Tempering Temper

When was the last time you lost your temper? Were you proud of how you reacted? Was it fun? Anger is a common, shared experience. A Gallup poll conducted annually across 115 countries has shown that anger is a frequently felt negative emotion for many. The experience seems to have grown over the 15 years that Gallup has conducted this poll culminating in 2020 results hitting records. Higher levels of anger may not be a record of which any of us is proud. On average a quarter of us admit to having experienced anger in the past day. In early June of 2020, the results of Gallup suggested almost 40% of us had experienced anger for “a lot of the prior day.” These results hit all demographics. Men and women of all ages and political persuasions aren’t immune to becoming grumpy. Sure, some of us are more susceptible to getting hot under the collar than others. The stereotype of hotblooded Italians gains some credence as Gallup’s poll finds 30% of Italians experience anger regularly, slightly higher than North Americans. As common as the experience of anger is, none of us feel better when we’re bitter.

What kinds of things make us mad? What is at the root of our rage? Are there types of anger? We can get angry for many reasons. The most common cause of our conniptions is that our expectations or efforts have been thwarted in some way. Irritation is the result of frustration. Specifically, frustrated expectations. Reality presents with something other than expected or desired. How sensitive our we to our needs? How deeply do we believe things should be a certain way? Something has impeded our path and disrupted our plans. Our expectations have been frustrated which begins to boil our blood. Did someone cut in front of you at the check out line of the grocery store? We can’t help but view and live life from our own perspective. We see ourselves as the center of our universe. We expect things to go our way. Our pride produces more pain than a French baker. We see frustrations as personal slights. We ignore the perspective of others and interpret things from our own point of view. If we feel we are at the mercy of others who make decisions which impact us in a less than ideal way, we become angered. Another common trigger here includes slow service. Additionally, the behavior of others in public context which we feel impacts us may drive us to fits of range. For example, people trying to walk into an elevator before those already on can exit. Our sense of self-importance trips us up and creates tirades. A separate example are interruptions. Interruptions can be a trigger that sets off anger. Interruptions can be seen as someone seeing what they’re doing as more important than what you’re doing. Their needs are superseding yours. We may interpret this as an insult or attack frustrating our efforts. It’s an egoistic perspective. Seneca captured these sources of anger noting, “the cause of anger is the sense of being wronged.” Arius Didymus was an advisor to the emperor Augustus (and a mentor to Marcus Aurelius). Didymus observed, “Anger is an appetite to take vengeance on a person who seems to have acted unjustly contrary to what is fitting. Temper is anger starting up; rage is anger boiling over, wrath is anger set aside or stored up to mature, rancor is anger keeping watch for an opportunity for revenge; ire is anger breaking out on the spot.” So many flavors of anger, yet all taste sour.

Anger can also arise when we’re in a pinch. When we’re under time pressure, we’re prone to getting grumpy. Getting stuck in traffic which leads to delays disrupting our schedule is a common cause of anger we’ve likely all felt. Falling behind causes anger both because our expectations are being frustrated but also, perhaps, because we are mad at ourselves for not planning for the contingency.

We can also use anger as a shield. Where we have failed to perform instead of owning responsibility, we can use blame as a weapon to flog others for their fault to protect the shame we feel. Similarly, we use anger as a defense where we feel vulnerable or scared. If we’re being teased, for example, we can become upset which eventually airs as anger. When we do this, we’re like a cornered animal. We feel defenseless and powerless and have little left but anger to use to try to protect ourselves. At the root of most of our rage is our ego. Our sense that we’re the center of our world and our expectations about how things should be are the primary movers of our madness. No wiser authority than Buddha observed “In a controversy the instant we feel anger we have already ceased striving for the truth and have begun striving for ourselves.” Once we rage, we rationalize. We aren’t trying to solve a situation; we’re trying to shield ourselves while blaming others.

