Anger gets a bad rap: what we often experience or think of as anger is something else. Rage is a more primitive and ‘immature’ emotion; it evolves earlier in our development and from a more primitive part of our brain. Whereas anger, in its truest sense (I call it healthy anger), is actually a useful and positive emotion.
We start to experience anger from 18 months to 3 years of age. It is formative in the process of individuation as a child begins the journey of finding their own self, as separate from parents.
Anger helps us at this development stage, to put healthy boundaries between self and other (mother, father, siblings), to know what is me (or mine) and what is other; and it helps give us the motivation to communicate this. “NO!!” shouts the angry two year old. If this child’s energy (all emotions are energy) is met with loving acceptance, this two year old grows into an adult who can use that same energy to defend themselves or be assertive in the face of another who is behaving unreasonably.
However in the west , perhaps specifically the UK and the US, our culture imposes restraints on this process that are hard to escape.
For instance, little girls often meet disapproval or resistance from parents if they show anger (little girls should be (passive) all sugar and spice), and as children we can often become fearful of anger because a caregiver expressed anger in inappropriate or uncomfortable ways or even blamed us for it (‘don’t test me’). Or we ‘accept’ injunctions ‘don’t feel’, ‘don’t be yourself’ , ‘don’t be you’.
Anger effectively, helps us to protect ourselves. When healthy anger arises in us we will notice it – we might flush, our heart rate goes up, we clench our jaw – its energy is used in a useful way to achieve something positive: perhaps we ask for or say or do something in an assertive way. Then, after two to three minutes, the anger is gone and we are calm again. Healthy anger does not blow up in an uncontrollable way, it does not cause us to ‘lose it’ and it does not stay with us for hours or days afterwards. That is rage.
In the absence of a healthy relationship with anger, we may find that we are too dependent on others, fear leaving a close knit family or manipulate others to keep them close because we over identify our sense of self with others (we ‘merge’) , don’t have good boundaries and don’t enjoy being alone or doing things on our own.
If we cannot or have not owned our anger it largely goes one of three less than useful ways:
- We over express anger – we often get angry, or annoyed or show aggressive body language. Or we are critical or sarcastic perhaps, judgmental or bigoted (racism, sexism, homophobic).
- We under express anger – we sulk or withdraw, going quiet. We become prone to depression. We can’t say ‘no’. Instead of being able to assertively use anger, we cry instead. We are passive and self critical
- We don’t feel or express any anger – we deny or ignore our anger. ‘I don’t do anger’. We smile; we feel numb, dissociated from feelings and may be sexually impotent.
Anger supports life. It is critical in the crucial development task of separating from family/parents and becoming ones own unique individual self. And for someone with a strong sense of self (individuated) anger helps to protect and maintain ones physical, emotional , intellectual and even spiritual autonomy.
I see less useful, healthy anger around these days and more rage. Rage expresses itself in either a ‘hot’ or ‘cold’ way. Hot rage is explosive, always bubbling close to the surface and cold rage is repressed, rarely seen, but uncontrollable once triggered. Rage is more complex, and less pure than (healthy) anger and will often contain deep shame, guilt, sadness or fear. One of the best things we as people can do, is to seek a little help in resolving rage and getting in touch with healthy anger. As for things getting worse? I don’t know, but knowing the difference between rage and anger can be beneficial to all our wellbeing.