Anger as a servant

Image credit: © 2012 Saurabh Vyas, from Flickr | used via CC-BY-ND licensing

There is a Ralph Waldo Emerson quote that I see on social media just about every day, and it bugs me every time. It says, “For every minute you are angry, you lose sixty seconds of happiness.”

To me, this quote has the subtle implication that we should never be angry; all anger does is make us unhappy.

As a female growing up in conservative Christianity, I got this message about not being angry a lot. Good Christian women are not supposed to be angry. Ever.

Everyone is angry sometimes, of course, but we learned not to be honest about that anger. We channeled it in passive-aggressive jabs or shoved it down where it grew until we exploded in out-of-control rages, but anger was always something to avoid and hide as best we could.

Having spent years living that way, I have a great deal of evidence that vilifying anger and trying not to feel it doesn’t work. And it certainly doesn’t make one happy. Refusing to be angry only makes the anger grow in the shadows.

The function of anger

Anger is actually a natural human emotion that alerts us to danger, threats, and injustices, much like pain is a warning of actual (or impending) injury. Anger tells us that our boundaries (or those of others) are being trampled.

While it might not be pleasant to be angry, it is a helpful cue that we need to investigate our circumstances more closely and possibly take action to defend ourselves.

The problem is not anger itself—which is just a piece of information—but rather what we do with that information. We get into trouble when we either ignore the anger or allow the anger to become our master. Anger treated rightfully should be our servant.

Anger as master

We all know people who have allowed anger to become their master. Every time their anger is sparked, they allow that anger to take over all other rational thought, and they act it out in abusive and unkind ways.

This may be someone who routinely wishes horrible torturous deaths on people they disagree with, someone who rages and threatens people for minor infractions, someone who nurses their anger like a cherished pet, or someone who sees threats to their ego in everyone and everything they encounter.

People like this have allowed anger to be their master. They have become consumed by anger and have lost the ability to rationally evaluate anger as a signal to determine whether the threat is genuine.

Many of the warnings I hear against being angry at all are actually responding to this kind of anger and its ability to great damage to everyone near the angry person.

Anger ignored

The other approach to anger that causes equal damage is that of ignoring our anger and stuffing it down below the surface. We’ve all encountered people like this as well.

They are the martyrs and the passive-aggressive ones of the world. Their anger can be just as damaging as the lashing out of the obviously angry ones because of the dishonesty that appears between their words and the intent behind them. This can make it all the more damaging as the anger behind it is denied.

This group may have pushed down their anger so entirely that they genuinely do not think they are angry, but everyone else can see the hot mess of anger and resentment bubbling just below the surface and learns to be wary.

Trust me, I dealt with anger this way for years (and still do at times), and I can attest to the amount of damage done to any number of relationships along the way.

Anger as servant

I’ve come to believe that treating anger as a servant is the healthiest approach. I’ve learned to see it as a message to be investigated, not as a master to obey or an emotion to be denied.

When I notice anger arising, I take time to look at what is causing the anger and evaluate whether the seeming cause is really a threat.

Sometimes the situation that has triggered the anger is not a threat at all, but rather a re-triggering of something out of my past that I need to deal with instead of projecting it onto others. In this case, anger serves as a message about inner work I need to do to let go of old baggage.

Other times, I may decide that even though there is a real threat to something I have (like the privilege the color of my skin brings me), it’s something that I need to let go of instead of defending. Or I may decide the threat is to nothing more than my pride that maybe needs to be taken down a notch or two anyway.

At other times, I may decide that the threat is real and action is required. Most of the time, I can thank anger for its service in alerting me at this point and move forward into creating a solution without the anger. This may mean standing up for myself, setting a clear boundary with someone, or deciding to remove myself from an unhealthy situation.

There are also times when anger—used wisely—can help work toward positive change. Our anger over injustices like human trafficking, abuse, or mistreatment of others can fuel our willingness to get involved in working toward justice for all.

Even in these cases, though, it is important to keep anger as our servant and not let it master our ability to think and react appropriately. If our anger is causing us to abuse others in any way—even those we disagree with—we have become part of the problem, not the solution.

Letting anger go

The key in all of this is being able and willing to let the anger go once it has done its job of providing information and moving you to right action (if required).

I’ve not been able to find any verification of the quote from Emerson I mentioned earlier, despite its popularity on social media. Another version of the same quote (also attributed to Emerson) that I think is of more value is: “For every minute you remain angry, you give up sixty seconds of peace of mind.”

Notice that this one focuses on remaining angry, not on being angry at all. When anger is your servant, knowing when to dismiss that anger when its service is done instead of allowing it to linger is a key part of the job. (Especially when our anger is of the self-righteous type, which feels so, so good!)

Being able to do this at the right time may, in fact, be the test of how well we’ve really made anger our servant instead of allowing it to master us.

Which approach to anger is your default? Are you able to make anger your servant?

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6 thoughts on “Anger as a servant

  • July 19, 2015 at 10:26 pm

    This is brilliant! I also got the message that “good Christian women don’t get angry”. That would just make me even more angry. “It’s not ladylike”. Rubbish! Thank you for putting into words what I’ve been thinking for so long.

    • July 20, 2015 at 5:16 am

      Thanks so much, Johoanna! It’s always so good to know that I’m not alone with these things! Thanks for taking the time to comment.

  • July 21, 2015 at 2:12 am

    This is a refreshing look at Anger. I like to think of Anger is a type of “energy” that can be used for good or evil. It is a particularly potent type of focused energy that if it is misdirected/mismanaged can be painful to oneself or to others. Unfortunately, I see in our society a glorification of the most destructive type of energy – that which destroys rather than reforms. I think one of the most important skills is to learn how to manage anger skillfully, but I think most of us – just want to avoid it – in ourselves or others. And this is a reasonable reaction – fight or flight. It takes a certain bravery to be righteously angry, or to challenge angry ignorance.

    • July 21, 2015 at 9:15 am

      What a great point! I like the idea of anger as a type of energy. That’s a very good way to put it. Learning to manage that energy skillfully is a challenge, and I agree that it is very much needed in our society where lashing out or avoiding seem to often be the only two options. Thanks for the comment!!

      • July 22, 2015 at 2:49 am

        Because I have been pondering this whole question of Anger both personally and politically, it may end up being an inspiration for a blog post. I will let you know if this is the case. Look forward to reading more : )

        • July 22, 2015 at 5:35 am

          I look forward to seeing what it inspires for you!

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