It looks like anger is tearing our world apart.
It’s not. Anger has no power to tear anything apart. Anger is just an emotion. It’s immaterial. It’s ephemeral. It’s a ghost. It can haunt us, but it can’t destroy us. However, the expression of our anger can be deadly. More specifically, when we get in the bad habit of expressing our anger before examining it, we can tear the entire fabric of civilization in two.
If you start watching your anger—observing it, studying it, learning from it—you will notice three important things. First, not all anger is created equal—there are at least four kinds of anger. Second, each kind of anger comes with its own impulsive reaction. However, with just a little bit of awareness, each one can be cultivated into its own wise response. And third, one kind of anger in particular is resistant to self-examination.
Let’s start with that one…
Defensive Anger becomes a reflexive and destructive habit in our lives. It is inherently aggressive. Sometimes passively so, sometimes obviously so. This is the signature anger of the false self. In other words, Defensive Anger is usually first experienced in adolescence, as kids develop their false and protective personas. It begins as a sincere desire to protect our good, beautiful, and true self from shame and rejection. However, over time, the goodness of our true self gets forgotten, and the Defensive Anger itself begins to feel like the highest good within us. Strength, toughness, and violence in its various forms become glorified above and beyond everything else. If left unchecked, it takes over the whole person. It has taken over much of social media.
Your Defensive Anger will keep you focused on the problems in everyone else. So, to handle it better, we simply have to ask ourselves, where is the Defensive Anger in me? As you redirect your focus inward, you will notice a voice within you, running through a litany of grievances. It blames others for your problems and shames others for their defects. It decides what they deserve. The wise handling of Defensive Anger requires only one thing: that we observe this voice and choose not to follow its commands. Then, we are free to listen for a better voice within us, a voice whispering of our worthiness, and the worthiness of everyone around us, even those people who continue to wield their own Defensive Anger. Especially those people. Doing this may feel like voluntarily climbing up on a cross and dying.
Maybe ending the cycle of violence always feels that way.
Frustrated Anger is very different. It happens when you have a goal—when you want something—and you encounter obstacles on the way to getting it. This is the signature anger of childhood. It’s a kid throwing a tantrum because they can’t have dessert until they eat their green beans. Of course, we never really grow out of our Frustrated Anger. Much of life can feel like a plate of green beans, with the chocolate cake just out of reach.
There are a number of wise ways to handle Frustrated Anger. On the one hand, what feels like an obstacle in your way may just be a problem in need of a solution. No need to start screaming; start solving. On the other hand, the obstacle might be an opportunity to practice releasing an attachment to something you don’t really need, or it might simply be a lesson in patience. In the end, Frustrated Anger, when handled well, makes the world a better, freer, or more patient place.
Scared Anger happens when we feel like our safety or well-being are being threatened, and our fight-or-flight response involves two options: get afraid and run, or get angry and attack. This is the signature anger of the limbic system: the natural and healthy part of us designed to keep us and our loved ones alive. It is the anger you feel toward your child right after they wander away in a crowd, you search for them in a panic, and you find them again, unharmed. “Don’t ever wander off like that again,” you yell. Fear and anger, two sides of the same threatened coin.
The wisest way to respond to Scared Anger depends upon the severity of the threat. If you are about to be eaten by a tiger on the Serengeti, you’d better run. If you hear footsteps rushing up behind you in a dark parking garage, you’d better reach for your pepper spray. In most situations, though, we don’t even know what we’re feeling threatened by. So, pause. Identify it. Ask yourself, do I need to flee from or fight this? Might there be a third way? Is it possible to approach this threat without anger, perhaps even with tenderness? Many a marriage has been saved by trading the expression of anger for the confession of fear. Most Scared Anger, when handled well, makes the world a more vulnerable and authentic place.
Righteous Anger happens when something bad is done to something good. It’s in us for good reason: it’s the anger from which most justice arises. This is the anger most of us feel about sex trafficking, for instance. It is the signature anger of the true self. It is usually first experienced in childhood, at the intersection of our worthiness and our wounding. When we arrive in the world, we assume correctly that we are worthy of love and belonging. Then, someone sends us the message through words or silence, action or inaction, that we are not worthy of their love and belonging. In this moment, the true self experiences injustice about the way it is being treated. These kinds of moments happen over and over again in our lives.
Righteous Anger is the urge is to protect the good thing, in us and in others. However, when it is Righteous Anger we feel, and when we are careful to protect the purity of that anger, it is never destructive. Its only agenda is the protection of goodness, so it seeks to protect the goodness in one thing while simultaneously remaining aware of the goodness deep down in the person or thing being resisted. True self in you sees true self in everything, and all action becomes compassionate action. Righteous Anger, when handled well, makes the world a more loving place.
Let’s review. If we handle our anger well, we can create a culture of peacefulness and progress and patience, of vulnerability and authenticity and tenderness, of justice and love, wherever we go. We can do so not because we don’t have anger, but because we are having it in the wisest way possible. So, what are you waiting for?
Stop expressing for a while, and start examining.
Stop reacting immediately, and start responding.
Stop destroying thoughtlessly, and start creating.
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Dr. Kelly Flanagan is a psychologist, author, consultant, and speaker who enjoys walking with people through the three essentials of a truly satisfying life: worthiness, belonging, and purpose. His blog writings have been featured in Reader’s Digest, The Huffington Post, The 5 Love Languages, and the TODAY Show. Kelly is the author of Loveable and True Companions.