The upside of anger

All our core emotions joy, sadness, fear, anger, disgust have intrinsic value.

A friend and I were discussing this theme from Pixar’s Inside Out as we walked out of the theater.

“The only one I’m not really convinced about is anger,” I remarked. “I mean, what’s the evolutionary benefit of feeling angry?”

My friend nodded her head in agreement. “Yeah, I have a hard time relating to that one.”

I recounted this observation to another friend a few days later. Laughing, she commented, “That’s because anger isn’t a dominant emotion for you!”

After a moment of reflection, I realized she was right. Annoyance, frustration, disdain I experience these feelings as much as the next person. Palpable rage or emphatic fury? Not so much. When something really upsets me, I tend to get quiet or, if I’m close to the person on the other side of the conflict, emotional. But very rarely angry.

Part of this stems from a belief that most disagreements can and should be debated calmly and rationally. And if they can’t, I’d rather walk away instead of escalating. It just doesn’t seem like the best use of energy.

Gender norms factor in, too. Anger is an emotion to be tapped occasionally by manly men; women are best served when they don’t get too worked up over anything.

The truth is that “keep your cool” is a great strategy in most contexts, most of the time work, friendships, customer service calls to Amazon, etc. But I’ve realized recently that there are also meaningful downsides:

  1. You invite people to define their behavior towards you on their terms, instead of your own. If you don’t like the way you’re being treated or how someone’s acting, you have to make this fact known before things can change. Visible, outward expressions of anger make it clear that a line has been crossed. It’s also a way of standing up for yourself and the respect you think you deserve.
  2. Over time, habitually suppressing anger can cause you to doubt your own reactions and instincts. In recent conflicts, I’ve found myself rationalizing the other party’s actions and magnifying my own perceived mistakes. I’ve had to retrain myself to not only trust my gut, but also to act on it in the moment, even if it’s uncomfortable.

I’m not necessarily resolving to be angrier; that’s rather a sad goal. But I’d like to get to a place where I’m comfortable leaning into that emotion. Turns out some of us have to practice anger, just like any other skill. And that’s actually pretty funny.