The reason most people don’t like anger is that they assume there are only two choices: hide it or yell, and they have problems with both choices. This note proposes a third way that can be much more satisfying, finding a middle zone for anger between the two extremes.
People often hide their anger, or at least don’t express it. This practice fails to let others know where they are coming from, and also causes upset; feeling inadequate and agitated. At times the upset can last for hours. Anger releases adrenalin in the body, providing energy for fight or flight. If not used up quickly, we are uncomfortable. Surplus adrenaline is hard on bodies also, especially the heart.
There is a myth that yelling when angry gets it all out, and that you might as well since you won’t be able to stop anyway. Both parts of this myth are false. For more than fifty years experiments in psychology have demonstrated that venting anger doesn’t help, and often makes one feel worse. Another problem is that the person being yelled at may yell back.
The third path is to express anger, but in a special way. The best analogy is how audiences experience emotions at a play or film. Finding a midpoint between too close and too far from emotions is at the heart of enjoyment in theatre. The audience members feel the emotions that are being enacted, but at the same time, realize they are safe in the theatre. They are neither too close, mixing up their own past emotional experiences with the drama, nor too far, not involved. At middle distance, the audience response, such as laughing, crying or other bodily reactions is helpful and pleasurable.
The tricky part in real life is finding middle distance, neither too close nor too far. The first step may be verbalizing your anger: why you feel frustrated, and what it feels like. Perhaps your angry speech needs to be a little louder and faster than usual, to signal anger to both the listener and self. However, rudeness is not necessary: the listener should merely realize that something out of the ordinary is happening.
In speaking in this way, how does one both experience the anger, and at the same time, watch oneself feeling it, as if from outside? This mixture gives one assurance, because it provides the sense of being in control, of being able to stop if and when you wish (as in the theatre). But if you have the feeling of theatrical performance, it means you are too far away from your angry self: spend more time in it, less time watching.
As it turns out, finding the zone takes some practice, and if available, even some coaching. Perhaps in most of our lives, we spend much more time in the direct experiencing mode than in the watching ourselves mode. The coach need not be a professional; anyone you trust can help. Telling another person about your anger helps you see your story from a point of view other than your own. The zone is constructed by watching yourself feeling anger from the outside about the same length of time that you are experiencing it from the inside, slipping back and forth rapidly between the two points of view.
There are several benefits from experiencing anger in the zone. One is that you don’t antagonize the other person, or, at the other extreme, leave them in the dark about your emotional state. A second, and more striking advantage, is that the anger episode is likely to be short and sweet. Here is an example of my own first experience in the anger zone.
Many years ago on a plane, I happened to be sitting next to a colleague from my campus that I knew only slightly. He was much my senior, being a beginning professor myself, and he also had a reputation of a sharp tongue. However, I was so happy about an experience I had the day before that it burst out of me.
He interrupted me very quickly by coldly analyzing what he thought had happened to me. To my surprise, I quickly interrupted him in turn, saying: “Professor _______, you are trying to reduce my experience to yours without remainder, but I won’t stand for it.”
Three unexpected things then happened. First, he began apologizing for his behavior, and continued to apologize for the rest of the flight. Second, my heart, which had been pounding wildly during the exchange, quickly slowed down to its normal rate. Indeed, I felt quite happy. Finally, I noticed that the interior of the plane suddenly seemed to have grown warmer.
Later I connected the last two events. How could my heart rate return to normal so quickly when other anger episodes had caused uproar for hours? It seems to me that what I thought was the plane warming up was actually my own body. A few degrees increase in my body heat could have burned up the excess adrenaline instantly. Similar anger events have happened in the forty years since the one reported. I have also known it to happen with others, especially with students who were initially angry when they visited me in my office hours.
However, even after I came to this understanding, finding the zone is not easy. I still sometimes respond to being yelled at by yelling back. Often, however, I am able to explain why the yelling made me angry, which usually ends the problem. Humor is another direction. For example, my wife yelled at me on one occasion. Instead of yelling back, I said “Ouch!” She said:”Ouch?” I said: “That hurt.” We both laughed.
There may be a zone for experiencing anger that is a considerable improvement over hiding it or venting. To be in this zone, one must both experience the anger and watch oneself experiencing it. If this balance can be found, anger becomes useful both socially, maintaining a relationship, and psychologically, very quickly turning an upsetting experience into a satisfying one.
Posted on 05/18/2011 1:20 PM by Thomas J. Scheff