Humans 101

What Your Anger Is Trying to Tell You

There’s a thin line between rage and fear — especially in times of uncertainty

A black and white photo of a person holding up a lit match. The small fire is colored orange.
A black and white photo of a person holding up a lit match. The small fire is colored orange.
Photo: Jennifer Walsh/Flickr

Everyone has their own way of loading the dishwasher. Some delicately arrange; others cram. Some lay large utensils perpendicular to the tray; others go parallel. Regardless, we can all agree that this is just not a big deal. So earlier this week, when I reached over my wife’s shoulder and adjusted a cup, then a bowl, I knew I was basically picking a fight.

But her response concerned me more than any quick rebuke would have. Instead of telling me to fuck off and do something useful, she said, “I’m sorry.” And worse, I realized she’d been apologizing a lot over the last few weeks of sheltering in place. For the dishes. For noise while I’m working. Even for the dogs, as if they’re her responsibility alone.

Why was I so concerned about this pattern? Because as someone with anger management issues, I’ve learned over time that when a loved one begins to apologize more frequently than is necessary, the problem is usually not them — it’s me and my anger.

I don’t think I’m alone in noticing the eerie way being cooped up has the potential to get ugly — even when the people we’re surrounded by are those we love. Unchecked, minor irritations can become major problems. Nits to pick are becoming nuts to unpack. Pet peeves are growing into… full-grown peeves.

Anger and isolation

Hidden in the deluge of Covid-19 news stories are other, not unrelated, stories of the dangerous impact isolation, quarantine, and imposed immobility may be having on our mental and physical health, especially for people in already abusive relationships.

António Guterres, the secretary-general of the United Nations, released a short video on Twitter about the dangers for women and children trapped in their homes with abusive partners. The New York Times ran a piece about what first responders at the National Domestic Violence Hotline are seeing, which is predictably grim.

Even for those of us who don’t fit the definition of “abusive partner,” the current situation has some risks. Yet there’s a tendency to not treat it seriously. On April 5, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo introduced the topic of cabin fever during his daily update. Though he was quick to point out the condition has no official diagnosis, he characterized it by feelings of isolation, mood swings, resentment, and irrational outbursts.

The governor prefaced this segment with the phrase “on a lighter note.” To be fair, it’s lighter than the subject of intubation, but it’s symptomatic of the somewhat confusing relationship with anger we hold as a culture. We’re taught to bottle it up, to “manage” and “control” it. We learn from books and movies that getting angry is a character flaw. But it’s also linked to power and success and is often rewarded.

What is anger?

It’s easy enough to find a definition of anger, but by singling out the feeling of it — annoyance, displeasure, hostility — we’re missing the complete picture. Tidy dictionary definitions don’t do justice to an experience that, once unpacked even a little, proves to be startlingly nuanced.

Recently a friend who works for the federal government let loose on a group email thread we’re both on. Stuck in Washington, D.C., under quarantine, she was gripped by fear for her own safety, frustration with her lack of power, and rage at what she saw as an incompetent governmental response to the pandemic. At the end of her rant, she apologized, explaining, “I am just so fucking angry all the time.”

How can the same feeling arise over a misplaced dish in the dishwasher and in response to something as serious, and abstract, as political incompetence? What a purely phenomenological definition fails to account for is that the experience of anger can seem fundamental, mystical, and complex.

Counselor, coach, and author of Anger Among Angels, William DeFoore, PhD, prefers to use the following definition as a leaping off point: Anger is the emotion that comes when you’re threatened or opposed in any way. This is still based in feelings, but here at least we begin to see its fundamental connection with the world — whether external or those parts of yourself you can’t seem to control.

The evolution of anger

This might sound obvious to scientists, but anger researcher Ryan Martin, PhD, reminds us that anger, like any emotion or behavior common to all humans, exists today because it proved to be an evolutionary advantage. In a 2018 TEDx Talk, Martin suggested, “Just as fear alerts you to danger, anger alerts you to injustice.”

