Lately, I’ve seen a lot of different posts on the topic of anger on social media, in and out of the Enneagram context. How anger is destructive. How it’s constructive. How it needs to be worked through. How it is a natural part of being human and not something that needs to be fixed. How it is a sign of health — or a sign of pathology. What gives?
One problem with so many of our discussions, not least those around inner growth, is born at the very start of the discussion — or even before it begins. When we want to discuss or understand something, we naturally have a limited perspective. This is quite normal, and actually necessary, as if we didn’t, the discussion and our thoughts on the topic would overflow to cover, literally, everything. But going into the discussion, or phrasing our questions, we tend to assume that others are operating out of the same perspective and with the same level of understanding (or misunderstanding). And there’s our problem: more often than not, they won’t. This means we tend to end up discussing different things, many times without ever realising it.
What brand of anger?
This is most certainly the case with the anger discussion. There, the problem arises already when we raise a question about “anger”. (Is it good? Bad? How should it be handled? Et cetera.) And the reason is simple: anger is not one thing. So, while a lot of the statements made about anger seem contradictory, most of them are actually true. It just depends what brand of anger we are talking about. And there are so many.
At its core, anger is a natural, instinctual response against being mistreated in some way, having your boundaries violated, being attacked or other such things. Often, and more for some individuals than others, it’s also a secondary, defensive reaction to an emotion that feels like it might render us powerless; a way to access our “oomph”, or to defend against weakness. The energy of anger is indeed very potent, so it is often used (more or less) constructively, to boost action and/or resistance. (Note that this is not to say these responses and reactions are right or wrong; they are just natural. Nor is this a complete list, obviously.)
Vilifying anger as a control measure
In many contexts where control is an issue — parenthood, government and religion come to mind as clear examples — anger is also often painted as bad. Since it assists us in things like resisting oppression, opposing authority and breaking out of restrictions imposed by others, this is quite understandable. If you take away your subjects’ anger, they will be much easier to control.
The unfortunate bit is the vilifying of anger as such — as anger is, indeed, a healthy part of our instinctual toolbox. When we cut off someone’s access to anger, we cut them off from an important part of themselves. This is not to say it’s healthy to walk around with a low grade anger constantly simmering within you — but that is just one (and a fairly warped) brand of “anger”.
Anger as a destructive force
The interesting thing about vilifying anger as “destructive” and “unhealthy” is that these words primarily describe brands of anger that we might call warped. This is, without exception, anger in various forms — irritation, indignation, antagonism, vehemence, annoyance or a general grumpiness or aggressive attitude that serves the purpose of covering up something else. These brands of “anger” are usually the ones that people refer to when they say anger is bad (for you), destructive or something that needs to be worked through. And it’s usually anger that is in some way held in out system.
Our body-mind systems weren’t designed to hold on to energetic states. Energy currents such as emotions and instinctual impulses are made to happen momentarily and then dissolve — close the current, release the charge; get “spent” in one way or another. This is how things happen in nature. No animals live holding on to anger (or any other state) — or, there are some exceptions, but they’re only ever found in animals whose lives are strongly influenced (and restricted) by humans. So this holding on is a human invention, and it is never healthy.
Non-grounded anger ends up held in the body
Human babies come into the world as a work in progress. For many years, we are still developing, and nature’s idea of this process is that we have some guidance from our caretakers. One form that such guidance takes is the mirroring of states. When the young child is frightened, sad, angry, happy, curious or whatever it might be, she needs two things: To know that her experience is okay (as in, not be judged or punished for it), and, sometimes, help allowing and managing her experience.
Often, emotions and energetic responses can be overwhelming when we are not yet acquainted with them. Then, the child needs an adult confirming that the experience is okay and encouraging her to allow it and let it close the circuit, be grounded. This does not mean letting the child have her way; my nephew wanted to walk on the motorway, as a three-year-old. Grounding the energy has nothing to do with what happens with the situation — it happens through the adult absorbing the child’s frustration at the restriction and not punish them (and ignoring is punishing) for having the reaction in the first place. A three-year-old has no way of NOT having it. and it’s way to soon to start expecting the child to keep their reaction to themselves and “act civilised”. Neither can we expect them to rationalise and understand the logic of the situation, because they can’t reason that way yet. But we can, and need to, allow and absorb the reaction. If we won’t the energy has nowhere to go, but is encapsulated in the body. (This is literally what happens, which Candace Pert wrote about as early as 1989 in her book Molecules of Emotion.)
Anger held in the body gets warped
When I say “we can and need to”, this is in theory. In practice, we often can’t. I’m just saying, that’s how nature intended for the child to learn to deal with frustration, limitation and anger in a healthy way. However, few, if any, humans do learn this as children. Many never learn at all — and certainly not before they have kids of their own, which means that they also don’t get taught this. So warped anger is rampant. No wonder “anger” gets a bad rap. But that’s like saying apples make disgusting food because you never learned to pick them before they turned brown and half-rotten. It’s not the apples, it’s your timing. And it’s not the anger, it’s us warping it.
The warped anger, which can be expressed as anything from aggression and irritation to victimhood and even depression, is what needs addressing. And the irony is, the way to address it is by un-warping it. It’s by finding the root cause of it and owning that. (Again, not necessarily by confronting people we feel have wronged us — even if that might eventually be something we do — but by allowing the energy within to come full circle and be discharged.) Sometimes, this needs to go through a phase of (therapeutic) expression; sometimes, we can do without that. This is a whole topic in itself, and perhaps worthy of its own article. The important thing is to see that this, that which needs working on and can otherwise be destructive and unhealthy, is not “anger”. It never was.
