Saturday, July 31, 2010


I've been thinking a lot about anger lately. It haunts our family with somewhat greater frequency than I would like, and I'm trying to teach a small boy how to handle his anger. I've always struggled to explain how to deal with anger, because I don't often have a problem with it, and I have trouble identifying why. So I've really expended some time and energy on working out what I do to avoid anger, what I don't do when I fail to avoid it, and how it all relates to what's actually happening in the world around me.

One huge confounding factor in any discussion of anger is that we mean a number of things when we say "I'm angry". We mean we're pissed off - an intellectual conclusion that a situation is unacceptable and intolerable, and we may also mean we are feeling the emotion of anger. The problem here is that while being pissed off is often entirely valid, productive and an important agent of positive change, feeling anger just disengages our higher order brain functions and generally makes us unpleasant to be around. It's the latter I'm talking about here, I've no gripe with being pissed off. The other confusion, is that anger is a sliding scale from the emotional equivalent of "Fuck that's annoying" to absolute blind rage.

The road from "Fuck that's annoying" to blind rage is the critical aspect of what's called "anger management". A lot of the conventional wisdom talks about not burying anger, about the dangers of suppressing it. I've often wondered if I'm just suppressing all this rage and one day it's all going to erupt in some Hollywood movie climax. But as I've been looking at my behaviour more carefully I've realised that I don't bury anger at all. I've not been taught (as I know some people have) that I must not ever show any anger at all. I feel, and show, "Fuck that's annoying" a lot. The thing is, I rarely move beyond that level, and it's not because I bury it, it's because I ignore it and let it wither on the vine, rather than nurturing it and making it grow. That sounds very noble and deliberate, but it's neither. It's just a habit. When I get angry, I distract myself by either going straight into problem solving mode or by constructing reasons why the thing that made me angry might be reasonable or understandable or whatever. The anger just sort of fades away as a side effect. I might still be pissed off, but the angry chemicals have gone from my brain.

Of course, this all sounds very nice, but it obviously doesn't always work. There are things that piss me off, have no resolution, and I really, really struggle to conceive of a way to frame them that's other than infuriating. Then I focus on the anger, and it grows. It goes past "Fuck this is annoying" to "How dare they!". At which point righteous indignation kicks in. At about this time, I become especially unpleasant to be around. My ability to think clearly and rationally is definitely impaired, and I need a completely external distraction to let it go - sleep or a total change of environment with genuine (and reasonable) demands on my brain.

Once, I've been so angry I've gone way past "How dare they!" into "Immobilised with rage". It's a totally useless state of mind, unless fight or flight actually represent useful strategies. In this case, they didn't, and I was as useless as I've ever been. I couldn't think. It was like living in the middle of a whirlwind, except only my brain was spinning.

What's worse, the further down the road to blind rage you've gone, or the longer you've stayed where you are, the longer it takes to get back to zero and the more sensitive you are to further aggravations. Anger is a feedback loop, and once you get more than about half way to blind rage, it takes an hour or more of no feedback at all to get back to zero. That can be all but impossible in some situations, and people can end up almost permanently angry. Even thinking about an irritating thing can bring back the full anger response. I've had days like that, in a general sense, but also, that one time I hit "Immobilised with rage" it was months, maybe even years, before I could think about it without getting angry again.

Anger is not a helpful emotion unless you need to be geared up for fight or flight. Anger can save your life in a physical struggle, but if you need to think your way out, anger fogs your brain. So I find myself getting very frustrated when I hear "You have a right to be angry". Of course you have a "right" to be angry, in the same way you have a "right" to be scared, but that doesn't mean it's helpful. What people mean by that, I think, is that you have a right to be pissed off, which I completely agree with (in appropriate scenarios), but by conflating the two, anger is glorified and justified. Instead of anger triggering thought, problem solving and positive action, it only triggers more anger.

This is an excessively long ramble, but I need to clarify this to come up with better strategies for teaching my kids how to stop anger running their lives. And "When I'm Feeling Angry" really doesn't cut it. (I really can't imagine how you can feel angry without letting it hurt others in any meaningful way.)

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