Since anger is commonly thought to have origins within the fight or flight mechanism meant to save our lives, Martin’s description is useful in delimiting it from fear, though of course both can be caused by danger. By invoking the idea of injustice, it becomes a little clearer how small, petty grievances can share a term with such vast, serious ones.

The fact is that whether the injustice is minor or major, our response to it is weighed against an estimation of how things should be — and in this way, anger becomes highly personal. What might anger one person can leave another completely unfazed, even approving. Like, oh, I don’t know, a president’s response to a crisis, for instance.

This understanding of anger has deep roots. Though Aristotle never wrote a treatise on anger specifically, he wrote about it at length throughout his other works, notably in Nicomachean Ethics and Rhetoric. He observed that, singular among the emotions, anger was tied up in ideas of right and wrong, and therefore in addition to a psychological dimension, it possessed an ethical one.

What anger looks like

If you took philosophy in college, you might remember that, for Aristotle, “virtue” was always the mean between two extremes. The virtuous person chose the middle path in all things. They didn’t eat too much, for instance, but they didn’t starve themselves either. Anger was of particular interest to Aristotle because it seems to go hand in hand with excessive feeling or action. It’s often tied, in other words, to the experience of losing control (akrasia in ancient Greek).

One of my clearest memories of my teenage years was of being caught in the stairwell by my father, of him holding me against the wall and pulling back his fist. My father never actually hit me, but even at the time, I completely understood what he was feeling. Between the ages of 10 and 16, I hummed with a constant, fluttering panic that would build steadily until some proverbial straw — often at the unwitting hands of my younger brother — would unleash a torrent of hateful words and physical violence. It would scare my brother, it would scare my family, and it would scare me.

Midway through my teens, however, I learned an interesting trick. I would monitor the anger as it was building, and before it reached a boiling point, I would swallow it. Psychologists call this suppression, which has itself been studied and is thought to cause or contribute to a variety of other ailments, even physical ones.

At the time, however, I was thrilled by this personal discovery. It made me feel like I was in control, and the satisfaction of seeing others respond to my rage was replaced by the pleasure in having a secret, in knowing what I could do or say.

In talking about this essay with my brother a few days ago, he said, “Funny, I don’t consider you an angry person.” My wife might disagree, but it’s true that my anger no longer often takes on a form people might readily associate that way. After learning to suppress it, I began to express it as hyper-nit-pickiness, a rapid broadcast of critical observations and insults.

This is a shitty tendency, and over time, it has tested the limits of my romantic relationships, friendships, and professional relationships. And it turns out, I may have been better off just getting angry because there’s evidence suggesting that kind of display helps people get ahead.

Rewarding anger

If anger is often tied to the experience of helplessness, the feedback the world gives us when we’re angry can be unexpected. According to DeFoore, our very early experiences of anger provide an example of this counterintuitive observation. I’m talking about tantrums.

What can be more unjust, subjectively speaking, than not getting exactly what you want — and being entirely unable to communicate your needs? For DeFoore, although the child is blameless for their excessive feeling, parents are often guilty of teaching them the wrong things through their response to tantrums.

“Children who throw temper tantrums often get rewarded,” explained DeFoore, “because they don’t have to do the thing that they don’t want to do.” But the rewards don’t end when we’re still in high chairs. Stanford University social psychologist Larissa Z. Tiedens, PhD, found that people who express anger often receive a bump in social status.

In a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in 2001, Tiedens found that “participants supported President Clinton more when they viewed him expressing anger about the Monica Lewinsky scandal than when they saw him expressing sadness about the scandal.” Perhaps, we learned a little too much from those tantrums we threw.

Anger and control

As we’ve seen, the idea of anger has been caught up in the idea of control from Aristotle onward. Though anger doesn’t preclude self-control per se, it certainly reduces our capacity to think or act rationally. It’s also heightened in situations where control, or its corollary freedom, is already at stake.

