People often say that anger does nothing to help a situation. They say that this negativity creates a bad atmosphere, causing others to mistrust. Or fear you.
Others infer that constructive anger has its place. Listening to it—what it is telling you in situations—taps into our own wants, desires, and sense of self. It helps us understand what we will, and will not, tolerate.
I believe that anger is neither a good nor a bad emotion. It is an arbitrary feeling, same as any other. It is how we relate to it that makes the difference. One cannot waltz through life as a canvas containing all our thoughts and feelings. We are the responsible conduit.
Certainly, dealing with anger has to be constructive. Yet the sad fact is that—as a society—we are not taught to deal with our emotions on a deep level. We are instead taught to be polite or agreeable. We are taught how to be good citizens, hard workers.
Oftentimes this involves quelling the emotions we carry inside, instead of understanding and appropriating them. If we act out when young, we are punished. Time-outs or naughty steps, denied toys or treats, even physical punishment. It is rare for an adult to sit with a child, asking them to explain their feelings. What ran through their mind? How did it feel? Did that reaction help the situation?
You might say that a child needs this boundary setting in order to grow into a functioning adult. I say yes, but they also need to have the quality of introspection instilled in them from a young age. If you start early by asking children how they feel in both positive and negative situations, introspection will become a part of their daily life. It will become automatic. They will be given a key to unlock personal freedom.
Teach this, and we will grow into adulthood with better mental health. To see the detrimental effect our emotional inertia creates, one only has to glance around our society; issues surrounding mental health and diagnoses, huge numbers of people on anti-depressants or self-medicating with drugs or alcohol. The ability to understand and work through our feelings requires time, practice, and patience. Modern societies’ obsession with instant gratification has halted our relationship with this.
Many times my fiery temper and lack of patience have resulted in my speaking before really thinking. To exploding with burgeoning rage before examining the root causes. The aftermath is awful. That initial rush of emotion dissolves, and I fall dejected into my own actions. I cannot take them back. It feels uncomfortable, so I do anything I can to push it away: Distractions or bargaining. Sometimes more anger levelled at myself, or others.
I have lacked the patience and perseverance to sit with the feeling, understanding it will pass, just see it through. I have refrained from looking at it at all angles; what I did, how I could have been better. What I was hoping for and why the situation has lead to anger.
Joan Rosenberg discusses the physical and mental impact of emotions in her Ted Talk ‘Emotional Mastery: The Gifted Wisdom of Unpleasant Feeling’. The tangible rush of discomfort we experience with a perceived negative emotion is often what we aim to detract from. Yet in doing so we misunderstand ourselves, distracting rather than interacting.
The formula she prescribes is this:
- 1 choice
- 8 feelings
- 90 seconds
Taking perceived negative emotions and remaining present during the initial 90-second rush. These 8 feelings are; Sadness, shame, helplessness, anger, vulnerability, embarrassment, disappointment or frustration. Yet Rosenberg wishes to pull away from viewing them as negative, seeing them as simply unpleasant and uncomfortable. As I do, she sees the power in treating these emotions as valuable for self-discovery. Through her research, she has proffered that, if you can move through these feelings with patience, you will improve self-confidence and emotional strength. She talks about these 90-second waves as inconsistent. Often our feelings come in sets; increasing and depleting like a tide. We will have to ride the unpleasant wave again and again. Yet through practice and patience, you can reset your neural pathways and create healthier responses.
During this talk, it came to me that Rosenberg is asking us to be our own emotional guide. To discover personally what it means to understand—and withstand—uncomfortable emotions. Greeting them as a necessary part of your life experience, not to be feared or numbed. Rosenberg takes it a step further, urging us to feel excited about them. This may be too far a step for some, but I feel that she has a point here. Every surfacing emotion is a chance to get to know our minds better. This has to be celebrated!
Another takeaway from the talk is; these are our own emotions. We do not need to foist them on others. When we take charge, we can keep them to ourselves until such time it feels correct to take action within them. When we do so it is with greater presence of mind, confidence and emotional strength.
The lesson we learn is this: While we are deeply social creatures, we should absolutely practice emotional autonomy. We do not need to agree with each other all the time. No one is perfect, and we should approach each interaction in this way. Growing through introspection whilst dealing with uncomfortable emotions equip us with the patience to deal with differing views, others emotions, or situations we do not like. We naturally have stronger and more durable relationships because we are kinder, more measured.
Patience and love are inseparable. When you practice these, we become healthier in mind and spirit. We listen more and talk less. Something we desperately need.
What is more, healthy people let things go. No longer retaining negative comments or poring over historic slights. A healthy perspective also means you are more likely to actively listen rather than passively hear, waiting for your turn to speak. Riding the wave of discomfort, renewing a relationship with patience, means you are no longer scrambling for a quick fix solution to end the pain.
I a reminded of the quote from American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr:
“Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
Wisdom is a key player, something we can amass throughout our lives if we are conscious of life lessons. Yet so often it is possessing self-love. Cultivate this means we no longer claw for approval or assert our dominance over others. In my experience, angry outbursts come from a dark place of self-pity. It is like a rage that judgment is being passed on you. People aren’t treating you well, it must be because they find you fundamentally flawed. Why don’t they love you more? Why don’t they care? Why are they doing this to you? It is fear, shame, vulnerability, unleashed as fury into the paths of the (often) unwitting. But I will come back to this shortly.
As anyone who has known me well will attest, I have had personal experience with the extreme effect of blowing up then trying to return to normal. Be it irrational anger or righteous ire. In all, the long-term effect was on my own mental wellness. Whilst impotent rage is more pernicious than righteous ire, the outcome is the same if you aren’t willing or able to breathe through the feeling. Simply reacting to a situation has always left me with the same awful feeling, whether I felt I was in the right or not.
I have learned a lot about my personal anger in recent years. I am improving all the time and becoming far more measured in my responses. I have also learned fundamentally that some people and situations in your life should absolutely be walked away from. Know that this is ok. Through introspection and dealing with uncomfortable feelings, it will become more and more apparent when those situations arise. When you are trying to express yourself but feel unheard, that rage and frustration become toxic. Responsible expression of emotion comes from both sides. It is everyone’s duty to actively listen, as much as it is his or her right to be heard. If you feel that you are not being listened to, trying to argue becomes a dead end. With emotional intelligence and confidence, those situations will present themselves and you will naturally move away from them. Head held high.
Returning to my previous point, and when we look at Rosenberg’s gamut of uncomfortable emotions, it seems obvious to me that anger is a pick’n’mix combination of these 7 other emotions. So often there are other things at play when we say we feel anger. Just like love cannot be pinned down in just one definition, so it goes with anger. In knowing this, we know that the more we take our time with anger, the more we can pick apart the root causes, and better understand our position.
In taking the time to feel emotions, you emerge the other side with a clearer worldview. One in which you are no longer doing damage control. You don’t need to. The healthier mindset becomes muscle memory, and internal discomfort is no longer something to shy away from. Within this, the discomfort of a challenging conversation becomes far more possible to withstand. You retain a brighter outlook as you no longer rage impotently at the world. You can ask for what you want because you know what that looks like. What it is worth to you.
I will leave you with this. A quote told to me by someone I valued but was no longer a good person in my life. So I walked away. As is so often the case, it was sad, but it was necessary. I feel stronger for having the wisdom to know the things I could not change. I include it here because it perfectly encapsulates for me the sense of awakening that comes with emotional introspection:
“Know yourself, know your worth. But above all, no excuses.”