When it was almost time for the Jewish Passover, Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple courts he found people selling cattle, sheep and doves, and others sitting at tables exchanging money. So he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple courts, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. To those who sold doves he said, “Get these out of here! Stop turning my Father’s house into a market!” (John 2:15)
What is anger?
Anger is one of the seven universal emotions (along with contempt, fear, disgust, happiness, sadness, and surprise), and it has a purpose. All the emotions have their distinct function—if they didn’t, they would have been weeded from the gene pool for the crime of “wasting energy” a long time ago.
So what is anger’s purpose? Well, sadness is that internal signal that we are experiencing a loss. Disgust is a signal that we’ve taken something in that’s wrong for us to have within. And anger is the signal that we are feeling violated, that the boundary of self is breached without our consent. At its essence, that is what anger is: a mechanism that scans for violations of boundaries, and then notifies the rest of the mind in order for it to act to restore the boundary. (It is not, strictly speaking, the state of anger; first is the notification, and then we can move into some action to push out the intruder.)
In other words, anger functions as a basic protection mechanism, analogous to how the white blood cells scour the body of toxic intruders. Stripped of all the stories and ideas about anger, and stripped of our own particular history with anger, this is actually all it is, and like a castle without walls, to have our anger system disabled is to be vulnerable to all the various forces that want the good stuff within, and don’t want to ask nicely.
How does anger get disabled (or warped)?
Anger protects the boundary of self. Where we feel anger, the “violation monitoring circuit” is interpreting an experience as a violation of self, in some way. It could be at a physical level/boundary: someone scary is standing too close. It could be at a mental level/boundary: the political philosophy that we’re attached to is aggressively challenged. It could be at an emotional level/boundary: our emotional connection to a friend is used to guilt us into something we don’t want to do. It could even be spiritual: we feel that the Universe or God is violating our self by being mortal. The reason why all of these are experienced as anger-producing is that they are seen as violations. (If they were experienced as a loss, say, we’d feel sadness.)
But anger can get distorted from this core purpose in a number of ways.
One way is that those we are attached to—our families, our parents, our cultures—are threatened by anger. Either it is seen as overwhelming to experience another’s anger (it could touch on trauma, or on cherished beliefs), or it prevents those other people from getting access to our energy. Because we humans are so deeply wired to be social (the monkey that didn’t stay attached to Mom and the tribe got snatched up by the lion), to have our loved ones pull away, or attack, when we get angry is to trigger our “survive through attaching” wiring. In which case we then have to choose: protect our own boundary and self-integrity, or survive through keeping our attachments. The younger we are when this we’re exposed to this dilemma, the more we have to choose the tribe. Which means we suppress or pathologize (“make bad”) our own naturally arising anger, in order to give it no room to arise and destroy our relationships, which feels like destroying ourselves.
The other distortion of anger is when our loved ones are deprived in their own lives, when they don’t (or feel they don’t) have enough energy within themselves, and need us to be available in order to channel our energy to them. (This could be in the forms of positivity, attention, approval, money, etc.) If our anger is not disabled, then the violation of having our energy taken without permission or compensation (see last month’s article on energy theft, here) will be naturally registered by us, and refused, guarded against. We simply won’t allow it to happen. Thus, others need to disable our natural defense (anger), or else they can’t use our energy, and to them, that feels like a threat to survival (“If I don’t get it from you, who are closest at hand, I will die!”).
The other distortion is when anger gets over-magnified, because we learned that, under a sense of ongoing violation, anger as a general strategy has kept our boundary strong and us safe. But because we couldn’t tell specifically where the attacks would come from (they seemed to come all the time, or capriciously, as when we lived with an alcoholic), our defenses had to be up all the time. Hence, we’re angry all the time, just in case.
Broken anger’s effect on anxiety and depression
When anger is either too little or too much, the results on mood can be severe. With the “too little” side, we are faced both with an anxiety about anger breaking through out own defenses. This men’s we become anxious about an emotion, and since these emotions arise organically and we can’t eradicate that, we are (at least at a deep level) chronically anxious, fearing our anger will get out and destroy our relationships, and fearing that because, in our experience, abandonment feels like death. Then, on top of that, the anxiety, and defense against anger, can draw so much energy that our energy monitoring system (depression) can at some point look at that and see the effort to keep anger down as futile, and since “futility” is the key thing depression monitors for, it will send us into an depression.
With the “too much” anger side, we can hide the anxiety of contact with others (who we believe are going to hurt us) behind the fiery wall of anger, but it’s still there, and we’re going to feel it when we get close to trusting someone else. Then, because the anger is drawing so much energy, and because we are locked into defending against relationships with others (our drawbridge never comes down, and the moat’s on fire), our life can start feeling futile because our other, non-survival needs stagnate, and we end up like one who is always working and never gets to enjoy, always “safe” but never connected.
Almost always there’s an element of uprooting anxiety and depression that requires a reclaiming of anger.
The restoration of anger
How is anger reclaimed, or restored to its appropriate position, role, and measure? First is that one has to understand anger as it’s supposed to function: as an internal notifier of the subjective experience of violation. Then we have to have support for this view of anger, a “community of the healthily angry” who can reinforce a new and balanced relationship to this emotion (rather than a community that keeps telling us how anger is bad). With that support, we have to practice with anger, noticing it as it arises, neither magnifying nor diminishing its energy or message, and then behaviorally, experimenting with new ways of protecting our boundary, with anger as our ally and guard.
Is this an easy change? No, but these deep changes and healings never are. We have to wrestle with our deep rules around safety, survival, and relationships to others, in order to restoring anger to its proper function.