Think of driving. Road rage is one of our most potent and common experiences of anger. Cars are supposed to be tools of enablement, empowerment. They symbolize freedom, which is the ability to control our destiny. When that freedom is compromised, let alone undermined entirely, anger is right there to lend a hand.

So what happens when it’s your entire life, not just your trip to the store, that’s been hijacked by powers beyond your control? These days, everything seems aligned to make people angry and to make angry people irate. Our wills are opposed. We feel helpless. Our fight or flight instincts are being triggered, but flight is off the table. Many of us — most likely men, most likely white — have been rewarded throughout life for angry displays.

This makes for a potentially toxic environment. Tragically, there’s a growing number of people falling victim to serious domestic abuse, and because the hotlines are overburdened, services are drying up, and opportunities for escape are discouraged, that tragedy is ongoing.

As Katie Ray-Jones, chief executive officer of the National Domestic Violence Hotline, told the New York Times, victims are in jeopardy “any time an abusive partner may be feeling a loss of power and control.” Right now, that describes all of us.

But even short of criminal abuse, I think there’s reckoning to be done. Recognizing, interpreting, and addressing anger is something we all have to face at certain points throughout this period of social distancing and confinement. But what does that mean, and where do we start?

Anger awareness

The first step, like most first steps, is awareness. As G.I. Joe told a whole generation of Americans in the ’80s, “Knowing is half the battle.” If you think this seems asinine, check yourself. DeFoore recommends that anyone who is struggling with anger should start with the information readily available online.

To be sure, there’s a lot there. So much, in fact, that it can be hard to navigate, to distinguish the relative validity of sources. But I’ve found that the process itself of searching, the investigation, has at the very least a palliative effect — perhaps even a healing one. Being aware of the many different ways anger can be experienced and displayed has the effect of incrementally attuning you to your own emotions.

This isn’t about suppression. As DeFoore explains, that can lead to depression, which can deplete immune function. Just what you need with a deadly virus floating around! There’s a difference between suppressing anger when it rises up and trying to be mindful about what sorts of “injustices” are causing it in the first place.

Do I really care about how the dishwasher is being loaded? Do I think yelling at the dogs is going to recode their DNA and make them docile and mature? Learning about anger and paying closer attention to our triggers begins the process of reevaluating our sense of justice, feelings of entitlement, and preconceptions about how things should or should not be.

The positive side of anger

We’re accustomed to thinking of anger as negative, violent thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. But theorists and researchers like DeFoore and Martin seem to agree that anger can also be channeled into positive action. If it’s born of a feeling of injustice, couldn’t it spur one into some sort of activity that attempts to right the wrong?

Theoretically, I get it. There’s anger behind all protest, behind all social and political action. It’s fueled everything from manifestos to revolutions, and there’s no doubt the anger felt today by people, like my friend in D.C., will lead to positive change in the months and years to come.

But pushing too far into this right now may sound impractical, or worse, judgmental. Like those cloying voices out there telling us to take advantage of our unexpected “free time” by learning a new skill. Practice your Spanish! Teach yourself to sew! Read War and Peace! Gah.

As someone just struggling to survive, this kind of encouragement can easily come across as admonishment, and it makes me want to raise a big fat middle finger. But then, that might just be my anger getting the best of me.

The practical approach is to return to that “fight or flight” idea — that anger is never far from fear. Are you being alerted to danger or to injustice? Very likely, these days, you’re being alerted to both.

But it’s okay to be afraid, and if you start to feel angry, it’s okay to admit that it might be an easier way of saying you’re scared. My hope is that this thought might help bring us together rather than pulling us further apart.

Resources

For help understanding and managing anger, DeFoore’s website can be found at www.angermanagementresource.com.

For victims of abuse, the National Domestic Violence Hotline is available 24/7. Call 800-799-7233 or text LOVEIS to 22522.

Shya Scanlon is the author of Forecast and Guild of Saint Cooper. Follow him on Twitter @shyascanlon

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