Anger and power

I have learnt through bitter experience the one supreme lesson: to conserve my anger, and as heat conserved is transmuted into energy, even so our anger controlled can be transmuted into a power which can move the world”. (Mahatma Gandhi)


Untransformed anger is ineffective

Inspiring leaders such as Gandhi and Nelson Mandela did not suppress their anger at the injustices they saw in the world, but nor did they act it out in a way which hurt others. They channelled the energy of anger in a very specific way, and consciously left behind the judgments and violence which are for most people an intrinsic part of the anger state.

Marshall Rosenberg has said that “When we are angry, killing people is too superficial”. Of course there is wry humour in this arresting statement, but also some literal truth. Many of us have screamed to ourselves or out loud, “I could kill him!!” and some of us have ‘meant’ it, at least in that nano-second. Anger can be a really overwhelming force. Some of us are very good at holding in check or repressing our strong emotions, perhaps through fear of the consequences or as a result of our particular cultural training. We fume inwardly or displace our anger elsewhere, probably with negative consequences. People who are not so in control of their reactions and who have actually killed other human beings in anger may well feel shame and regret afterwards, when some of their rage has been discharged and they are able to see the results of their action, but it’s also not at all uncommon that the original anger remains and can be provoked again by similar trigger situations. Tragically, some people are driven to kill over and over again – and are still angry inside.

What is true for this extreme situation is also true for our everyday experiences of anger. Killing, hitting, attacking, judging, blaming other people – whether physically or verbally – are all only superficial expressions of what is going on inside us when we are angry. What’s more, these violent and reactive responses to stressful events involve abandoning our power to really change anything. The drama of violence and retribution is doomed to repeat itself and even to escalate until we stop and go deeper into our feelings. Whether we act out our anger or repress it, we simply create more stress and more karma, with others and with ourselves.

Non-violent or needs-based communication offer a third way, one which does not mean ignoring, stifling or swallowing your anger, ‘calming down’, ‘being gentle’, ‘behaving decently’ or ‘accepting’ the situation which has provoked us. It means facing the challenge of becoming aware of what is actually at the root of our anger, fully and wholeheartedly.

Finding the causes of anger

There is a difference between what allegedly ‘makes us angry’ and what actually causes anger to arise within us. The former – what someone else says or does, typically – can be the immediate stimulus or trigger for our anger, but surely not the cause, unless you believe that we are helpless puppets condemned to a set of automatic reactions to others’ behaviour.

For example, compare what may happen when someone arrives late for an appointment with you and you are kept waiting. Possibly you feel annoyed, a mild form of anger. On the surface this looks like a need for respect. However, if you are also wanting reassurance that the other person cares enough about you to value your time as much as their own (need to be valued or cared for), you may actually feel hurt underneath the anger. If your concern is to spend the available time slot in a more constructive way than standing around waiting (need for efficiency or productivity?), then you will probably feel frustrated. If what you longed for at that time was actually half an hour of quiet solitude without any demands for interaction (need for space), and you have the presence to tune in to that need instead of dwelling on the surface layer of annoyance, then you might actually feel grateful that the other person came late! Note that nobody has ‘made you feel’ anything. The other person has done the same thing each time. In each case it is your personal needs, combined with your ideas and interpretations, which give rise to your feelings.

Of course this is true of any emotion, but with anger it is especially stark, as there is energy in anger which is lacking in, say, sadness or depression. Energy can become power if it is used to connect needs with resources, but if it is just discharged in reactive judgment, there is no power available, only the dissipation of an excess charge which has built up, which at best can bring only temporary relief. Anger is closely linked to powerlessness, as long as we make someone else responsible for it. Claiming our anger as our own, however, can be a scary step. Inquiring into our anger tends to reveal layers of different emotions and unmet needs, larded with judgments and assumptions. There may be pain, struggle and mourning involved in working through those layers. But this work gives us the chance to change our habitual, unproductive responses and is in the end a liberating and empowering process. Without it, I believe we have not properly grown up.

The true purpose of anger

The original purpose of anger was to mobilise our nervous system and musculature to defend our physical integrity: to ready us for a fight, essentially, by increasing the heart rate, raising blood pressure and blood sugar levels, and diverting resources from the internal organs to the muscles. When we get angry, we breathe faster (and more shallowly), blood flows to our face and limbs, our bodies tense and we may start to shake and sweat more as our body gets ready for action. Adrenal hormones released in anger act specifically to inhibit the secretion of tears and saliva, dilate the pupils, inhibit the ability to hear and create tunnel vision. Our eyes stare, our nostrils flare: the senses are sharpened in terms of focusing on the enemy in front of us and blurred or disabled as regards seeing the bigger picture around us.

