Is Anger a Choice?
Is anger a choice? If you believe you can change your response, then the answer is yes.
Anger is an important primary feeling which indicates danger and that some of our needs are not being met, yet it remains one of the most undesirable, controversial and one of the least understood emotions. The current assumption is that the original purpose of anger is to propel us out of danger, but as we grow up and become part of society, anger can become entangled in shame, prejudice and loss of control.
Another prevailing assumption about anger is that it is a secondary emotion, that is, it is expressed on the back of other more primary ones, such as fear and sadness.
These two assumptions have led me to believe that people don’t have to get angry, they can, but they don’t have to. This raises the question of choice: can we choose whether we get angry or not?
I distinguish between two different types of anger and there may be more.
One is situational and the other more pervasive. The therapeutic approach to either of them should be different. Situational anger, as in finding ourselves in a perceived dangerous situation, can be dealt with expressing anger and letting go or anger management techniques to start with and then looking closely into the underlying concerns. In this case, anger can sometimes be an appropriate reaction, what may not be appropriate is how it is being expressed.
People can learn to replace anger with assertiveness.
A more pervasive anger is not necessarily related to a dangerous situation, but an overall sense of disillusionment and being let down, the unfairness of one’s life, a sense of me against the world and vice versa and feeling trapped or constrained to name a few – this can lead to suffering and it is also linked to depression and anxiety (research indicates that anger, depression and anxiety are often closely related). Here the therapeutic approach is learning to engage creatively in healing and supportive relationships and activities. This approach is about recovery rather than simply self-control, although self-control is important.
People can learn to replace anger with assertiveness. Imagine a ruler with one end marked as violent, the other as assertive and in the middle aggressive, we all fall somewhere along this ruler and I believe most of us can and move along these points of reference. When such transitions happen, it can help to define boundaries, adjust to new situations and acknowledge differences. Conflict without anger can be a healthy part of an intimate relationship.
You can learn that anger is not a thing that you either have or not, like a virus, but a dynamic way of relating to different situations and different people. You can also learn to develop a more flexible and resilient way to deal with tough situations. You can learn to identify your needs and negotiate them usefully. You can also learn that sometimes being angry is a cover up for other feelings that are harder to express.
One of the most sustainable and enduring anger management strategies is to build sustainable and enduring relationships.