being singled out in this situation. You’re suffering the same exact consequences as everyone else on the road. But, your goals are still blocked and it’s normal and even healthy to respond to that with frustration.

There is a third question you should ask in these situations, and it’s probably the hardest:

3. What might I have done to contribute to this?

This is difficult because it requires a level of self-reflection and honesty that is challenging for some people… especially when they are angry. It is important, though, because we often experience anger in the context of relationships, and we need to acknowledge that we bring something into those social interactions. We have to consider how something we said or did may have influenced the situation. In some cases, this will be obvious. We did something hurtful and they responded with something similarly hurtful. Often, though, it’s more subtle. We may have unintentionally done something hurtful to them that we didn’t realize. Or, maybe our overall approach to a particular situation was something that put them on edge from the start and we evoked hostility from them unintentionally.

The point of this third question isn’t to make us feel bad or to put the blame on us. More importantly, it’s not to suggest that we deserve to be treated poorly. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. It should be empowering. We can’t control the behavior of others, but we can control how we approach others and how we interact with them (including if we interact with them).