Our anger creates more problems than it fixes. As Marcus Aurelius wisely observed that the consequences of our anger tend to be much more harmful than the circumstances that aroused our anger. Garret Keizer in The Enigma of Anger points out the personal cost of anger writing, “My anger has more often distressed those I love and who love me than it has afflicted those at whom I was angry.” Not only does our anger trouble those around us, it lingers drawing our attention away from constructive action. In If Life Is a Game, These Are the Rules, Cherie Carter-Scott notes that “harboring resentments consumes a lot of energy.” She encourages us to ask, “Why waste valuable energy on prolonged anger… when you could use that energy for far greater things?”

We may express our anger as the result of being taught somewhere along our journey that it is healthier for us to vent our anger as opposed to suppressing it within. We’ve been told that containing our anger simply builds up pressure until we explode. It’s a compelling perspective that isn’t based on any supporting data. Our health isn’t improved by venting. It’s worsened. Moreover, if venting anger was useful, those overtly hostile would be some of our happier people, wouldn’t they? How many volatile folks do you know that exemplify happiness? Unfortunately, anger is more corrosive than calming.

Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “For every minute you are angry, you lose sixty seconds of happiness.” Emerson may have been a bit too optimistic as the cost to our anger is much more than “just” the loss of an equivalent amount of happiness. The stoic philosopher, Seneca, noted the negative aspects of anger writing that anger is “the ugliest and most savage of all emotions… no plague has done more harm to humankind.” What are some “costs” of anger? There are physiological consequences to our conniptions. Our blood pressure rises, and our breath becomes shallower. The combination of these biological changes creates further negative feelings. The more often anger is experienced the more cumulative the damage of these physical changes. Those that are prone to anger are more susceptible to heart disease and stroke.

Besides the physical problems, our ability to think while under the influence of anger is compromised. The physiological changes we experience clouds our judgement which can result in ruinous decisions. Not only is our ability to think impacted, but permanent brain damage can occur with ongoing exposure to the physiological changes which occur from anger. Stress chemicals like adrenalin and cortisol if consistently dispatched have been shown to destroy neurons in the brain in areas responsible for short term memory and judgment. Your anger can come across like a boy that cries wolf. If your response is always volatile, you lose credibility and your reaction carries no weight other than okay, there he goes again, just endure the storm and things will move along. Impaired by anger, we can implode our credibility, wreck relationships, and crush careers all resulting in regret.

Anger is a maker of misery. Even Russell Crowe doesn’t want to be known for being unhinged. Have you ever heard someone’s volatility be referred to as a compliment? There are few cases where we see it as attractive. Have you ever thought, “Wow, I love it when my boss yells at me, my respect for him really grows?” Or “Oh honey, the way the veins in your forehead and neck swell and throb while your angry eyes bulge is endearing. I really love the tone of your voice when you lose your cool.” When you have an anger attack and blow your stack, are you proud of yourself? Do you want to be known as the one that has a volcanic temper? Does losing your temper reflect discipline? Do we put on our resumes “volatile and hostile” as a strength?

Despite all the downsides of anger, it remains a part of who we are. Is there any venue where being volatile like Vesuvius leads you to become victorious? Some of us run hot. We may credit our heritage or family upbringing, even our genes. Much of the time it’s just an excuse for being mean. Others of us see our ire as fire that serves as fuel. Are there positive parts to being perturbed? Aristotle thought so. He offered, “Anger is a weapon for virtue and valor.” As destructive as anger seems to be, there seem to be some that are well served by it. We see ambitious, hard-charging folk, that take pride in their Type A personalities extolling the virtues of getting things done, busting through barriers that stymie others. We’re told about the “rage to mastery” seen in those deeply committed to developing their craft. We see the sharp edges of personality on the Tiger Woods, Michael Jordan, and Kobe Bryants of the world. We see in movies like Whiplash that people intentionally work to be as demanding as possible precisely because they’re trying to bring out the best in others. These folk argue that we get what we tolerate. If we accept mediocrity, that’s what we’ll receive. We need to be pushed, poked, provoked, and prodded to produce. We see and are told by those that seem to be successful that anger serves. Anger is a strength that spurs high expectations, a sense of urgency, and drive. There are plenty who see their fury as their secret sauce. They view their anger as an asset not a liability. Anger brings out our best which is a good thing that leads to success. How do we help those who fear that tempering their temper is incinerating their intensity?

