Dr. David Henderson

The Two Sides of Rage

Understanding Anger and Using It Well
March 10, 2016
David Henderson

The presidential election is just around the corner and emotions are running high. Clearly, there is a great deal of outrage and disgust surrounding the two most controversial figures in the running: Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. Anger is a normal emotion for all human beings to feel and whether you are a Republican or Democrat, a liberal or conservative, a pro-lifer or pro-choicer, religious or not, there is nothing like politics to divide us into two kinds of angry people: the actively-aggressive and the passively-aggressive.

Angry Baby

Active-aggressors take direct action to fix the problem that stirred their anger. They see an injustice and channel all of their angry energy into making it right. Morally, of course, there are right and wrong ways to take action. Anger that leads to the violation of the rights of others is generally considered wrong in our society. However, in some respects our culture has thrown the baby out with the bath water (in an actively-aggressive way of course!). We’ve been told that any form of active-aggression is wrong, that the healthiest individuals don’t take strong stands on anything, work hard not to offend anyone directly or indirectly, and stuff their beliefs, their feelings, and their actions into channels that look neat and tidy on the surface. In short, we are told to sweep our dirt under the carpet.

The problem is that the pressure of that stuffed anger becomes an explosive time-bomb. For example, I knew a lady who was the sweetest person you could ever meet. No person and no situation ever seemed to rile her…until, that is, she got into her car. I was shocked when I discovered that she had been in a physical altercation at a local grocery store when someone cut into her parking space. When I asked her about it later, she said, “I don’t know. Something just came over me.” I wondered how she could act so aggressively over something so petty and yet never seemed upset by the major conflicts in her personal life. It wasn’t that she was immune to anger, she had just learned to suppress it. Like anyone else, however, she had a breaking point.

Passive-aggressors are those who displace their anger onto something unrelated to the inciting problem or who act in ways that don’t clearly convey their anger to the offender. There are certainly times when passive aggression can be healthy. When we channel our anger into something productive, even if it is unrelated, we at least have something positive to show for it. A long run, an hour hitting the weights, a piece of artwork, an impassioned talk with a friend, or a deeper determination to complete a project at the office are great ways to deal indirectly with the problems in our lives for which there are no solutions. When we feel powerless, we can channel that anger elsewhere.

Passive-aggression becomes a problem when the displacement of our actions ends up producing more problems than good in our lives. When our boss reprimands us at work and we come home and shout at our children, we’ve just made our home life as bad as our work life. When our favorite sports hero gets injured in the big game and we punch the wall, our busted hand does nothing to help him heal faster.

The other problem with passive-aggression is that it can postpone our acceptance of responsibility for our anger until a later time when the stakes are much higher. For example, we might be able to get away with the silent treatment of a friend who has hurt us. In the short term, it allows us to avoid being vulnerable and facing the pain of conflict. However, this response prolonged over time leads to a growing tension in the relationship that may result in either a slow tearing away of the connection we have or an explosive blowup that does irreparable damage to the friendship.

So how do we decide what to do with our rage? First we must understand what generates it. I believe there are three major causes of anger:

  1. A sense of injustice – If we believe that something that has, is, or will happen to us is unjust, we are likely to feel anger.
  2. A sense of meaninglessness – If we believe that the circumstances we’ve had to endure are pointless, we will become angry.
  3. A sense of helplessness – If we believe that there is no way out of our circumstances, that we are destined to endure forever the cards we have been dealt, that we cannot overcome our injustices or bring purpose and meaning to our situation, we will struggle with anger.

So how do we deal with the anger:

  1. Find a way to bring justice to your circumstances. If you have strong beliefs about a moral or ethical issue you have faced, actively look to make it right. Perhaps you cannot make it right for yourself, but you can for others. Join an organization or volunteer where you can help others overcome their injustices and through this, bring some justice to your own experience as well.
  2. Find a way to bring meaning to your circumstances. Viktor Frankl is best known for his book, Man’s Search for Meaning. In it, he describes his experiences in a Nazi concentration camp. Those who survived emotionally were the ones who found meaning out of an otherwise meaningless situation. A simple example in our lives would be getting caught in stand-still traffic and reminding ourselves that this traffic could have saved us from something more terrible down the road.
  3. Find a way to fight helplessness with courage and serenity. I like the serenity prayer which says, “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.” There is something extremely valuable and freeing in knowing you have done everything you can do to fix something and then accepting the ultimate outcome, no matter what happens. It can transform rage into a peaceful contentment like no other.

So the next time you feel angry, ask yourself what is driving it. Ask yourself how you are wanting to deal with it: passively or actively. Then decide that you will bring justice, meaning, courage, and serenity to the situation, whatever it may be.

Question: What have been the most effective ways to deal with anger in your own life?