Anger may be helpful if someone is actually attacking us physically, or a large predatory animal is about to eat us. Then we may need a very short range focus and heightened physical alertness just to survive. Sitting down and carefully reviewing what got us into this scrape probably isn’t going to help at that point. Adrenalin-charged anger can give us the courage and unexpected strength to fight off a more powerful opponent, or to save the lives of our children when they are threatened (as in the mother bear archetype). This is the proper use of anger. And it’s a situation most of us in the modern world only encounter once or twice in a lifetime, if that. 99% of the times we get angry, our physical integrity is not under any threat whatsoever. In reality, someone just cut into the supermarket queue ahead of us, or said something we thought was rude, that can be enough! In this case the physiological reactions described above are not only unnecessary, they actively interfere with our meeting our actual needs and tend rather to spiral a conflict out of control. Our autonomic nervous system has been tricked into reaction by a stimulus that is no threat at all to our physical safety. It may be that such abstract stimuli as get us angry today were not even present in our biological environment when anger evolved as a defence mechanism. ‘Being offended’ seems to be quite a recent invention. So, what is the nature of those stimuli?

Righteous anger

I don’t know when human beings started blaming each other, the government, the Jews, the Muslims, the immigrants, the political party we didn’t vote for, etc etc for everything that happens to them. It seems to be a thread throughout recorded history but still, I don’t think it was always there. I am sure other animals don’t do judging and blaming, even those capable of abstract reasoning such as bonobos, elephants and dolphins. Animals just deal with the situation in front of them, however grim. Low ranking chimpanzees get beaten up by high ranking ones, but they don’t seem to complain about injustice. They don’t even get angry unless they are physically threatened, and even then only if they have a chance of seeing off the aggressor; and when the threat is removed, they relax. Somewhere in the course of human evolution, this judging mind came in. Maybe it was down to the tensions that arose ten thousand years ago in the Near East, with the switch from nomadic hunter gathering to settled agriculture, bringing for the first time the potential for the stronger to amass more food stores than they could carry and the desire to hoard and defend them against the weaker. The ‘my property’ demon and the beginning of social inequality. Maybe it was the invention of iron weapons or the advent of horse-riding Kurgan raiders, or simply the rise of a competitive patriarchal society eclipsing the peaceful goddess culture which had reigned for so long before, if you believe archaeologist Marija Gimbutas’s conclusions, all of which apparently occurred at about the same time. Or perhaps, having got rid of all the large predatory animals, people missed the buzz of the survival-anger adrenaline response? Perhaps increasing population density triggered more interpersonal conflicts, and maybe all these factors came together. In any case it seems fairly clear that by the time of the three great monotheistic religions, with their vengeful Gods and their versions of ‘good’ and ‘evil’ laid down by the High Priests in stone and on papyrus, human beings had transferred their ability to get angry in physical defence of their children and their tribe onto the ability to get angry in defence of purely abstract concepts of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’. We learned to be cross and outraged if others did not worship our gods, follow our customs or use our language. ‘Righteous anger’ was born, and this is still the form of anger we experience today in one form or another, nearly every time we feel angry.

A judgmental emotional state

What today we call ‘feeling angry’, and in some circles glorify as a valuable feeling, worthy to stand alongside sadness, grief and fear, happiness, hope and joy, is actually a rather primitive emotion, belonging to an archaic phase of human evolution, which has later become contaminated by moralising judgments (unlike those other examples of genuine feelings). It relies for its force simply on making other people wrong: “She should never have done that!”, “He is a selfish bastard!”, “Lock them up and throw away the key!”, etc. Unfortunately the anger reaction pathways are so well established in our neurological and endocrine systems that we often find ourselves plunged into the very physiological symptoms of anger without even noticing the judgmental thoughts which have triggered the reaction. And then, as supposedly rational human beings and naturally uncomfortable with our sudden access of animal aggression, we often try to defend and justify our state, for example by building an enemy image of the other person.

