Anger: A Prelude to Courage

Linda Graham, MFT, examines the neuroscience of anger and though it is a necessary, hard-wired survival skill, the key is to recognize healthy vs. unhealthy anger. 

It’s important to understand that anger is a hardwired-in, body-based survival response.  We can feel angry at the drop of a hat from the moment we’re born – because that’s how we survive, individually and as a species.  Anger revs up right out of the amygdala when we feel threatened, just as fear does, often in response to the same threat.  This revving up of fight-flight in our nervous system is what gets the body moving very, very quickly to protect our own life or the lives of our relatives, our kin, our tribe.  Anger is as necessary to our lives as breath and food and love. (Anger also has its costs.  Sustained anger, like sustained fear, sustains the revving up of the stress hormone cortisol which over time leads to increased risks of heart attacks, strokes, gastro-intestinal illnesses, and a steady compromise of the immune system which leads to more colds, flu, headaches, and less protection against cancer.  Research has linked sustained anger to increased risk taking, poor decision making and increased substance abuse as well.) We experience the body-based revving up of anger in response to danger or threat as a full-fledged emotion as it links up with our perceptions and interpretations of our experience, signaling a perceived violation of a boundary, or a perceived lack of respect, or a perceived unfairness or injustice or oppression.  The perception may be accurate or inaccurate, but the fueling of anger is based on our perceptions, not intrinsic to the external triggers themselves.

 It’s never what people do that makes us angry; it’s what we tell ourselves about what they did that makes us angry.

            – Marshall Rosenberg

 The two main problems with anger as an emotion are:

  • anger that is explosive, out of control, our tempers hijacking our better judgment or a full-blown rage knocking the functioning of our thinking brain off line altogether.
  • anger that is repressed; out of sight, out of mind, survival relying on pleasing or placating instead, which can lead to self-sacrifice, self sabotage, self-blame.

In the first case, anger is under-regulated.  Not enough top-down management from the higher brain (especially the pre-frontal cortex which bears most of the burden of regulating the amygdala).  Anger arises naturally, spontaneously, signaling us and others something important is happening!  Pay attention!  But then the anger continues unchecked, often fueled by memories and beliefs from past injuries to our bodies or our psyches.

Flying off the handle sometimes causes hammers and humans to lose their heads, as well as their effectiveness.

            – William Arthur Ward

In the second case, anger is over-regulated.  Too much top-down management from the higher brain.  When anger does naturally, spontaneously arise, it is quicklyAnger - A Prelude to Courage compartmentalized or dissociated away, so as not to offend someone, put us at risk, or get us into trouble, often very wisely so at the time.  Over time, the deflection of anger can be so swift, we no longer feel the anger as an emotion at all, though, of course, the activating of it in our bodies is still there.  Sometimes the repression of anger can be so powerful, all other emotions are swept into denial, too.  We wind up feeling nothing, our feelings flatlined, hence the shorthand phrase – “depression is anger turned inward.” (Why helping people get in touch with their anger and expressing it adaptively can be a skillful means to activate out of depression.) Since all emotions are body-based signals to pay attention and carry with them adaptive action tendencies, the under-regulation or over-regulation of anger implies that an adaptive regulation of anger is possible, which is what we learn here. In her classic book, The Dance of Anger, Dr. Harriet Lerner talks about the first kind of anger – explosive – which gets us labeled a bitch or a prick.  And the second kind of anger – repressed – which leads us to live life as a doormat. She suggests there is a third way to express anger: to channel the energy of the anger into being firm, assertive, clear, and relentless in our cause until our boundaries/needs/rights are respected. This third option – of anger finding its courage to insist, skillfully, appropriately, on change -can actually happen when the pre-frontal cortex – the executive center of the brain – stays online long enough and strongly enough to manage the surges of energy in the body we experience as anger, slowing us down long enough (hence the folk wisdom of counting to ten) to manage the anger, to stop feeding the anger, and to channel anger into some well-thought through adaptive action. You may have experienced in your own intimate and family relationships an earnest desire for the people closest to you to respect your needs – for sleep, for time away; your boundaries – which music or TV show you’re willing to listen to after 11pm and which you’re not; your rights – to speak your own truth about career, finances, holidays with relatives, and be understood and cared about, even if disagreed with.

