Good Anger and Harmful Anger

Anger gets a bad press. It is mostly perceived as an emotion that needs to be managed and controlled. Understandably so, especially in these turbulent times.

Google is replete with search sites that offer the reader many tips on how we can control and temper our anger. John Cleese, in describing the British attitude towards anger, has said that the British barely get ‘miffed’ and that they haven’t reached the level of ‘a bit cross’ since World War Two (Psychology Today, March 2014).

We can attribute this quote to the particular style of John Cleese but consider the daily indignations and frustrations that we encounter in our daily life. How often do we swallow our anger and remain silent?

I believe that this way of reaction needs to be reconsidered. There has been a recent spate of studies that have shown that there are significant benefits to expressing anger in appropriate situations. I would suggest that a better understanding of the dynamics of anger in general and our own ‘anger style’ in particular can improve the quality of our communication, both in our personal and in our professional lives.

A recent study by James Averill examines the upside of expressing anger (The Atlantic, January/February 2019). He surveyed a large sample of people in a typical American middle-class suburb and asked how they dealt with the indignations they face. He assumed that they only infrequently lost their temper. Those surveyed described the mundane arguments in which they were involved.

While there were angry episodes, they rarely became extreme. They didn’t make bad situations worse. They made bad situations better. People reported that they felt much better after they said what they felt. The ratio of beneficial consequences was three to one. More than two thirds of the ‘accused’ came to realise their own faults. Relationships were strengthened more often than weakened. Good anger encourages us to air our grievances and find solutions.

I would be remiss if I didn’t discuss the harmful effects of anger. Anger works, yet it is often used to manipulate others. Donald Trump is the obvious example. He understood how to use anger for his own personal benefit. “As far as I am concerned, anger is ok… Anger and energy is what this country needs.” Yet, as Averill points out in his article, manipulations to encourage, and, sometimes to incite are widespread in the corporate world.

In some instances, ordinary anger can also lead to moral indignation, which in turn can lead to transformative change.

Martin Luther King provides an exemplary example of positive change that stems from righteous anger.

There is much to be gained in understanding the mechanisms of anger. Examining our own attitudes towards anger can lead to behavioural change that may improve the quality of our relationships.