Keeping Sane in an Angry World

We need more passion and less anger in politics, media, and our homes.

Posted Dec 04, 2019

If you’re becoming more irritable, impatient, annoyed, critical, resentful, angry, less flexible, and less able to see other perspectives, it’s not entirely your fault.

It’s an angry world.

Anger in its many forms is the most contagious of all emotions. If you’re around irritable, impatient, annoyed, critical, resentful, intolerant people—or see them in the news or social media—you may take on their negativity.

The worst thing about living in an angry world is that it turns us into the very things we despise. We react to jerks like jerks. We hate people who hate. We’re disrespectful and complain about feeling disrespected. In reaction to narcissists (those who feel morally or intellectually superior, with an inability to see other people’s perspectives), we become narcissistic. We bristle at politicians calling each other opportunists or hypocrites. We feel briefly validated when the same anger that sweeps political parties into office sweeps them out of it.

You Have a Right to be Angry

Whatever form your anger takes, it’s understandable and justifiable. But here’s the more important question:

Do you want to be angry, irritable, impatient, critical, annoyed, resentful, and rigid? Is it the space you want to occupy in this, your only life on Earth?

Chronic anger includes an attribution of blame. Blame keeps us focused on our perceptions of what other people do wrong, which makes it all but impossible to see what we’re doing wrong. We feel mistreated. When we protest, we’re bewildered by the negative reactions we get.

Anger feels different on the inside from the way it looks on the outside. It alters body language, facial expressions, and tone of voice. That’s what people react to, because it’s all they see. When we blame, we’re inevitably blamed. When we shame, we’re invariably shamed.

The narrow focus of blame makes it just as unlikely that we’ll grasp how anger transforms us. Below are a few tidbits.

Chronic anger:

  • Makes us reactaholics; other people "push our buttons."
  • Eliminates positive passion (conviction, meaning, intensity of purpose) through compulsion to avenge or punish.
  • Ruins sex life through accumulation of the number-one block to intimacy: resentment.
  • Deteriorates fine motor skills (never choose an angry or resentful surgeon).

Chronic anger increases the risk of:

  • Heart disease, stroke, cancer, hypertension, and mood disorders.
  • Alcoholism, drug addiction, and other compulsive behavior, such as workaholism.
  • Minor disorders like colds, flu, headaches, stomachaches, muscle aches.

Because it requires a narrow and rigid focus on a perceived threat, anger necessarily distorts impressions of reality. Chronic anger makes us perceive threats everywhere. It makes us easily insulted. It creates a degree of paranoia. It makes us petty and vindictive.

In relationships, chronic anger creates continual power struggles. It’s not for communication or negotiation. Its only function is to:

  • Control/neutralize perceived threats (mostly ego-threats).
  • Warn, Intimidate, threaten the loss of affection.

More Passion, Less Anger

Anger and passion are often conflated. Some people think they need anger to right a wrong. In fact, we’re far more likely to commit a wrong than to right one, when angry. To right a wrong, without committing one, requires passion.

The difference between anger and passion is crucial to staying sane in an angry world. Anger prepares us to fight, punish, devalue, tear down, destroy. Passion prepares us to build, create, improve, appreciate. Anger produces a politics bombast. Passion brings a politics of hope. Anger leads to exhaustion and depression. Passion leads to purpose and conviction. And of course, passion is more likely to yield positive outcomes.

Don’t Be Fooled

There’s a bit of research in which some subjects report beneficial effects of anger. But self-report is a seriously flawed measure of real-world anger, which is an attribution of blame, with an inability to see other perspectives. I learned early in my career of working with family abusers that you get an entirely different—and more accurate—appraisal of real-world anger by interviewing family members or coworkers. By definition, anger makes it impossible to evaluate our own behavior and to see its effects on others.

It’s Justifiable, But Don’t Justify It

Of course, everyone gets angry occasionally. Anger isn't an issue if we don't spend much time justifying it. Justifying anger is the hidden problem. The more you justify it, the longer it lasts, you can’t get it out of your mind. It greatly prolongs an emotional and physiological state that evolved for short bursts of energy. The ill-health effects of anger cited above are not so much the result of how angry we get as to how long it lasts.

The urge to justify is revealing. It rises from a perception that we’ve violated personal values, so we need to justify it, mostly to ourselves. Have you ever felt the urge to justify the more humane emotions of compassion, kindness, or love?

In any case, we can stay sane in an angry world if we view our own anger as just a passing emotion and refrain from making judgments until it passes. We must realize that when angry, we’re:

  • Unable to see other perspectives.
  • Most likely exaggerating and oversimplifying (the evolutionary function of anger is to amplify and magnify perceived threats).
  • Less able to control impulses and tolerate frustration.
  • Likely to violate our deepest values and act against our long-term best interests.
  • Probably more self-righteous than right.

We should not try to drive, negotiate, analyze an issue, or do anything important until we’ve regulated this temporary state that has prepared us to fight when we really need to learn more, be more compassionate, or solve a problem.  

Once again, anger in all its forms is understandable and justifiable, as are the negative reactions to our anger that we inevitably get from others. The larger question is this: Do we want to contribute to—and be swept up in—the emotional pollution of this angry world?