The importance of being angry

By Robert J. Burrowes

Unfortunately, in many circles, anger has a bad reputation. There are several reasons for this. One reason is that we are scared when people are angry at us, so we try to scare people, especially children, out of being angry. By doing this, we hope to escape responsibility for our dysfunctional behaviour.

Another reason that anger has a bad reputation is because it enables people to defend themselves against violence and other forms of abuse. But if we want obedient and hardworking students, reliable and pliant employees/soldiers and submissive law-abiding citizens, then we must terrorize people out of being angry. Social control is not easy with people who are powerful and you need your anger to be powerful.

A third reason that anger has a bad reputation is that anger is often confused with violence. But anger and violence are not the same thing. People who are violent are not angry; they are scared or, more accurately, terrified, and they use violence in a dysfunctional attempt to get what they need. See ‘Why Violence?’ and ‘Fearless Psychology and Fearful Psychology: Principles and Practice

Anger is a vitally important evolutionary gift and without it we are perpetual victims. Anger has two primary evolutionary functions: to let us know when we are being threatened or attacked (whether by a more ‘subtle’ abuse or in an explicitly violent manner) while also giving us the power to respond effectively to this threat/attack.

The individual who is not afraid to be angry, will respond immediately, powerfully and, in virtually all cases, nonviolently to any threat or attack, warding off the attacking individual, for example, simply by clearly showing their anger (which is, of course, a clear defence in itself, and watching a snarling dog or wolf will readily convince you of the effectiveness of this form of defence).

In contrast, the individual who is afraid to be angry will either retreat inappropriately, use violence to ‘counter-attack’ (including in situations in which the ‘threat’ or ‘attack’ to which they are responding is actually an outcome of their own projection) or engage in vicarious and powerless acts of rebellion or interference.

What is a powerless act of rebellion? It is an act that is harmful to themselves, others and/or the Earth that is done in a way that allows the individual to either avoid responsibility (as would occur, for example, by dropping an item of rubbish, carrying out an act of vandalism or starting a wildfire where no one will see them) or to delude themselves that they will not be held accountable (as occurs, for example, when someone pretends that there is no connection between their unhealthy diet and their ill-health).

Similarly, an individual might engage in a powerless act of interference in the life of another as an unconscious manifestation of their suppressed anger. For example, if someone is angry because they feel that they are being forced to clean up after someone else, but this anger is fearfully suppressed and cannot be acted upon by raising and dealing with the conflict openly, then the person might half clean up but then leave all of the cleaning equipment in the way of the other person in an attempt to powerlessly ‘force’ that person to clean up after them.

More interestingly perhaps, an individual might engage in a powerless act of interference in their own life as an unconscious manifestation of their suppressed anger. How might they do this? And why? A person might get in their own way, for example, by being untidy, disorganised or by persisting in using dysfunctional equipment (rather than having it repaired). And they do this as an unconscious projection of one or both of their parents ‘getting in my way’ when they were a child. This ‘getting in my way’ usually occurs when the child is ‘held to account’ for making mistakes (that is, being inappropriately and unfairly treated as dysfunctional) but is not allowed to get angry about this unjust response to its ‘mistakes’. So, not allowed to get angry, the child (and later the adult) wants to ‘insist’ on doing what they want (dysfunctional or otherwise) because this represents them trying to learn to do things for themselves (and ‘getting away with’ making mistakes in doing so). Unfortunately, they are now trapped in this behaviour pattern because they cannot have the feelings, which are fearfully suppressed, that would allow them to restore more functional behaviour.

Finally, the individual whose anger is warped by both their own fear and pain, will probably act in a vindictive manner, trying to inflict unnecessary or excessive violence on the person who is threatening or attacking them (again, including in situations in which this threat/attack might simply be a projection from their own past).

As these simple examples illustrate, if someone’s anger has been fearfully suppressed, the anger will manifest in a variety of dysfunctional ways. They might be violent as well because they lack the emotional capacity and skills to resolve conflict nonviolently. But, of course, whatever the problem, violence cannot solve it (although it might destroy particular symptoms of the problem).

Unfortunately, children are routinely denied functional outlets for their appropriate anger at adult abuse. They are also denied the meaningful outcomes that would arise if they were allowed to express their anger as part of their articulation of any grievance. So they do things like ‘niggle at’ or tease their siblings and friends, torment the family pet or smash toys.

So what do we do? If you feel angry, you should express your anger fully and completely but in a safe way. And you should give your child the same opportunity (including when they are angry with you). How? Here are some suggestions but you (or your child) will need to decide what will work best for you/them. Try screaming (into a pillow if noise is an issue). Or smash a bat or racquet into a mattress or cushion. Or punch a pillow or punching bag. Perhaps you should get an axe and chop wood (thinking about utterly destroying who/what is making you angry) until your anger has been vented.

If you feel angry you need to exert enormous physical effort to adequately express it. This might require considerable time for any one session and you might need to do a great many sessions (particularly if your anger is tapping into suppressed anger from your past). If you can set up a safe space for expressing anger, then do so. Whatever you do, however, don’t waste your time saying or writing ‘I feel angry…’. And don’t waste a moment of your life in an ‘anger management’ course. Anger, like all emotions, needs to be expressed, not ‘managed’ (that is, suppressed).

Moreover, and this is vitally important, the learning that comes from expressing your anger must be allowed to manifest in changed behaviour. You will find this challenging if your child realises they no longer want to go to school – see ‘Do We Want School or Education?’ – so you have a simple choice: you can let your child realise their evolutionary potential or you can destroy them.

If we do not allow children to be angry when it naturally occurs (by terrorising them, one way or another, into not feeling and expressing their anger so that they can functionally alter their behaviour in response to it), then we systematically destroy their personal power and make them perpetual victims of the teachers and bullies at school, and their employers and others later in life.

In essence then, if you want a powerless, obedient child who submits to you, teachers and (later) employers while playing no part in resisting violence and exploitation (whether of themself or others), then just ensure that you frighten your child out of being angry so that they lack the courage to be the unique and powerful organism that evolution intended.

But if you want a powerful child who is deeply committed to social justice, then they must be unafraid of feeling and acting on their anger.

Strange as it may seem given the widespread and popular misconceptions about anger and violence, it is anger that drives our struggle for a just and peaceful world. If you wish to join this movement, you can sign the online pledge of ‘The People’s Charter to Create a Nonviolent World

If we are scared of our anger, we are powerless and more likely to be violent.

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Robert J. Burrowes

Robert J. Burrowes has a lifetime commitment to understanding and ending human violence. He has done extensive research since 1966 in an effort to understand why human beings are violent and has been a nonviolent activist since 1981. He is the author of ‘Why Violence?’ His email address is [email protected]

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