Anger: is it ever a good thing?

Of course it is, but sometimes you wouldn’t know it by what clients tell me during their narratives of how they feel about themselves or other family members who become angry.

Listening to an interview on NPR a few years ago, a psychologist said, “anger is a moral feeling.” I can’t remember anything else he said. But it was a bit of an epiphany for me. I have always thought anger was not only not a bad thing, but is often a necessary thing. If ever someone tells me they think anger is not okay, I think of the first time I walked into St. Cloud Prison, looking up to see four stories of bars, many if not most of them filled with the African-American men looking down to see what kind of movement was happening below them. I sometimes ask the person, rhetorically of course, “isn’t it okay to be angry about things that are truly wrong in our world, like racism?” Of course it is.

Anger is not the problem. Anger is merely a result. I’ve lately been thinking that anger is always the result of a combination of some underlying feeling plus some form of perceived violation. I’m still noodling on this, but it seems fruitful. What we may want to pay attention to more than the supposedly “real” feeling underneath the anger (some form of fear or hurt), but instead focus on the perceived violation. What is the nature of the violation that’s been perceived? Is it a boundary violation (some guy cut me off on the freeway)? Is it a personal space violation (two siblings vying for space on the couch? Is it a violation of some rule for conflict resolution (verbal abuse or interruption). Once you’ve identified what kind of violation is perceived, it is often helpful to begin asking whether that perception is accurate, and what besides the immediate events might play into that perception of violation (unmet needs or unfinished business from some previous relationship).

Exploring anger’s causes will help us make good choices how best to use anger when it is needed.