In November 2017, I was angry. The utter chaos reflected in the news cycle, in my own country and abroad, had had its effect on me. Donald Trump, Jacob Zuma, Brexit, and men in Hollywood, all existed to drive my liberal soul to the brink of insanity.
Injustice was everywhere, the world was full of evil, and my righteous anger was growing by the day.
Then all of a sudden, something happened to me – something that at first seemed terrible, almost tragic. I started noticing that people on “the other side” were angry too. In fact, they were as angry as I was. They were not feigning anger, or choosing to be angry about the wrong things. They were simply angry.
It dawned on me that everyone believes they are right, and that even if I truly am more right than others, that rightness has nothing to do with my personal choice.
Yes, I was angry. But what is anger, if not an emotion.
What Is Anger?
Most people would define anger as an emotion. It is something we feel in our bodies and minds, which affects our thoughts and consequent behaviors.
But anger is a bit more complicated than other emotions. Psychological theory typically identifies anger as a “secondary emotion.” In other words, it is an emotion we feel in reaction to one or more other emotions.
The purpose of anger is to defend us. When we feel threatened, we get angry and respond with aggression. In a primal situation, it is often entirely appropriate. It is one part of our fight, flight, or freeze instinct.
However, most human situations are not that straightforward. While a threat in humanity’s early history might be a dangerous animal or a physical fight, threats today are more abstract. Someone insults us and we feel hurt, feel unloved, and fear we will be left alone. We hear political rhetoric that makes us feel vulnerable and may imply future danger, and we lose our sense of security. Anger is the natural response, and seems like a better alternative to the hurt and the fear.
A psychologist of mine compared anger to a hammer. A hammer can be very useful. The problem is that when a hammer is not the appropriate tool, it tends to be very destructive. In a similar vein, while anger can be useful when someone is trying to physically beat you up, it can lead to very bad decisions when the threat is emotional. Is there any bigger threat to a relationship than anger?
No One Is Angry Because They Are Right
When it comes to oppression, we tend to feel that our anger is righteous. We are angry because of injustice, and it is noble to be angry about injustice. It shows that we care about what’s right. It shows that we have values and principles.
The thing is, anger is an emotion, and emotions are not rational. No one has ever been angry because they were right. At best, you are angry and you happen to be right. You are just as likely to be angry when you are wrong.
Sometimes, when I am running late, I get angry at other drivers on the road. They are in my way, moving at a snail’s pace. Could they not be more considerate and realize that other people may be in a hurry? When rushing to the hospital after a loved one had been in an accident, I felt incredibly angry at these slow movers and, I thought, rightly so.
At the same time, I have been as angry at drivers pressuring me to drive faster when I am just trying to be responsible. I’m going at the speed limit, after all, so it’s not my problem if their time management skills are bad. I’m not going to risk my life and the lives of others for their sakes.
In both cases, I have righteous justification for being angry. In both cases, that anger is in response to another emotion, whether fear or something a little less distinct. And in both cases, it makes no difference whether I am right or not. The anger isn’t helpful. It covers up the primary feeling and, at worst, leads me towards impulsive, aggressive decisions.
In November 2017, I was angry because I no longer believed in my anger. I felt helpless, aware as I was that the feeling I’d been holding to was nothing more than that – a feeling. I watched Seth Meyers, Stephen Colbert, and Trevor Noah, and could no longer believe in their anger or mine. I saw homophobes on TV, and couldn’t even believe in my anger towards them – people who hated me just for being me.
It was not just disheartening. I felt disempowered.
Until suddenly, I felt the weight of that anger fall away. The anger I had been carrying for years was almost entirely gone. I felt hurt. I felt sad. I felt afraid. But these feelings were temporary. They did not demand action. They were manageable, appropriate, and I didn’t need to hang onto them.
An exercise I had done in a psychiatric institution over four years earlier came back to me. We had been given stones and told to place them in our shoes and walk around with them. Those stones represented our anger and grudges, and showed exactly what that did to us. It slowed us down, held us back, made us uncomfortable. Exactly like anger had been doing to me for so very long.
Letting go of that anger was such a relief. It was such a huge f*****g relief!!! It still is a huge relief. I still get angry all the time, and every time I let go of it, I feel that same relief. So much lighter. So much happier. So much more free.
Anger As Identity
When you are part of an oppressed demographic, anger begins to seem like a crucial aspect of your identity. As a gay man, how can I not be angry at homophobes, who made my life so difficult and caused me to hide who I am for so many years? How can I not be angry at those who are still doing all they can to take away my fundamental rights?
I feel like I have earned the right to be angry. No one should be able to take that away from me.
Except that anger does not add anything to my life. It does not make the lives of my oppressors any harder. It does not even diminish their own right to be angry. It just makes my own life harder. So much harder.
Many of us are understandably worried that if we stop being angry, we’ll get complacent. We’ll stop campaigning for change. Activism will go out the window and we’ll be left with no rights at all.
But letting go of anger does not diminish our hurt or blur our understanding of the situation. It only makes it clearer. We become aware that our oppressors are people too, with their own anger, with their own hurt. We realize that we can still work towards changing their minds. We also realize that aggression almost never changes minds.
It doesn’t take a genius to see that the anger projected in politics is not helping. The angrier people get, the more stubbornly they cling to their opinions. Calling someone a homophobe or a racist is not going to make them reconsider their opinions. It just makes them feel hurt and vulnerable, and they use their own anger to avoid those feelings.
When we have compassion, towards ourselves and others, we are able to deal with our pain. We validate it, letting it in, and letting it go again. It hurts, but it is also healing.
It is then that we can make effective decisions of what to do next. Sometimes, the best course of action is reevaluating our opinions, without the anger pushing us in a certain direction. Sometimes it is to engage in constructive discussion, with compassion and gentleness. Sometimes it is to avoid discussing certain topics altogether.
And often, the best course of action is to tell each other, “I see you. I am angry, because I feel hurt, and I can see that you feel hurt too.” We don’t need to agree with each other to acknowledge our shared humanity.
We are not all the same. But most of us are able to see things from each other’s opinions. I find that remembering my own homophobia helps me forgive others. Conversely, forgiving others helps me forgive myself.
There is no easy cure for anger, and practicing empathy takes work. You are destined to forget to empathize again and again and again. These days, I find myself getting angry at others for getting angry. Pulling myself back and recognizing that I am doing the same thing, and that not long ago I myself was angry all the time, helps refresh my well of empathy.
Next time someone makes you angry, remind yourself that you are not angry because you are right. You are angry because you feel hurt and threatened. Recognize and validate that hurt. And remember that even when something needs to be fixed, a hammer is not always the best tool for the job.