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When is it Worth Being Mad?

27 March 2014

The following tweet showed up in my timeline, and I was immediately captivated:

This is a brilliant question, in the first place simply for being asked. So many of us, like me for about the first 30 years of my life, never bother to think about why we get mad. We just react to things. That doesn’t even imply we’re bad at dealing with the anger, necessarily. Simply that emotions are fundamentally primal. They happen to us, it seems, from without. In the first blush, anyway. And from there, we decide how to contextualize them and manage them.

It is a labor of many years duration (at least it was for me) to be able to recognize my emotions rapidly and prevent myself from lashing out with them. And I’m still not fabulous at that, but I don’t generally attack based on fear, anger, or frustration anymore. I can sit back, name my emotion, look at where it’s coming from, and then act when, as I said to Nikki, when I can talk about my emotion, rather than through it. Sometimes this happens in the space of a few seconds. Sometimes it takes me days to sort through everything that was going on.

Anger is an emotion I was always terrified of, both in others and in myself. My mother’s anger was unruly, and vicious. And hair-triggered. My father, very slow to anger, was terrifying when finally provoked. I knew (and know) that I have that kind of cruel, spiteful rage inside of me as well. Rage focused on laying waste to relationships and surroundings. Rage fueled by fear and hate and shame.

Through many years of psychoanalysis and now many years of working the program of Alcoholics Anonymous (which I am told has roots in philosophy not dissimilar from cognitive behavior therapy, though I’m not educated enough to understand all that), I have also come to learn that anger can be a very productive emotion when it is reined in and used effectively. Anger allows us to communicate the unacceptability of a circumstance in a way that ought to be very clear to everyone involved.

Of course, being angry doesn’t necessarily get us what we want. And using anger to demand what we want is bullying. But anger expressed properly about a conflict will almost always result in a change in the circumstance that led us to anger in the first place. In the ongoing saga of my house having many, many problems, I have expressed anger toward my home inspector and the seller. As a result, I’m getting some things fixed, and I know where the line is regarding what I can expect them to handle amicably and what I will have to either swallow or sue for.

My anger did not get me what I want: someone else to fix and pay for all my problems. It did get me a clear delineation of my circumstances and where I stand, so that I can move forward with intention. I sent icily polite emails, in which I made no formal accusations and no official demands, but in which I did indicate I expected to be compensated in some way. And so far, I have been, though not in precisely the way I would like. But at least I understand the boundaries I’m confronting.

When is it worth being angry? I think that’s not quite the right phrasing. We get angry when we are confronted with a situation we find to be unjust, intolerable, unexpectedly disadvantageous. And feeling angry is a perfectly normal and acceptable response to those situations. When we get angry, it’s ok to be angry. To me, the question is, when is it worth it to act angry? To inform others of our discontent and expect some kind of response to our emotional state.

Well, when we’ve sat with our initial reaction and, after the shock of revelation has passed we find ourselves still unable to endure the circumstance we’ve become enmired in. I personally don’t really think it’s ever ok to stomp and rage and tantrum. That’s both childish and bullying. Nor is it appropriate to demand others behave in a specific way. It is perfectly appropriate to inform people of your expectations and needs, without varnish, and to lay out how you will behave in the event that your expectations are not met.

We cannot control others. But we have every right to lay out our expectations, and make others aware that if they are not met, some additional action will be taken. It may be legal action, it may mean changing or ending a relationship, it may mean changing employment or living arrangements. Or it may simply be reframing the fundamental way we consider another person. All of which we have the right to do.

When is it worth being mad? Any time you’re mad. When is it worth sharing that anger, and acting on it? When reflection and consideration, without making assumptions regarding others’ motivations, reveal that a circumstance is not acceptable. When the expression of anger has a potential positive outcome (generally, not only for me, but for others as well). And when I can accept that expressing the anger may result in changes to the circumstances other than what I anticipate, which may be unknowable.

And finally, and most importantly, when I know that if I’m wrong, I can bear to make the amends I’ll owe.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. 27 March 2014 20:05

    hm, I might read in a little different in “mad” than you? I was “taught” that anger/mad isn’t really an emotion but most of times rather the expression of several different emotions (shame, scared, loose of control comes to mind). That said, I think I buy into the “expressing the anger in a constructive way”, although i think most of this is helped a lot by me working a boxing heavy bag at the gym and pounding the street with my feet…. to let go of frustration and getting less agitated about “smaller things”.

    I’m trying to move towards the state where little things are not worth being mad (upset) about, simply because it doesn’t conserve the energy as much as “letting it go”. I heard a great seminar by Marshall Goldsmith a few years ago which really made me laugh since it seemed naive to m, but it is really helping me. He asked afew questions “can you change anything by being upset about the situation”, if no, just let it go and focus on what you can change… etc. Anyway, my few cents.

  2. DrLizzyMoore permalink
    27 March 2014 20:29

    Anger is interesting. In my experience, it stems from either fear or sadness. But, honestly, that’s a little simplistic. I remember losing my shit once when a package was lost by ups. Maybe that was sadness….maybe that was something else….anyway, as per usual, spot on post. Thank you..

  3. Syd permalink
    29 March 2014 09:26

    Anger for me is fueled by fear and judgement. Both are emotions I learned early in life. I remember a mentor telling me that to use anger, I needed to be prepared to 1) out crazy the other person or 2) leave the field of battle and channel the anger into something more productive than no 1. I prefer to channel the anger and not spew it onto another. Inventorying my motives gets me to the root of the anger. And then I can take appropriate action. I like the 3 A’s: awareness, acceptance, action.

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