The emotion of anger can do considerable harm. At the extreme end, it can lead to acts of vengeance or retaliatory violence. But it can also transform into a permanent background temperament of bitterness, cynicism and distrust. In either case, anger is not serving a positive function in our lives.
However, like the ‘Fight’ response to the threat of physical danger, feelings of anger can be of immense value when we have been harmed.
1. Anger tells us that we have been wronged.
Suppose you find yourself feeling resentful when someone speaks to you in a patronising tone of voice. This emotion reveals to you that you are being treated with disrespect. A cold intellectual analysis of the situation, on its own, is unlikely to have given you this understanding — at least not with the forcefulness or immediacy provided by your emotional response.
2. Anger tells others that they have wronged us.
Sometimes it is only when we get angry with someone that they come to realise they have wronged us. By contrast, when we respond calmly and dispassionately, it may seem to them that they have not hurt us at all. So expressing anger can reveal to the person who was responsible the fact and the severity of their violation.
3. Anger affirms our own value and worth.
The failure to experience any anger or resentment when we are wronged may indicate a tenuous grasp of our own intrinsic value and worth. It suggests that we suspect we may have actually deserved this treatment. By contrast, if we do respond with anger, that indicates our refusal to be thought of as less than human. It shows that we care about the fact that we have not been treated with dignity and respect. The reaction of anger is therefore a crucial expression of self-respect and a powerful affirmation of our value and worth.
4. Anger protects us from unsympathetic observers.
Anger can also be important for surviving the treatment of observers in the aftermath of a victimisation experience. It is not uncommon for our friends, colleagues and family to respond badly to us when we are harmed. They ignore us, blame us for what happened, distance themselves, and feel exasperated when we do not just ‘get over it and move on’. This is largely because they are protecting themselves. For example, they may want to avoid feeling inadequate in the face of our neediness; or they may fear that, if they accept that what happened to us was genuinely random or unpreventable, then it could also happen to them or their loved ones. Feeling anger about what happened will provide us with an internal source of strength and affirmation with which to resist the fears, accusations and lack of compassion displayed by those around us.
5. Anger gives us the strength and the motivation to seek justice.
If it were not for this emotion, most wrongdoers would never be brought to justice. It is only when we feel sufficiently outraged that we are moved to hold them accountable for what they did. Anger is powerful enough to overcome our natural reticence to do something — especially when there is no guarantee that justice will be done. This emotion can provide us with the strength, energy and drive needed to endure the personal costs and risks that such a journey will require of us.
6. Anger is a pre-requisite to forgiveness.
Forgiveness will not be compatible with self-respect unless we first allow ourselves to feel anger or resentment about the wrong we have suffered. To give a useful example of this: Gandhi was a renowned advocate for non-violent resistance. But when he was leading his country to independence, he insisted that no one join him who was not willing to take up arms to fight for independence. His argument was that they could not freely renounce what they had not entertained. In other words, he felt that we could not pass directly from passive submission to non-violent resistance. We need to discover first our own inner strength and capacity for violence. We do not actually need to become violent, but we do need to own our fury at the injustice. We need to care enough to be willing to fight and, if necessary, die for its eradication. Only then can we renounce violence and embrace active non-violence. Likewise, if we have been harmed, the process of genuine forgiveness cannot get off the ground until we have felt our anger. It is only then that our decision to forgive will be compatible with self-respect.
This article is an adapted extract from my book: “Beyond Harm”