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32. What's Wrong With Anger?

Nothing on earth consumes a man more quickly than the passion of resentment.Oscar WildeAnger is a natural human response to hurt. It arises when someone cuts you up on the motorway, when someone criticises you unfairly, when someone hurts you physically. If it had words it would shout 'STOP!' If somebody is standing on your toe and you yell at them, there's a good chance they'll move. Anger has a purpose and is almost certainly Darwinian in origin. The trouble is, like other primitive emotions, it is a blunt instrument. It is the same emotion whether you are being mugged in the street or somebody takes your turn in the queue at the Post Office. In fact we'd probably all agree that queue jumping is the worst possible crime, and that fury is an entirely appropriate response.I have a very recent experience of this. I was shopping with my daughter in a local bookshop and we were waiting to be served. There were two counters in operation and we were standing between the two, next in line. When one assistant became free, a man suddenly appeared from nowhere and presented himself at the cash desk. I felt a flash of annoyance and my daughter was similarly peeved. Because we weren't in a hurry, and because we were having a nice day, the annoyance was short-lived but we nevertheless indulged in a little faux anger. First we grumbled about the man for his appalling behaviour (even though he probably didn't realise that we were waiting). Then we had a good look at him - what kind of creature behaves like this? He was a bit scruffy and somewhat overweight - ah well, what do you expect of scruffy fat people? Did we say anything to this man? No, of course not, saying something is a bit scary. Who knows what would have happened - maybe he would have reacted angrily and then suddenly a little inconvenience would have become something much more upsetting. And of course, we've been taught since children that when we're angry we're wrong. So we kept quiet. (I'd like to say at this point that I have nothing against men who dress informally and like food.) There is so much to note in this little story. First the knee-jerk reaction of anger to familiar slights. When you get angry there is always a history. It doesn't have to be exactly the same circumstance, it just needs to hurt in the same way. With queues it may evoke feelings you have always experienced when people take something from you that is yours. Or when somebody intrudes on your space. Or when your rights are violated in some other way. Suddenly one little incident triggers a backlog of hurt that goes back to when you were two and another child stole your ice cream when no-one was looking. The second thing to note is the doing nothing about the slight. This means that you suffer in silence and the perpetrator gets away with whatever they've done. Again, this taps into a history of being treated badly by people with whom you have never felt able to assert yourself. That child who stole your ice cream just laughed at you, and your parents weren't there to defend you. Third is the rationalising and generalising that tends to intensify the anger. My daugher and I may have been joking around at the time but most of us do look for signs in a person who has wronged us that explain their behaviour, and then generalise that sign to other people supposedly like them. This is the root of prejucice of course.Fourth is the suppression of anger. It is not acceptable to express anger in our society and we are all taught from an early age that anger is bad. Certainly, creating a scene in a bookshop would be unedifying for you and unpleasant for everyone else. But what happens to that anger, especially if the same thing happens again and again? Because we were all so young when it was communicated to us that anger is bad, we think that feeling it is the same as expressing it. We may have been told off when we were angry as children, or the message may have been communicated by an absence of anger in the family. As a result most of us reject our anger and turn it inside, where it becomes resentment. After many occasions of doing that, our anger is easily triggered and is invariably out of proportion to the incident in hand. What has happened is that we have become stuck in the mode of a child who is unable to assert or take care of themselves but who occasionally has a tantrum when it becomes too much to contain.Another consequence of this strategy is that we never really look at the hurt that underlies the anger, which is the only place where healing can happen. Our resentment, which in time can turn into hatred, poisons us as well as the people we are angry with, and it is interesting to note that many cases of depression are caused by unresolved anger and hurt.Try this:1. Think of the last time you felt angry. What was happening, and what old sores were being triggered?2. Allow yourself to feel as much of the anger as you can and for as long as it lasts. Notice how much energy there is in the anger. Feel free to shout and stamp and hit a pillow if it helps. It's fine to feel anger, it's not the same as expressing it publicly.3. As you experience your anger, you will at some point start to feel the hurt that underlies it. Notice what the hurt is. One way of looking at this is to ask yourself what need of yours was not being met? If someone pushes in front of you, your need for respect may not be being met, or your need to be noticed, or your need for fairness. What is your history of feeling like this? When you find the hurt, give yourself a bit of compassion.4. Notice how you now feel about this incident.Bitterness is like cancer. It eats upon the host. But anger is like fire. It burns it all clean.Maya AngelouThank you for reading my tips this year, and all your feedback and support. Have a great Christmas and New Year!