Anger. Feeling anger. Feeling angry. Being angry. Fury. Feeling fury. Feeling furious. Rage. I was struggling to find a way to ease into an article on anger, possibly because one doesn’t tend to ease into the feeling of being angry, well not in my experience anyway. I know it as a sharper more pointed personal response and reaction to precipitating events in the environment; events (words, actions) that rub up against values, beliefs, boundaries.
I view anger as a natural, organic and necessary human emotion. Yet, even in writing this, I notice an edge, an element of risk. Is it OK to acknowledge this, to normalise anger? In mediating disputes between colleagues, family members, and groups in organisations and communities, I’ve noticed how we all, more often than not, seem to steer our way around feelings of anger without naming or addressing them.
When I hear someone discussing something that someone else has done or said and I hear the tone in their voice, I see their body language, I witness the hurt this person may have suffered, I might ask the person how they feel, and possibly whether they feel angry? (If we can understand our feelings when in dispute with another person, then we can perhaps begin to “clean out the wound” that the others words or actions has left imprinted in us). Yet, more often than not, a suggestion that someone might feel angry is met with a firm denial. Maybe, partly, it leaves us feeling a little too vulnerable, for if we feel angry about something someone has done, then perhaps it shows we care.
Yet, drawing directly from Scheff and Retzinger’s work on Emotions and Violence and my experience working with those in conflict, I also suggest that anger as an emotion has largely become airbrushed out of our common cultural discourse. Drawing on the work of Stearns and Stearns (1986), Scheff and Retzinger (2001: 18) relay that: “beginning in the eighteenth century, there was a gradual shift toward a more restrictive stance (towards anger), ending in what they (Stearns and Stearns) call the modern ambivalence toward anger: it is not just excessive anger and aggression that are forbidden, but all anger”.
Of course, if there is even a small element of truth in this assertion, then when anger arises it is likely to be repressed, at least partly, through an arising of shame. Scheff and Retzinger (ibid) address this directly: “we propose that anger is repressed because of shame. That is, all anger – not just excessive anger- is forbidden in modern societies, because people have been socialized to be ashamed of it”. So, in a given situation where someone may be experiencing anger, the feeling thread may go something like:
“I feel angry”
“Ah, but it’s not OK to feel angry because I will be judged as bad for feeling angry by others”
“Therefore, I feel ashamed that I feel angry”
“So, I’m going to hold my anger down inside, push it away and hope for the best!”
Which, ultimately doesn’t work. Because if we are feeling angry, then this anger will “leak” and come out in ways that may be confusing and destructive for all. This is one reason why having a language for anger is potentially important in trying to resolve certain conflicts. If people who are in conflict are holding significant levels of unacknowledged anger then this anger is very likely to reappear in the relationship at a later time. In addition, under anger can often lie other emotions of distress such as hurt or sadness; and if there is no acknowledgement of one’s own, or the others, hurt or pain, then it can be very difficult to rebuild the relational bonds that allow each of us in a relationship to feel human.
I have noticed how the word “frustrated” has perhaps become a codeword for anger. I hear “frustrated” used in circumstances when what I’m observing and hearing, to my mind, indicates that the person may be feeling anger; because, for example, they’ve been shouted at by a colleague. I also recognise that I am often hesitant in suggesting to someone that they may feel angry, it feels like a big word, one that there isn’t the support for in the wider cultural and societal field. I am worried it may trigger their sense of shame, an internal script that says, “I shouldn’t be angry”.
Similarly, I will often downgrade my feelings of anger to that of frustration or disappointment, because I imagine they will be “too much” for the other, they may push the other away. I get in touch with my own experiences of shame around feeling angry.
Of course, a key aspect in discussing permissiveness around anger is how acceptable anger was as a feeling in our home, school, and other environments when we were growing-up. But bearing in mind the quote from Scheff and Retzinger (see above), anger is likely to have been a taboo for whole societies and cultures, let alone discreet families or education institutions.
So, where does this leave us? Why is all this important? Can’t we just forget about it, and move on? Not if we wish to tackle conflicts where an anger-shame bind is undermining the relationship. And not, I believe, if we wish to promote healthy relationships where our differences can be held equally with our similarities. Wherever shame may be at play, in this case in relation to feeling angry, then I believe a helpful starting point is to bring it to the surface, create a space where the dynamic itself can be aired and discussed. This is my starting aim with this article.
The next step is to experiment with language, perhaps in relationships where you may feel more solid, grounded and safe. Contract with someone you know and trust that each of you might name feelings of anger if they arise. Then try it out in response to perhaps lower levels of anger that arise in response to lower-level triggers, for example, when the partner you love has yet again left the cap off the toothpaste, “I’m feeling a little angry with you right now”.
Finally, I believe the longer, ongoing work, is to become more aware of the sensations in our bodies, and recognise the feelings we have, so that we can modulate and share our feelings in ways that enable us to first off best support ourselves, and then as a knock-on effect help us best be with others. This includes feelings of anger. As I see it the work is twofold, firstly that which takes place through conversation with another person and secondly that which we work on by ourselves in our own space.
Note: anger, it’s aetiology and manifestation, is likely to be significantly impacted by the cultural field. The way I present it here is drawn from my experiences of working with conflict in the United Kingdom.
An article by Nick Adlington, go-dialogue
Scheff, T., Retzinger, S. (2001) Emotions and Violence, shame and rage in destructive conflicts. Lincoln, NE: iUniverse Inc
Stearns, C., Stearns, P. (1986) Anger: The Struggle for Control in America’s History. Chicago: University of Chicago Press