A former advisor to George Bush recalls, ‘One Saturday morning, I get a call summoning me urgently to the Oval Office because the President is furious about something. I dash over, wearing a shirt with the collar buttoned, and he stops me at the door and launches into a 15-minute tirade because I’m not wearing a tie.’
What effect does anger have? In the case of this advisor, it certainly made him feel small, and ensured he wouldn’t forget to put on a tie the next time. For Bush, it meant he’d be shown respect in the future. But more than that, it certainly made him feel bigger, stronger, more powerful.
Emotion is energy that drives us to act. Every emotion we feel provokes physiological reactions that prepare us for a certain type of action. Fear makes us ready to flee, depression helps us save our energy, joy prepares us to welcome someone. Of all these emotions, anger is probably the most energising.
It encourages us to defend our territory, those close to us, things dear to us. It’s an empowering force that strengthens our self-worth. At the same time as boosting the ego, however, it tends to put pressure on relationships. It can take years to repair the damage if we get angry with a friend. And with people we don’t know, it may come to blows.
It’s sadly common to draw energy from anger expressed against those who can’t or won’t leave us – our partners and children. We allow ourselves to speak to them in a way we would never dare with others: ‘I’m fed up with your laziness. You’re completely useless!’ This is not something we should be proud of, but anger is important. A pack of monkeys only survives if, from time to time, a monkey that robs or hurts one of the other members of the tribe is firmly put back in its place.
Anger is also an effective safety valve. So how can we use our anger without destroying things or feeling terrible because we’ve turned on our children or our dog? We need to manage anger, so that we can exploit its energy at the same time as using words and expressions that show respect and consideration.
To achieve this, we need to:
• Focus on objective actions, avoiding labels or cynicism. Instead of declaring, ‘You’re completely useless!’ you might point out, ‘This is the third Sunday in a row you haven’t done your homework for the coming week.’
• Always refer to the other’s needs or the validity of their position. For example, ‘I’m responsible for you, and it worries me to see you putting yourself in situations where you might get hurt.’
• Offer a compromise. For instance, ‘Can we find a way to stop this happening again?’
Anger can be powerful, dangerous or liberating. To be fully human, we have to learn to master it.