Everyone has felt anger, both their own and that of another person; and it isn’t pleasant no matter which side of it you are on. But what is anger; and what place should it have in our lives?

Put most simply, anger is a basic human emotion related to a person’s psychological or emotional sense of having been offended, overpowered, hurt, wronged, or denied something one needs, wants, or desires. It seems to be a necessary part of our fight-or-flight response because it prepares one to fight and react through retaliation. It is hard-wired into our human nature; and, because it is so much a part of the human animal, would seem to have been useful from an evolutionary perspective. We are able to feel anger for a reason. But at the same time there seem to be different rules regarding the situations in which we are socially allowed to express that anger, and the ways in which we are allowed to express it.

Part of our personal and social conflict over anger stems from the shifting way our culture both portrays it and views it. “Righteous anger” for example, the kind often shown in movies when the hero finally gives the bad guy what’s coming to him, seems to be allowed in our culture, particularly if the target is truly, morally reprehensible or has done something really, really bad. Who among us hasn’t cheered and felt a measure of satisfaction when the hero in a movie sends the bad guy flying off a cliff, out a window, or catches him in his own fatal trap? Yet at the same time most of the world’s major religious traditions –Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism- all view anger in a negative light.

Views on anger also differ from culture to culture. Among certain Inuit groups, for example, older children and adults are held to strict emotional standards that forbid explicit displays of anger. In traditional European culture, by contrast, insults to one’s honor or that of one’s family, were seen as ample justification for both anger and measures of revenge.

Things got even more confused for Americans as we grew from being an English colony where the old, European rules generally held, to an increasingly more equal society. From the early frontier to the Old West, almost everyone walked around armed, and everyone (except women and minorities!) had the right to not only get angry, but act upon that anger. But by the late 1800’s, particularly in the East (where things were “more civilized”) the rules began shifting yet again.

On the one hand anger was still viewed as a necessary masculine trait (girls still weren’t supposed to show anger), but on the other hand “gentlemen” were expected to show restraint. By the beginning of the 20th Century, public displays of anger (in other words, anger anywhere but inside the home) were discouraged because they tended to harm the smooth, professional
relationships our new economy needed to function. No wonder Americans are so confused when it comes to anger!

No one can say that it is always wrong to get angry; or that anger is nothing more than a dangerous left-over from our pre-historic past that needs to be completely controlled or eliminated. Most people’s capacity to feel anger is a necessary part of their ability to find their place in society, to protect their interests and those of their families, and to defend their values
and beliefs. It is when anger is consistently used as a strategy, or when it repeatedly cannot be controlled and its results begin to have a negative impact on an individual, their relationships, their work, and on the lives of those around him or her, where it is a problem.

If you are concerned that you or someone in your family has a true anger management problem, if expressions of anger have played a significant part in disrupted relationships, the loss of a job or friends, if anger has repeatedly led you or someone in your family to do things that were later regretted, if you have found that you or someone close to you can’t remember what he or she said or did when angered, and above all, if anger has resulted in a physical attack on, or harm to another person, we urge you to contact Capital EAP for help. Our trained counselors are ready to offer assessment, guidance, and referral. Don’t wait until it’s too late.