George Sheehan writes in Personal Best, “Great deeds need hot blood and great likes require great emotion. The fire down below, that smoldering source of energy, is what lifts us over obstacles, and keeps us moving when further motion seems impossible.” Sheehan sees anger as positive fuel that fires resilience and persistence. For many athletes, particularly those in sports that involve endurance benefit from drawing on anger as energy. They can push through pain with anger as an additional source of strength. Additionally, anger can serve to orient our attention that something is amiss. When we are upset by something, it may be a reflection that we’re seeing something we care about deeply be disrespected. Our anger is a natural result of something we value being victimized. Our anger can become strong motivation to correct the situation. Anger, in these circumstances may be constructive. Moreover, anger can serve to help us stand up for ourselves and avoid becoming bullied. Sociologist, Ernest Becker wrote, “Anger is a reaction, a way of reasserting ourselves, a setting things in balance again and preventing a person’s body from being flooded by the environment.”

In Tim Grover’s book Winning he quotes from a prior book, Relentless, where Grover wrote, “Deep inside you there’s an undeniable force driving your actions, the part of you that refuses to be ordinary, the piece that stays raw and untamed. Not just instinct, but killer instinct. The kind you keep in the dark, where you crave things you don’t talk about. And you don’t care how it comes across to others, because you know this is who you are, and you wouldn’t change if you could.… Your dark side is your fuel, your energy. It excites you, keeps you on the edge, recharges you, fills your tank.… It’s an addiction as powerful as your addiction to success.” Grover goes on in Winning offering a method to help us find anger as a motivating force, “If you really want to identify the source of your dark side, try this: Take all the disappointments in your life—everyone who said no, everyone who teased you, every job you lost, every game you lost, every time someone said you weren’t good enough, every relationship that ended badly—and imagine laying them all in front of you. Just spread them out all over an imaginary table. Now: Hold your hand over each one, mentally reconnecting with how each made you feel. Warm… nauseous… cold… nothing … radioactive hot. That’s the one. That’s your fuel. The one that burns you without even having to touch it… that’s your dark side fuel. That’s Iron Man’s armor,” In Voices of Powerful Women, writer Maya Angelou supports Grover’s appreciation for anger contributing, “I believe in anger. Angers like fire, it can burn out all the dross and leave some positive things. But what I don’t believe in is bitterness. Forgiveness is imperative because you don’t want to carry that weight around, who needs to? And it will throw you down. It doesn’t help you to live life. I don’t make myself vulnerable if I can help it.” Instead of letting anger make us swerve, we can try to focus on how it can serve.

A reality of rage is that it’s a double-edged sword. In some instances, it can help us, in others it hurts. Garrett Keizer in The Enigma of Anger observes of his own, “My anger has not carried me far enough toward changing what legitimately enrages me.” Keizer has worked to develop awareness of his anger and how it impacts his life. He’s begun to ask himself the question, “Does it serve?” Is our anger helping us make progress towards changing what’s at the root of our rage? If we accept that anger isn’t always bad, that there’s two sides to it, we can try to evaluate the cost/benefit trade offs applied to any given situation. Doing this puts us squarely back in charge of our anger and lets us ensure that we’re using it, if we’re choosing to, in order to move ourselves forward. A key difference is distinguishing between being reactional and intentional. Reactional anger leads us backwards whereas intentional anger can be productive. Intentional anger is like the basketball coaches that don’t receive a technical foul, they take one. These coaches choose to deliberately cause a disturbance for a separate purpose to get the attention of their team. If anger is a tool, it can be used by a skilled operator. This is more than ok, even constructive. In a future article we’ll offer suggestions for how we can regain control of anger to use it instead of losing it.