What is Anger?

ANGER – from THE MYTH OF NORMAL by Gabor Mate’  (Chapter 26)

People often ask me to define “healthy anger”’ Here’s what it’s not: blind rage, bluster, resentment, spite, venom, or bile. All of these stems from an unhealthy buildup of unexpressed or unintegrated emotions that need to be experienced and understood rather than acted out. Both anger suppressed and anger amplified out of proportion are toxic. Anger in its natural, healthy form is a boundary defense, a dynamic activated when we perceive a threat to our lives or our physical or emotional integrity. Our brains being wired for it, we can hardly avoid it: this is the self-protective RAGE system identified by Jaak Panksepp. Its full functioning is a standard feature of our wholeness, essential for survival: think of an animal protecting its turf or its young. The movement toward wholeness often involves a reintegration of this oft – banished emotion into our repertoire of available feelings. This is not the same as stoking resentment or nurturing grievance–quite the opposite. Healthy anger is a response of the moment, not a beast we keep in the basement, feeding it with shame or self-justifying narratives. It is situational, its duration limited: flashing up when needed, it accomplishes its task of fending off the threat and then subsides. It becomes neither an experience to fear and loathe nor a chronic irritant. The fact — and some people may need to actively remind themselves of this- is that we are talking about a valid, natural feeling that does not in itself intend anyone any harm. Anger in its pure form has no moral content, right or wrong-it just is, it’s only “desire” a noble one: to maintain integrity and equilibrium. If and when it does morph into a toxic version of itself, we can address the unhelpful stories and interpretations, the self – righteous or self – flagellating thought patterns that keep stoking it, without invalidating the emotion. We can also observe how our inability to say no fuels chronic resentment that leaves us prone to harmful combustions. Many of us have learned to minimize our anger to the point that we don’t even know what it looks like. In this case it’s best not to idealize or exaggerate: picturing a bombastic eruption of ire or some righteous, curse-encrusted monologue will not help us. Like authenticity, genuine anger is not a performance. Anger’s core message is a concise and potent no, said as forcefully as the moment demands. Wherever we find ourselves tolerating or explaining away situations that persistently stress us, insisting that “it’s not so bad” or “I can handle it” or “I don’t want to make a fuss about it,” there is likely an opportunity to practice giving anger some space to emerge. Even the plainspoken admission that “I don’t like this” or “I don’t want this” can be a step forward. Research suggests that anger expression could support physical health, for example in those with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) or fibromyalgia, two conditions that baffle the conventional medical mind. We have already reported (in chapter 2) that ALS patients are perceived by their physicians as extraordinarily nice. Tellingly, in another ALS study, the most “agreeable” ones-the ones least likely to be in touch with anger, that is– also had the most rapid deterioration of their condition and of their quality of life. The same is true with fibromyalgia, which many studies have linked to childhood trauma. A 2010 study in the European Journal of Pain concluded that “anger and a general tendency to inhibit anger predicts heightened pain in the everyday life of female patients with fibromyalgia. Psychological intervention could focus on healthy anger expression to try to mitigate the symptoms of fibromyalgia.” The question for most of us is not whether to be angry but how to relate in a wholesome way to the feelings that naturally ebb and flow with life’s tide, anger included. 

(From “The Myth of Normal – Trauma, Illness & Healing In A Toxic Culture”, by Gabor Mate’, MD – Published by Avery Press 2022)