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Understanding Anger and How To Express It

Anger is one of the most commonly suppressed emotions. But why? Many of us have difficulty confronting our anger, seeing it as wholly irrational, even if it has a legitimate cause. Rather than dealing with what’s causing us to be angry, many of us simply choose to ignore these negative feelings, but doing so can cause more harm than good. A column by Matthew Huston in the New York Times entitled “The Rationality of Rage” points out a number of recent academic papers which examine the benefits of expressing one’s anger in certain interpersonal situations. Anger can be a tricky emotion, simply because it’s very powerful. Moreover, it can be fueled by a number of sources and can inspire us to lash out, even it’s at the wrong person or for the wrong reasons. But recognizing when we’re angry and expressing how we feel can be a necessary part of maintaining our mental health, so long as we do so in a way that isn’t abusive. Perhaps Huston explains it best in the following summary towards the end of his piece: “We tend to associate anger with the loss of control, but anger has clear applications and obeys distinct rules. It may be blunt, but it has its own particular logic. And used judiciously, it can get us better deals, galvanize coalitions and improve all our lives.”

The Philosophy of Anger

The nature of anger and it’s usefulness or lack thereof has been debated for centuries. Ancient philosophers like Aristotle argued that anger is good insofar as it is appropriate and moderate. He said: “the man who is angry at the right things and with the right people, and, further, as he ought, when he ought, and as long as he ought, is praised.” Furthermore, according to Aristotle, anger should neither be too strong nor too weak, and should be expressed at the right time. However, he did caution anger forged from passion. This is because this kind of anger almost always goes to excess since it is less easily controlled.

Unfortunately, as other philosophers began to agree, the opinion then evolved into believing that anger as a whole was bad, making it useless as an emotion. Famous stoic philosopher, Seneca, believed that anger was entirely dangerous because, by its very nature, it was difficult to control. In general, the stoic’s view of emotions were more extreme than that of the more nuanced Aristotle. It is they, perhaps, who developed our modern beliefs that emotions are an enemy to reason because they impede it. This perspective argues that, although emotions are a part of our human nature, they inhibit our best selves, which is to say our rational selves, leading us to do things that our ideal selves wouldn’t sanction.

Such sentiments would later be echoed by Immanuel Kant, who would argue that passions like anger compromise our sense of reason and corrupt our moral decisions, making them (and us) more dangerous. But what about Aristotle’s argument that anger has its time and place of usefulness? Dr. Mark D. White, chair of the Department of Philosophy at the College of Staten Island/CUNY, explains that “Today, many philosophers hold a more integrated view of the roles that both emotion and morality play in our ethical lives, more in tune with Aristotle than the Stoics but drawing heavily from both.” As such, even if we learn the value of our emotions to both our practical and moral reasoning, we must also learn to acknowledge the limitations of how well we can harness and control what are essentially elements of our primal nature. Dr. White notes: “Most of us are all too aware of how easily we can lose our tempers, and we should keep that in mind when we consider trying to put those tempers to use.”

Constructive vs. Destructive Anger

Thus a distinction must be made between constructive and destructive anger. It is constructive anger that Huston’s article focuses on. He cites a 2009 article in Negotiation and Conflict Management Research which reveals that “anger is more likely to lead to such mutually positive outcomes when it is low in intensity” and when it is “expressed verbally rather than physically.” Such anger when expressed, Huston explains, “can sometimes benefit all the parties involved, not just one of them, by clarifying boundaries, needs and concerns. Think of the loved one who doesn’t realize how strongly you feel about the relationship until you express feelings of frustration with it.”

The Benefits of Expressing Anger

In essence, rather than viewing anger and other emotions in extremes, like the stoics, it’s good to see anger through a more moderate perspective. Used constructively, anger can be a good way to express one’s discontentment with a situation so that the situation can be improved upon rather than resume in such a way as to make the individual uncomfortable. However, when left to its own devices, without control, anger can easily go from constructive to destructive. It is this anger that the stoics defined all anger by, and it is this anger that can lead to dangerous outcomes. Anger, like any powerful emotion, necessitates regulation to keep from excess, but, when controlled, is a necessary aspect of the human emotional spectrum, and is perfectly natural to experience, and healthy to express.

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