The irony of “angry people”
Let’s picture an Eight. The angriest of them all, at least potentially — right? Often, it certainly looks that way. If this angry, aggressive or grumpy person (who does not have to be any particular type but comes in all shapes and sizes) were to investigate into their irritability, fury, touchiness, or whatever expression the anger regularly takes, they might eventually come to realise that it covers up a vulnerable, scared, defenseless being. We’ve all heard this, and, intellectually, it’s not all that hard to believe.
The interesting thing happens when such an individual realises where the original anger is actually directed — and how life-threateningly dangerous it was to harbour such anger at (usually) the very same people who they were dependent on for their survival. It’s sometimes tempting to jump straight into the feelings underneath (and if this experience is genuine, go ahead) — but for most of us, it’s healthy (and challenging as ****, for Eights and others alike) to stop and own this original anger. It’s as lonely as you have ever felt — and as strong.
“What brand are you referring to?”
So. Anyway. As I said — a big topic indeed. But, returning to my original point: For the purpose of being able to discuss the topic of anger, either irl or in the challenging arena of social media, it’s helpful to realise that there are different brands of anger. Not just in their flavour or degree — as in, a slight irritation versus a blasting fury or just a sour face, indicating a strong dislike — but in their very making and basic structure. We’re referring to different phenomena.
Deleting yourself out of your life
Let’s say someone convinces you that anger is bad, destructive and wrong, and we’d all be better off not having it. And let’s say you are a type Nine, who already firmly believes (albeit, possibly, unconsciously) that anger is bad and will, indeed, be devastatingly destructive. You have been thus convinced your whole life, and this has had you forever disappearing your own preferences and wants, so as not to make waves or cause discord. The “wisdom” that anger is bad and destructive is poison for you. (Again, I’m not saying all or only Nines are like this. It’s just a plausible example.)
Expressing your anger at substitutes
On the other hand, let’s picture you’re an Eight instead (or whoever we identify as an angry person), ready to express your anger and not taking too much care who happens to be scorched in the process. It’s “just how you are” and people should just “deal with it”. That’s not very healthy either. It likely means you have a lot of stuff tucked away within that you need to take a closer look at. (Again, not all or just Eights, etc. Just painting a picture.)
Or any other way that our anger gets twisted
The above examples are just the opposite sides of the spectrum, and there are multiple versions in between them where the anger gets intellectualised, turned inwards into self-criticism, channelled into depression, twisted into exactitude or whatever it might be. The point is, we all need access to our instinctual anger response, and none of us do very good with its warped cousins, whichever flavour they might be.
But isn’t talking it out a better solution than getting angry?
And there is one part of “anger not being one thing” that I haven’t even mentioned yet: ANGER is not the same as EXPRESSING ANGER. Also, EXPRESSING ANGER does not always mean acting out at people. And however you choose to deal with your anger it has nothing whatsoever to do with how you choose to deal with any actual conflict; these are (or should be) two entirely different things. Anger is an inner event for you to explore, experience and process. Any outside conflict is, well, an outside event, for the concerned parties to address together.
“Being angry” is not a behaviour
This is something we need to get straight, too. When you talk about someone “being angry” — are you referring to them being obnoxious or aggressive, i e, their behaviour? ”Anger” is not a behaviour. Shouting at someone, hitting them, stonewalling them or whatever way someone might express their anger — those are behaviours. We might call them “unproductive ways of expressing anger”. But there’s a difference between prohibiting these kinds of expressions on the one hand and prohibiting anger on the other.
“Expressing anger” is not resolving conflict
There are productive ways to express anger. And I’m not talking about “talking it out”; that is not expressing anger, that is resolving a conflict. For resolving conflicts, talking things out is great. For expressing anger, not so much. For resolving conflicts, doing it with the people involved is also preferable. For expressing anger, please don’t do that, unless you are both willing to do it as a therapeutic exercise (and then, preferably, with an actual therapist). We need to stop believing anger is always a call for a need to change something outside of ourselves. Or, even when it clearly is, it’s still not meant to be a weapon in a war for said change.
Warped anger should always be sorted internally
As adults, it does happen that we get angry, address something, and it’s over. But when anger is warped (which it often is, completely or partly, in adults), it is never a good idea to bring it into the situation that (seems to have) caused it. A common misconception is that anger is a good way of getting things done, of putting your foot down — in short, that the energy of anger is meant to be used for change something in the external world. And it is true that this energy can be used that way. If it’s relatively pure and not too warped, it can work, too. And even if it’s not, it can sometimes be used as fuel for good things on the outside. It just doesn’t solve anything on the inside. Also, often, the “good things” are not what happens anyway.
Your anger at a practical situation (or person) might well be justified, and it might be calling you to try to change something about the situation. But since there is a good chance that the anger is warped in some way — that is, that it is in fact nourished or at least sprinkled with reactions to old wounds that have nothing to do with the current situation — it’s a good idea to take a look at this energy in private (or with a trusted friend or therapist) first.
“But … won’t I lose my momentum if I stop and process the anger first?”
Well, you might lost that particular momentum. But here’s the best part: You will be stronger for owning the energy. Whatever “wrongs” remain after you dealt with the angry energy can be dealt with in a far more balanced — and un-warped — way when we’ve first sifted out the old, irrelevant (but poisonous) reactivity. After that, we know more clearly what we want in the situation at hand, and it’s likely that any actual remaining conflict will be resolved much more easily and amicably than it might otherwise have been.
But I digress again
The point is, we mean a TON of different things when we’re referring to “anger”, and to people being “angry”. There are also a lot of opinions connected to it — which, in turn, are fuelled by old ideas around anger that we might have been spoon-fed growing up. So it’s a good thing to look at what we’re actually referring to. Because anger is, indeed, not just one thing.