- We are living in a period which is marked by condoning the expression of anger and aggression.
- Such anger is all too often fueled by those in authority who appeal to the emotional brain rather than the rational brain.
- Reigning in this tendency depends on those in authority emphasizing pausing for reflection, which is essential for emotional regulation.
Our country has had an ambivalent and complicated relationship with anger throughout our history (Stearns and Stearns, 1986). In general, we’ve moved toward its suppression in the family and in the workplace. And while we’ve come to increasingly recognize that it is a part of our human nature, we’ve endorsed varying guidelines for how to manage it. Some of these are constructive, while others are damaging to others and ourselves.
In the ‘70s many therapists condoned “letting it all hang out”, suggesting that we state how we felt without concern for how it might impact others. Yet, In the political arena, not too long ago, showing anger would have been viewed as reflecting impulsivity and a lack of control. For example, Governor Howard Dean’s drive to become a presidential candidate was very much undermined by his brash tone, fist-waving and a loud rallying speech, which many viewed as reflecting anger rather than passion.
Currently, we are experiencing a heightened encouragement and demonstration of anger and aggression, both verbally and physically. This can best be described as supporting a culture of anger. Increasingly we hear about anger expressed by passengers on airlines and by patrons of restaurants. Election workers as well as those seeking office have increasingly become the target of personal threats—directed at them and their family. And even in the classroom, teachers have increasingly reported incidents of verbal or physical abuse (Will, 2022).
In the last four years we’ve witnessed the increased display of anger by radical right-wing groups, who in previous years would very quickly have been called out for their racism, misogyny, or antisemitism. And, we’ve witnessed increased anger regarding the use of masks and vaccinations to combat COVID-19, fueled in part by anger with the government. Our culture of anger is built upon a variety of factors that are social, economic, personal, political, and spiritual in nature.
1. Real grievances
There are genuine grievances that people have experienced for many years, fueling anger regarding the many ways in which they feel their core needs are being ignored. These pertain to taxation, increased income inequality, fears of cultural change, the real weaknesses of government, the loss of jobs in manufacturing, or concerns about freedom. So while there may be real reasons for anger, the problem is how we’ve been encouraged to manage it.
2. The influence of authority
Family members, religious leaders, politicians, teachers and other individuals in authority have a significant impact regarding how we manage anger. Increasingly, these individuals offer both direct and indirect messages that have the potential to fuel the flames of anger and aggression.
By contrast, some offer messages that support self-reflection, pausing to better understand the source of our anger, in order to constructively manage it. Pausing for such reflection emphasizes taking responsibility for our emotions, thoughts and actions. It fosters a sense of agency rather than feelings of victimization.
One of the most significant contributions to anger is messaging by some in power that certain groups of people are the cause of all of the ills of society. In effect, they arouse anger regarding real complaints and then promote directing it toward the “other”. In doing so, they bolster the assertion that our overall happiness and security would be achieved if only we didn’t have to deal with the needs of the “other”, if we didn’t have to share with the “other” and if we didn’t have to learn to live with and even embrace others. These serve as real distractions from the more difficult challenge of working to resolve the real issues.
3. The undermining of more rational thought
Whatever their personal motivation, these patterns of inflaming anger appeal to our emotional brain rather than to our reasoning brain. In effect, they’ve come to enhance our base instinct to have “stranger anxiety” and to fear difference. It is an appeal that distracts us from the anxiety of uncertainty and taking responsibility for our choices as we address the challenges and complexity within our lives.
Every attempt to constructively manage anger involves an appeal to our rational minds to help override the passions of anger. This does not call for suppressing it. Rather, it calls for brainstorming regarding how best to channel it so that we act in our best interest in the long term.
However, many individuals have increasingly adopted an anti-intellectual stance that challenges the cultivation of critical thinking and individual reflection that is a part of it. This attitude supports primarily “trusting your gut” when it may not be in our overall best interest to do so. The capacity to pause to reflect requires emotional regulation and attention to our long-term rather than our short-term interest. From words of support at the highest level of government to the arrival of anger rooms where individuals can act out their anger by destroying objects, venting anger has increasingly been encouraged in contrast to reflection and identifying constructive ways to manage it.
4. Both the news and social media
The increase in anger has been further sustained by the communication systems supported by the technology of our time. It is enhanced in terms of news that targets different political groups, social media and the generation of false conspiracy theories. It’s important to note that anger further contributes to the likelihood of believing such misinformation (Han, et. al., 2020)
Social media derives its power from our evolutionary need to fit in, to belong and to get approval. Too many of us may be overly attached to the messages of social media and the attitudes modeled and espoused in it. Many of the messages offered on social media reflect reactive thinking rather than reflection that helps lift us up to become our better selves. Such reflection, while not always easy, is essential for our well-being as a society and individually.
But just as social media may enhance competition to improve our lives, it can arouse competitive strivings to be more angry or even violent. For some individuals, such encouragement may only fuel acting out the anger that others condone.
5. Collective Narcissism
Collective narcissism entails the belief that our own group is exceptional but is not recognized by others. It consists of being overly passionate and respectful of our own group, while experiencing “out-group hate”. This tendency is associated with prejudice, retaliatory intergroup aggression and joyous regarding the suffering of others (Golec de Zavala and Lantos, 2020).
It is often the case that such group participation helps to satisfy and enhance one’s narcissism. This is distinct from collective self-esteem reflected by in-group satisfaction and the belief that one’s group is of high value.
The tenets of anger management that I have provided for over 40 years emphasize recognizing anger as a natural emotion that stems from a real or perceived threat. It calls for recognizing the emotions that precede it, i.e., sadness, powerlessness, rejection, anxiety, guilt and shame. It then highlights addressing these feelings as well as core needs that feel threatened. Such reflection helps us to view anger as a message to us about our suffering, our core values, our expectations and distorted thinking that may constrict our cognitive and emotional flexibility.
Real choice and freedom are achieved through such reflection and the increased self-awareness that it supports. Through such engagement we can broaden our thinking and problem-solving skills that are essential for addressing the hurt behind our anger. We need to hear much more about this process and witness its demonstration by those in authority, with reason and compassion—if we are to move beyond a culture of anger.
Stearns, C. and Stearns, P., (1986). Anger: The struggle for emotional control in America’s history.
Will, M. (2022). Violence, threats, and harassment are taking a toll on teachers, survey shows. Education Week.
Han, J., Cha, M., Lee, W. (2020). Anger contributes to the spread of Covid 19. Harvard Kennedy Misinformation Review. doi.org/10.37016/mr-2020-39
Golec De Zavala, A. and Lantos, D. (2020). Collective narcissism and its social consequences: the bad and the ugly. Current Directions in Psychological Science, Vol. 29 (3), 273-278