Posted by: thealienist | May 21, 2010

Warning: Toxic Emotions Ahead

Our emotions are the spice of life.  They generally serve to enhance our experience, reinforce those that we would like to experience again, and steer us away from those that we would rather avoid in the future.  The absence of positive emotion (and sometimes even negative emotions) is one of the most distressing components of major depression.  Therefore, mental health professionals often pay close attention to their clients’ emotional range.  Can they be happy if they have a reason to?  Can they experience and appropriately express irritability and sadness under appropriate conditions?  If so, we often feel as if our clients have at least a foundation upon which to build a life of contentment — even if they have other problems that are currently standing in their way.

One emotion, however, needs special care and attention.  We encounter it commonly, and most of us express it daily at some point.  Still, in too great a concentration or when misused, it is toxic to our rationality, our relationships, and our capacity for contentedness.  That emotion is anger.

Anger is a powerful emotion.  In fact, it may be a part of one of the two most powerful human motivators.  While advertisers tempt us with images that suggest we will be happy, beautiful, and loved if only we buy their product, politicians have learned that to really motivate people, it helps to get them angry.  A happy populace tends to stay involved with the source of their happiness.  The content will generally mind their own business.  But the angry will be ready to spend their time, energy, and money to fight against injustice, evil, or oppression.  Such anger may be good and its expression may be satisfying.  Too often, however, it is misdirected, poorly controlled, or excessive.

How can we experience anger in positive ways?  What should we look for as evidence that we are using our anger (or being manipulated by our anger) in unhealthy ways?  First, it is good to remember that the cognitive view of anger is that it is an emotional response to a threat against something we value highly.  When we feel angry, we should ask what it is that we feel is being threatened.  Is it our pride or our standing in the eyes of others?  Is it something we wanted for ourselves or something we hoped to provide for someone close to us?  Is it something we need or only something we wanted?  Is the threat to our valued item real or only imagined?  Is the threat justified (i.e. does the source of the threat have a legitimate claim)?  We may find that the threat is unjust and directed against something we absolutely need.  In that case, our anger may be just.  On the other hand, we may find that the person threatening us has  a good claim to make or that the claim is against something we can easily give up.  Then our anger may be unjust.  Second, we should ask ourselves what we are being urged to hate or be angry at.  We should be very careful if we feel that we are angry at another person.  (If you are a Christian, it would be good to remember that we are called to love our enemies.)  It seems that many people have problems separating their anger over certain actions with anger directed at the person who did the actions.  People may make us angry through acts of thoughtlessness, carelessness, direct aggression, passive aggression, malice, neglect, or in many other ways.  Certainly our views of such people will be influenced by their actions.  We may choose to not trust them; we may sorrow over their lack of consideration for us; we may hope that circumstances play out that help them realize the wrong they do to others; but we need to take care when we choose to entertain anger toward them.  Third, we might ask ourselves how we can express our anger productively.  We would do better to use assertive words rather than aggressive actions to express our anger.  Actions can be misinterpreted more easily than words can.   We might direct our anger toward that environment that promoted the actions that caused our anger.  For example, if some people steal because they are poor, then be angry at poverty.  If some people behave badly because they do not know how to behave better, then be angry at ignorance.  Make sure that your anger motivates you to improve the world around you rather than perpetuate misery.

Anger is a powerful emotion, and like many powerful things, it has a great risk of being misused.  In one of my first posts, I said that I believe that love is an important part of the foundation of good mental health.  All too often anger drives out love.  It isn’t that anger and love are incompatible, but we often let our anger lead us to hate others, and hate does oppose love.  And in opposing love, it leads to our own suffering and the suffering of those around us.

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