 Healthy anger requires us to define ourselves and to be the best expert on what values, priorities and desires are not negotiable under relationship pressures.  It requires us to change our part in the relationship patterns from which our anger springs…..Healthy anger requires self-focus, so we can observe and change our part in the patterns that keep us stuck, rather than dissipating our energy trying to change another person who doesn’t want to change.

            – Harriet Lerner

Anger is so cued by our perceptions of unfairness, disrespect, discrimination, humiliation, injustice, oppression, it behooves us to bow to the power of its kissing cousin – shame – to fuel the anger response.  Anger arises on its own steam, of course.  It is hard-wired in to activate the body to move – in fight or even flight to fight another day.  Shame is a learned response, conditioned over time in the right hemisphere of the cortex by our experiences in personal and social relationships.  The right hemisphere does have a built-in negativity bias toward anxiety, shame, and depression, so everything we learn early on about self-worth and self-dignity can encode negatively in our neural circuitry instead of positively, creating underlying automatic patterns of self-doubt, self-hatred. Shame as a primary experience can then trigger anger as a secondary emotion to protect us from feeling unbearable shame.  Anger is often quite justifiable; it is also quite often a reactive force over a deeper underlying hurt, fear, unmet need, or shame.  It is more empowering to feel anger than to feel shame.  Our body-mind can learn to protect us from shame by being conscious of the anger with no consciousness whatsoever of the unconscious shame trigger it is protecting us from. Anger or conflict at work is often a signal something drastically needs to change there, too.  When needs of the whole – fairness in promotion policies, reasonable deadlines for team projects, adequate recourse for grievances – are being overlooked, ignored, even violated, anger conveys an urgency, something needs to be addressed, NOW.  Some problem – unclear goals or timelines, credit not given where credit is due – needs to be resolved, NOW.  If that urgency can be acknowledged by the powers that be, the anger can act as a signal to open minds rather than close them and work creatively, collaboratively, productively toward the greater good for the entire enterprise. This striving for ourselves is what we want to catch and re-channel for the truth of the common good.  There is always plenty to be angry about in the human condition, for ourselves personally and for those people and causes near and dear to us: financial collapse and corruption, the worsening threats to the environment, the siphoning of resources for education and health care into endless military quagmire.  When we can channel our anger toward the benefit of the community – thinking globally, acting locally – insisting on recycling programs at our jobs, campaigning for the restoration of music and the arts in local schools, we are converting anger to action for the common good.

Anger may be foolish and absurd, and one may be irritated when in the wrong, but a man never feels outraged unless in some respect he is at bottom right.

            – Victor Hugo

When social-political change is blocked, then resentment builds and rage erupts.  We’ve all seen race riots and political protests, in person or in the media.  The wisest leaders of all time have had the vision and courage to channel the anger and threat of violence into an unstoppable force to end oppression – ending Jim Crow, ending apartheid, getting women the vote, liberating India from the rule of the British raj. Dr. Agnete Fischer, a psychology professor at the University of Amsterdam, has an interesting angle on anger.  She posits: the more words a culture has for the nuances of anger – irritated, annoyed, miffed, peeved, nettled, vexed, irked, cross, resentful, galled, rancorous, riled, wrathful, furious, enraged, outraged, pissed off, put out, in a snit, indignant, irate, fuming, seething, hot under the collar, foaming at the mouth, hopping mad, in a lather, incensed, livid, offended, infuriated – the more tools we have to steer anger into constructive rather than destructive directions.  The more tools we have to channel all nuances into healthy anger rather than unhealthy rage, the more empowered we are, the more courageous we can be, to channel the signal of anger into the prelude of productive change.