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Anger as a Dirty Word, and Why Anger is Important for Healthy Conflict

I’d like to talk about one of my pet peeves today. No, it isn’t about the people who drive in the far-left lane on the freeway and only go 50 miles an hour. (They drive me crazy, btw.) Nor is it about the lady at the store the other day who had parked her cart squarely in the way while she pondered the many choices available to her in canned tuna. (If she’s reading this please, please move your cart to one side. Thank you!)

Nope, this post is about the way too many of us react to anger in another person. We can treat the angry person (including ourselves) as pariahs, misfits, demented or just plain bad. We can move to shut down or deflect anger very quickly, or brand the angry person as selfish, out of control.

Don’t misunderstand me. I’m not saying that our reactions are necessarily crazy. Some of us have been in the crossfire of angry people and had terrible experiences. People sometimes say and do scary things when they’re angry. They can even get violent, verbally or physically (and I hope when THAT happens we take steps to both get to safety and draw firm boundaries).

I AM saying that we are not serving ourselves or the situation if we move too quickly to shut down, dismiss or avoid another person’s anger. Anger can be a gold mine of information and opportunity to make conflict healthy and useful, if understood and managed well.

Anger: What We Tend to Think About It

We tend to assume that anger is a negative – something to be avoided, controlled and preferably never displayed or acted upon. We also tend to assume that anger left unchecked will spiral up and out of control.

This puts us at a serious disadvantage when it comes to both understanding anger and dealing with it effectively. Because we don’t allow anger, or at the very least try to shut it down as quickly as we can, we don’t really know how to be with anger. We don’t see it as a very human and normal reaction. We treat it as a stranger, if not a dangerous stranger, so we can’t just let anger come, be in the room and then move on.

My family is a too-perfect example of this thinking. If I or my siblings displayed anything that looked like anger we were told to “take our bad mood someplace else”. We were taught early and hard that anger was very poor form, very bad behavior, and indicated a selfishness that would be punished pretty severely.

At the same time my Dad, dealing with his own issues and training, was allowed to display (and vent) his anger when he wished, and (worse) was inconsistent and even capricious when it came to how he reacted when he was angry. So we learned both that anger was not allowed and that when it did show up it was unpredictable and even risky.

It’s my argument that one big reason we don’t know how to do conflict well is that we don’t really know what anger about, at a fundamental level.

What Anger is Actually About

Anger is simply one of the ways we respond when we’re anxious. It is very much part of Flight or Fight (hence the name). It looks like this:

Anxiety = threatened or trapped, real or assumed, so I should FLEE.

Anger = threatened or trapped, real or assumed, but I CAN’T flee, so I have to turn and face

down the perceived threat – until I can flee or until the danger ceases.

Think of it this way: you’re a gazelle at a water hole, somewhere on the plains of Africa. You’re minding your own business when suddenly you smell lion. Yikes! Your first impulse is to run, now. 90% of the time that’s going to work well – you’re a gazelle, after all, and you’re pretty damn fast.

But sometimes you’ll find the lion is behind you, and you have to go through the lion to get to safety. That’s why nature gave you those sharp pointy things on the top of your head. You turn, fueled by adrenaline, and you get those horns in position. You don’t stop looking for opportunities to get away – you’re simply ready to fight until your keyed-up brain sees a way out and sends you running in that direction. (And let’s be clear – the nanosecond you see a way out you’re going to be gazelle-like and RUN.)

Yes, I’m saying that anger is simply one of the two faces of anxiety. That isn’t necessarily intuitive, but it is implicit in the notion of Flight or Fight. It’s also very important to understand the sequence – anxiety invariably comes first, then anger follows (if getting away doesn’t seem feasible).

If we grasp this simple notion we can understand anger in whole new ways. It takes the mystery out of anger! When someone blows up in a meeting, starts muttering furious asides during the presentation or shuts down and glares at his or her co-workers at lunch, they felt trapped, anxious, stressed FIRST. They then proceeded to anger/annoyance/frustration when it was immediately clear how they could “get away” from this situation.

Why does someone feel trapped? It is very person and situation-specific. Even if you know someone well you may not be able to quickly sort out why a person has suddenly escalated to anger. But it does mandate communication to find out. I’m going to share specific examples of this understanding of anxiety, and what we can each do about dealing with anger more effectively in my next blog. In the meantime –

1) When do you get angry? Can you identify specific situations, and where anxiety/worry/stress might be the start of that anger?

2) HOW do you react when you get angry? Do you shut it down, bury it, squish it hard? Do you vent and then feel bad? Do you walk into an empty conference room and scream?

3) Does anger feel safe, or dangerous, to you?

See you next post!


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