“Anyone can become angry - that is easy. But to be angry with the right person, to the right degree, at the right time, for the right purpose, and in the right way - that is not easy.” – Aristotle,
Or perhaps it is more accurate to say that we all will become angry at some point in our lives, for anger is an emotion, distinct from the behaviour, or expression of anger, which is aggression
As an emotion, it might be said that anger is not a choice. All emotions (anger, shame, guilt, fear, sadness, joy) are part of the experience of life. They are triggered by life events. Perhaps ones that are painful, ones perceived as threat or invasive. So, to feel the emotion of anger may not be a choice. However, perhaps choice comes in during the aftermath – when working through the emotion of anger.
Anger can be fleeting or it can find its way to disturb us deep in our psyche. It can be an instantaneous response to a situation perceived as threat, the fight response. It can be used as protection against fear or sadness.
Anger that endures, on the other hand, may have an negative impact on general wellbeing and lead to longer-term physical and mental health problems such as:
- Headache (or migraine)
- Digestion problems such as abdominal pain
- High blood pressure
So, finding ways to both experience and then let go of anger seems important for overall wellbeing.
Perhaps it is this aspect of anger that represents the choice. For when anger lingers, when it becomes excessive (when combined with distress, fear, shame etc.), when it becomes too much to bear, that is when the destructive aspects of anger – the aggressive behaviour – becomes a compulsion rather than a choice.
As Aristotle says, working with anger in the right way is not easy.
However, there are choices that can be made. While a range of factors, including the intensity of anger, how long it has lasted, and how you are able to cope with uncomfortable feelings, may influence your choices for working through anger, some of the following may prove to be helpful:
- Choosing your moment to deal with your anger (for example not when tired or hungry, but when feeling refreshed)
- Taking some time out to allow anger to settle (whether a few moments, hours, or even days). Stimulation and stress levels, fear and distress may then lessen.
- Create a mental escape – take a walk, listen to some music etc.
- Understand your anger – consider and reflect on the situation and the triggers for your anger. Is it fear? Frustration? Becoming overwhelmed?
- Ask yourself: is letting go an option? Can you find some way to accept or remove yourself from the situation causing the anger?
If these don’t help, then some psychotherapy or counselling may be the next step, but in the first instance these often prove to be useful strategies.
The choice with anger, then, is not whether to experience it at all, but rather to respond to it in ways that help you to own your experience of anger, rather than allow the emotion of anger own you.
As the quote from Aristotle above highlights, the choice is not whether to be angry or not, but how to be angry, and how to work through it.