Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Suz deMello: On Anger

In my social circle--mainly aged hippies and yogis--anger is judged, even though such folk look down on making judgments as well as anger.

Anger is despised. Anger is redefined as a secondary emotion. It’s explained away as a cover for deeper, more true feelings like sorrow or fear.

pic by Mgregoro
I used to have a real anger control problem. I remember when I lived in China, confronted by challenges every day (no hot water, no clean water, employers who refused to follow their contract, insane levels of noise, pollution and rudeness) there were times I used to stomp around my (employer-supplied, dirty) apartment cursing.

Since that time, I’ve taken myself in hand and used, among other techniques, hypnotherapy downloads to defuse and diffuse my anger.

But this week, an incident occurred to fan those remaining embers into a blaze—a situation in which a relatively helpless member of my family was being taken advantage of by an unscrupulous frenemy.

That situation is still in the midst of being handled. I put on my bitch attorney hat and wrote a scathing letter which I hope has the desired effect. We’ll see.

But my anger had been aroused, and I had lost my serenity. So I had to ask:

What is anger for? What can anger teach us?

Wikipedia tells us, “Anger is an emotional response related to one's psychosociological interpretation of having been threatened. Often it indicates when one's basic boundaries are violated.”

Righteous anger, the kind of anger I am experiencing, is useful. It tells us when the moral fiber that binds us has been torn and must be repaired. The helpless must be protected, for honesty and honor demand no less.

My moral boundaries were violated. Thus, I felt anger. Someone I love was threatened. I felt anger.

We all blogged about frustration a couple of weeks ago. Frustrated anger is something different. It manifests in the toddler’s tantrum, the thwarted lover’s petulant notes—or even the ball-hunting retriever’s scraped nose.

That’s a very different kind of anger, which is why we call it frustration.

This isn't Blondie, but this is angriest golden
retriever pic I could find. 

Blondie’s boundaries weren’t threatened. Frustrated anger is about not getting something we think we want. It’s more about powerlessness, the inability to get something done we judge essential. The tennis ball was essential. She didn’t have it. Then she didn’t have some skin from her nose.


Again, from Wikipedia: Three types of anger are recognized by psychologists: The first form of anger, named "hasty and sudden anger" by Joseph Butler, an 18th-century English bishop, is connected to the impulse for self-preservation. It is shared between humans and non-human animals and occurs when tormented or trapped. The second type of anger is named "settled and deliberate" anger and is a reaction to perceived deliberate harm or unfair treatment by others. These two forms of anger are episodic. The third type of anger is called dispositional and is related more to character traits than to instincts or cognitions. Irritability, sullenness and churlishness are examples of the last form of anger.

I’d match “hasty and sudden anger” to frustration which is akin to torment.
I’d match “settled and deliberate anger” to what I called righteous anger.

The third form of anger, dispositional anger, is that kind of anger we truly try to avoid. No one wants to have an angry disposition.

The first form of anger should also be avoided. That is the kind of anger that creates self-harm (i.e. Blondie’s nose) as well as harm to others. If we find ourselves tormented or trapped, anger may impair our ability to figure our way out of the trap.

But anger can be a useful emotion. Righteous anger is a motivator. Were I perfectly calm about the threat to my loved one, I may not have found the will to act.

So something that’s viewed as a negative is a positive, like so many things in our world.

Something I noticed in myself as a writer is that there are times I avoid conflicts between my characters, or solve them prematurely. I forget my own maxim, ”no conflict, no plot.” I have to stop myself from writing “and they lived happily ever after” too soon.

In our books, conflict and anger are good. In life...not so much. But sometimes.


  1. One of the things I like about being an author is you can take serious revenge on people who have hurt you without threat of jail time. It's great therapy.

  2. When I first sat down to write about anger, I was planning on considering whether it is ever a good thing - whether righteous anger, as you define it, is really beneficial.

    Personally I have come to the conclusion that even righteous anger creates problems, both for the one who feels it and the one who is its target. All too often, when we write the indignant letter, or post the snarky FB cartoon, or march to vent our anger at the killing of innocents or the denial of rights, we're seeking personal satisfaction more than (or at least as much as) real change. Being confrontational, though, simply arouses the anger of the target (making him or her feel threatened). Then we get caught in a vicious cycle of retribution.

    To really resolve conflicts, I believe you have to put the anger away. You have to understand your opponent's point of view. Anger may motivate us to demand positive change, but I don't think it conveys moral authority. Gandhi and Martin Luther King were not angry people.

    Just my opinion, of course. But I've learned to wait before sending that nasty, aggrieved email, no matter how pissed off I might be. It's almost always the wrong thing to do from a long term perspective.

  3. In our hard-wired fight or flight reflexive reactions, anger might fuel the fight side, and fear drive the impulse to flight. That's not to deny that flight is often the wiser course, but wisdom and surges of adrenaline have little to do with each other.

  4. I'm glad you've put up a bit of defense for anger, though I wish you'd gone farther, actually. I've been around those circles of people who look down on the emotion and treat it as mostly secondary, and I spent years ascribing to their belief systems. I think it warped me, honestly.

    As you point out, anger can be a useful and important signal. Some people (perhaps those with an angry disposition) do need to learn to step away from it, but my basic tendency is to transform it into depression and self-loathing, and I've found I'm way, way better off when I can stick with anger and point it in the direction of what inspired the feeling. (In this case, "better" is defined as "not suicidal" and "more able to address the feeling honestly and process it in a way that actually leads to resolution").

    That's not to condone immature displays—I think one of the biggest things wrong with the way people talk about anger is that it's common to conflate having the feeling with taking an action like attacking someone. I'd argue that Gandhi and Martin Luther King were quite angry—they made decisions, however, about how to act, and chose not to harm others.

    And, as you say, anger absolutely has a place in writing.


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