“Anybody can become angry – that is easy, but to be angry with the right person and to the right degree and at the right time and for the right purpose, and in the right way – that is not within everybody’s power and is not easy.” – Aristotle
Many of us have a tendency to think of anger as a frightening, destructive, and unwanted emotion. We may think about the potential disastrous consequences of experiencing or expressing anger, which can lead to a desire to avoid this “dangerous” emotion at all costs. It is true that anger has the potential to be dangerous when it results in acting in destructive or impulsive ways. It is important to recognize that the emotion of anger itself (as with all emotions) is not necessarily “good” or “bad.” Its potential for positive or negative outcomes is dependent on the manner in which it is expressed, the context, and the ultimate consequences.
If you take a moment to reflect on the potential benefits of getting mad, what comes to mind? Your intuition may be telling you that the emotion of anger exists because it has the potential to serve incredibly useful purposes and to provide you with valuable information. Emotions are only to be dreaded, feared, or avoided, when they are mismanaged or misunderstood. The emotional experience of anger has the potential to serve a constructive purpose in a variety of potentially surprising ways.
(1) Anger can be motivating.
Anger has the potential to provide you with the energy that may be necessary to take proactive steps toward important goals or to rectify difficult or unjust situations. Consider the way in which the emotion of anger can increase your state of physiological arousal – your heartbeat and breath may quicken, your muscles may tense up. These physiological changes may serve to prepare you to take important action that a more passive or calm emotional state may not provide. In fact, according to a study (Aarts et al., 2010), when you view something as beneficial, you want it even more when you are feeling angry. Used wisely, anger can provide you with a powerful motivating push toward getting what you want.
(2) Angry people are more optimistic.
This finding may seem particularly surprising, since many of us tend to view angry people in generally negative terms. “Optimistic” may not be a descriptive term that readily comes to mind. Some research (Lerner et al., 2003) suggests that following the 9/11 attacks, people who reported experiencing anger tended to expect fewer attacks in the future than those who did not experience anger. The people who reported experiencing greater fear tended to be more pessimistic and expected more future attacks. Fear can be a quite different emotional experience than anger, in the sense that it is often experienced as immobilizing, which can understandably lead to a sense of helplessness and pessimism about the future.
(3) Anger can help relationships.
Generally speaking, many of us tend to think of anger as being “bad” in the context of a harmonious relationship. This can be true if the anger is used carelessly, harmfully, or is mismanaged. On the other hand, when anger is actually justified and is proactively directed toward finding and implementing a solution, it is quite helpful to the future of a relationship. Baumeister and colleagues (1990) found that hiding anger in relationships can be quite detrimental. This is because when you hide your anger from your partner, they remain blissfully unaware that they have done something to upset you (people are not mind readers!), which often results in them continuing to engage in the harmful or upsetting behavior. This does no good for anybody. When you express your emotions openly, your partner then has an opportunity to listen and take proactive steps toward rectifying the situation.
(4) Anger provides insight into yourself.
If you take the time to mindfully slow yourself down in the moment and reflect on your emotional experience of anger, there is great potential for increasing self-awareness in meaningful ways. One study (Kassinove et al., 1997) inquired into how participants’ recent expressions of anger had impacted them, with 55% of them responding that getting angry ultimately led to a positive outcome. One third of the participants observed that their experiences of anger had provided useful insight into their own faults or shortcomings. When you make the choice to use the emotional experience of anger constructively, you are adopting a mindfully curious attitude toward the emotion… what is this experience of anger trying to tell me? What information is my anger providing?
(5) Anger can reduce violence.
While anger is certainly often experienced immediately prior to violent acts, it can also be a tool to reduce violence because anger serves as an incredibly powerful social signal that something needs to be resolved. When other people actively observe the emotional expression of anger in other people, they often take these signals as strong social cues that something is wrong and needs to be rectified. Psychologically healthy individuals do not actively seek out violence or interpersonal discord, so when they pick up on subtle or overt cues of anger in others, they are often motivated to understand what the potential problem is so that it can be resolved.
(6) Anger can be a negotiation strategy.
Anger can be expressed in justified and respectful ways, just as it has the potential to be expressed in unjustified or manipulative ways. The fact remains that anger can be used as a powerful negotiation tool to get what you want out of a person or situation. The important thing to remember is to mindfully tune in to your experience of anger and make the choice to express it respectfully and authentically to others, rather than passive-aggressively or manipulatively. Van Kleef and colleagues (2002) found that negotiation participants made larger concessions and fewer demands of an angry person than a happy person. We need to appease angry people for the most part, because the experience of others’ anger can be uncomfortable and unsettling. However, when people demonstrate a history of misusing the emotion of anger to get their way, this “strategy” can most certainly backfire.
What thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations come up for you when you reflect on your own personal history of and experience with the emotion of anger? Perhaps you notice yourself tensing up and feeling afraid. Or maybe you think of how others have expressed anger toward you in the past, and you notice your own retaliatory anger building up inside. Remember that there is no such thing as a “bad” emotion. Anger is neither your friend, nor is it your enemy… use it wisely and constructively in the service of your goals and values.
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Featured image: Angry by vauvau / CC BY 2.0