If instead we track our reaction pathway back with scrupulous honesty, we find that the chain of events does not start with a feeling in the body but with a thought in the mind: often one including words such as ‘should have’, ‘shouldn’t have’, ‘wrong’, ‘evil’ etc. The situation can never be resolved to our satisfaction now, as the only ‘solution’ our minds will accept is for the other person not to have done what s/he has already done! And that thought didn’t even come from our own minds in the first place; babies aren’t born knowing how to blame others, they have to learn it. Sadly, by in effect blaming others for our uncomfortable feelings and then getting angry about it, we actually devalue our own feelings before we have even recognised them, and so give away our own power. It’s like a parasite. Not only is there nothing valid to get angry about (a physical threat), but this external mind-construct is stealing our energy and living off it!

Another option, which is always on the table, is to abstain from making a mental analysis of what is ‘wrong’ about some other person and why we are ‘justified’ in being angry with them. Or at least, when we notice anger rising, to pause, notice those judgments in our heads and reframe them. A simple way of giving space to this process is to take deep, slow breaths – the opposite of what the anger hormones tell our bodies to do. Stretching the body, moving slowly, and looking and listening to the horizons similarly counteract the tension and narrow focus of the fight-or-flight response. If there is a strong stimulus to anger in the room, it may well be necessary to go somewhere else to recover our self-awareness.

When we are calm enough to focus but not so calm that we have forgotten what we got angry about, this is the time to go more deeply into our anger. The first step is to separate the feelings of pain from the judgmental thoughts that accompany them and give compassion to both. Resolve those thoughts with compassion for whoever we are blaming and pay attention to our own neglected needs behind our pain. Then make an action plan to attend to those needs and to watch out for the thought patterns. (If these are recurrent then it’s time to go deeper, perhaps to a core belief process). As we start to get a handle on the anger, we will usually notice that other feelings are also present underneath, often including sadness, fear or confusion. These may lead us to focus on another set of needs. When we connect with our needs, we are in touch with what is keeping us alive, and any remaining anger – which is ultimately of the head, not the core – quickly evaporates. We may still have strong feelings, but when we get down to the nitty-gritty, they are no longer feelings of anger – that was, as Rosenberg indicated, just on the surface. To complete the processing, we can turn back to the other person involved and hold their situation with compassion as well. Notice that anger is absent in each moment that we are fully present with another human being’s feelings and needs. This is maybe a more advanced skill and easier to do when we already care about the other person and are no longer triggered ourselves.

Anger and evolution

Applying these NVC techniques reveals that righteous anger is in fact based on an illusion, even though it triggers such strong bodily reactions. An effective biological defence system has been hijacked by some abstract thoughts based on some beliefs about ‘right and wrong’ which we have picked up along the way. Anger as we typically experience it is a signal that we have moved up into our heads to judge somebody else. It speeds us up just when we need to slow down. And it totally distracts us from our point of power, which is to identify which of our needs we are not connected with – and then to see what we can do about it.

From the point of view of the survival of the body, it is better to constantly over-react to false dangers than to miss reacting quickly the one time a wolf actually does plan to eat your baby. There was little or no cost to pay for being quick to anger in its original form. Thousands of years of warfare and conquest, including the sexual violation of the defeated enemy, have left their mark in our genes as well as our culture. All of us alive today are descended from long lines of quick-to-anger, aggressive warriors who have repeatedly wiped out the peace-loving and thoughtful, the conciliatory and the forgiving in every conflict that has raged down through the ages. When ‘righteous’ anger arrived, it was easy for it to commandeer the system. Since the triumph of patriarchy and competitive capitalism, aggressive behaviour (in men especially) has been consistently admired and encouraged throughout western history, and now it’s being promoted in feminist circles as well, as a miscalculated antidote to male hegemony. (Compare today’s strutting pop divas, action heroines and female politicians with those of the last generation – from fawning subservience to the men, to themselves aping the macho posturing!).  The parasite is well rooted now in both our biology and our culture.

Luckily our behaviour is not entirely determined either by ‘nature’ or by ‘nurture’. We have this thing called choice. Sure, if we act unconsciously we will follow the programme – either the ‘selfish gene’ which kept us from the bottom of the pile through the millennia of struggle for survival or the cultural imprint which endorsed it, or some ugly mish-mash of the two. But the option is always there for us to come back to the present, override all the programmes and check in with what is alive in us here and now, underneath that ‘superficial anger’…