Western society has become comfort-seeking. We want our packages delivered to our door the next day, we want to eat unlimited desserts and burgers without cost to our health, and we back out of relationships when we become frustrated with the same person who fascinated us a few weeks before.
Part of this comfort-seeking view of life is to not experience the more difficult emotions and strive for constant happiness. This agenda may have led many of us to abuse drugs and/or alcohol, shop too much, overeat, gamble and otherwise numb ourselves so we don’t feel anger, hurt, sadness, guilt, shame or embarrassment.
It’s not a new message that avoiding emotions doesn’t work. What you do to numb yourself is likely to make your life more difficult in the long run. If you numb yourself from the difficult emotions you also can’t experience the positive. Plus you lose out on important information that those emotions give you in terms of how you are living your life and decisions you need to make.
Yet while you are encouraged to not avoid your emotions, the general message you get from family, friends and the media is that if you don’t feel happy, then something is wrong with you. Those ideas can seem contradictory. If feeling sad, angry, and guilty is normal, why would you need to change?
In their book, The Upside of Your Dark Side: Why Being Your Whole Self—Not Just Your “Good” Self—Drives Success and Fulfillment, authors Todd Kashdan and Robert Biswas-Diener discuss the reasons that all emotions are important to feel. They assert that being happy, hardy, and optimistic all the time is not the gold star in emotional health and propose that being able to experience all your emotions in a balanced way will give you a stable sense of wholeness and an ability to manage the ups and downs of life. They suggest that distress tolerance, being able to manage discomfort, may be a more important key than searching or pursuing happiness. In fact, pursuing happiness may lead to a greater sense of loneliness and anxiety.
For example, many people fear anger. They see experiencing or certainly expressing anger as a loss of control or as a failure in character. When they experience anger, they may become anxious. They think of anger as developing into rage, but rarely does anger lead to violence.
Anger has its place. Anger encourages you to defend yourself when threatened or when your rights are being encroached on. Anger expressed effectively can serve as a way to alert others to back off or compromise.
The authors point out that anger has multiple positives. Feeling anger usually comes with a more optimistic view of the world and people who experience anger are more likely to take risks and test out situations. Anger may lead people to take more action in general and bring about change in the world. Altruism may come from anger in that it mobilizes people and creates support for a cause. In selective situations, anger can enhance performance and in negotiations, anger may provide some leverage. Anger may even increase creativity.
Expressing Anger Effectively
Kashdan and Biswas-Diener advise that to express anger effectively, start by acknowledging your state of discomfort. Expressing ideas when you are emotionally upset is not usually a wise choice when you can wait until you are calmer and can think more clearly. With anger, there are likely to be situations involving injustice or imminent threat that are best addressed in the moment, such as the bullying of a child or overcharging you for a service. Saying you are upset will help you regulate your emotions and also help the other person listen with more understanding.
A second key is to distinguish between situations you can change and those you cannot. If well-expressed, respectful anger helps bring about change, then assess whether change is possible. If there is nothing that you can change, then there is no benefit to expressing anger.
Slow the situation down. Though you may not have the opportunity to wait hours or days, you can consciously decide to speak more slowly. You can pause, take deep breaths and reflect on what you want to say. This will give you more options and help you access your wisdom even though you are upset.
Part of your reflection is to think ahead about possible outcomes. Ask yourself whether your anger is helping or hurting the situation. Monitor yourself throughout the interaction as the answer to this question may vary during the interaction.
Learning to act wisely with difficult emotions requires accepting those emotions and practicing the skills of expressing them. The more you can accept the emotion, the less panicked you will be and the more likely you can be effective.
Kashdan, T. and Biswas-Diener, R. (2014). The Upside of Your Dark Side: Why Being Your Whole Self—Not Just your “Good” Self—Drives Success and Fulfillment. New York: Hudson Street Press.