All right. So I want you to imagine that you get a text from a friend, and it reads: “You will NOT believe what just happened. I’m SO MAD right now!”
So you do the dutiful thing as a friend, and you ask for details. And they tell you a story about what happened to them at the gym or at work or on their date last night.
And you listen and you try to understand why they’re so mad. Maybe even secretly judge whether or not they should be so mad.
And maybe you even offer some suggestions.
Now, in that moment, you are doing essentially what I get to do every day, because I’m an anger researcher. And as an anger researcher, I spend a good part of my professional life — who am I kidding, also my personal life — studying why people get mad.
I study the types of thoughts they have when they get mad, and I even study what they do when they get mad, whether it’s getting into fights or breaking things, or even yelling at people in all caps on the internet.
And as you can imagine, when people hear I’m an anger researcher, they want to talk to me about their anger, they want to share with me their anger stories.
And it’s not because they need a therapist, though that does sometimes happen, it’s really because anger is universal. It’s something we all feel and it’s something they can relate to. We’ve been feeling it since the first few months of life, when we didn’t get what we wanted in our cries of protests, things like, “What do you mean you won’t pick up the rattle, Dad, I want it!”
We feel it throughout our teenage years, as my mom can certainly attest to with me. Sorry, Mom. We feel it to the very end.
In fact, anger has been with us at some of the worst moments of our lives. It’s a natural and expected part of our grief.
But it’s also been with us in some of the best moments of our lives, with those special occasions like weddings and vacations often marred by these everyday frustrations — bad weather, travel delays — that feel horrible in the moment, but then are ultimately forgotten when things go OK.
I have a lot of conversations with people about their anger and it’s through those conversations that I’ve learned that many people, and I bet many people in this room right now, you see anger as a problem.
You see the way it interferes in your life, the way it damages relationships, maybe even the ways it’s scary. And while I get all of that, I see anger a little differently, and today, I want to tell you something really important about your anger, and it’s this: anger is a powerful and healthy force in your life. It’s good that you feel it. You need to feel it.
But to understand all that, we actually have to back up and talk about why we get mad in the first place. A lot of this goes back to the work of an anger researcher named Dr. Jerry Deffenbacher, who wrote about this back in 1996 in a book chapter on how to deal with problematic anger.
Now, for most of us, and I bet most of you, it feels as simple as this: I get mad when I’m provoked. You hear it in the language people use. They say things like, “It makes me so mad when people drive this slow,” or, “I got mad because she left the milk out again.”
Or my favorite, “I don’t have an anger problem — people just need to stop messing with me.”
Now, in the spirit of better understanding those types of provocations, I ask a lot of people, including my friends and colleagues and even family, “What are the things that really get to you? What makes you mad?”
By the way, now is a good time to point out one of the advantages of being an anger researcher is that I’ve spent more than a decade generating a comprehensive list of all the things that really irritate my colleagues. Just in case I need it.
But their answers are fascinating, because they say things like, “when my sports team loses,” “people who chew too loudly.” That is surprisingly common, by the way.
“People who walk too slowly,” that one’s mine. And of course, “roundabouts.”
Roundabouts — I can tell you honestly, there is no rage like roundabout rage.
Sometimes their answers aren’t minor at all. Sometimes they talk about racism and sexism and bullying and environmental destruction — big, global problems we all face.
But sometimes, their answers are very specific, maybe even oddly specific. “That wet line you get across your shirt when you accidentally lean against the counter of a public bathroom.” Super gross, right?
Or “Flash drives: there’s only two ways to plug them in, so why does it always take me three tries?”
Now whether it’s minor or major, whether it’s general or specific, we can look at these examples and we can tease out some common themes.
We get angry in situations that are unpleasant, that feel unfair, where our goals are blocked, that could have been avoided, and that leave us feeling powerless. This is a recipe for anger.
But you can also tell that anger is probably not the only thing we’re feeling in these situations. Anger doesn’t happen in a vacuum. We can feel angry at the same time that we’re scared or sad, or feeling a host of other emotions.
But here’s the thing: these provocations — they aren’t making us mad. At least not on their own, and we know that, because if they were, we’d all get angry over the same things, and we don’t.
The reasons I get angry are different than the reasons you get angry, so there’s got to be something else going on.
What is that something else? Well, we know what we’re doing and feeling at the moment of that provocation matters. We call this the pre-anger state — are you hungry, are you tired, are you anxious about something else, are you running late for something?
When you’re feeling those things, those provocations feel that much worse. But what matters most is not the provocation, it’s not the pre-anger state, it’s this: it’s how we interpret that provocation, it’s how we make sense of it in our lives.
When something happens to us, we first decide, is this good or bad? Is it fair or unfair, is it blameworthy, is it punishable? That’s primary appraisal, it’s when you evaluate the event itself.
We decide what it means in the context of our lives and once we’ve done that, we decide how bad it is. That’s secondary appraisal. We say, “Is this the worst thing that’s ever happened, or can I cope with this?
Now, to illustrate that, I want you to imagine you are driving somewhere. And before I go any further, I should tell you, if I were an evil genius and I wanted to create a situation that was going to make you mad, that situation would look a lot like driving. It’s true.
You are, by definition, on your way somewhere, so everything that happens — traffic, other drivers, road construction — it feels like it’s blocking your goals. There are all these written and unwritten rules of the road, and those rules are routinely violated right in front of you, usually without consequence.
And who’s violating those rules? Anonymous others, people you will never see again, making them a very easy target for your wrath.
So you’re driving somewhere, thus teed up to be angry, and the person in front of you is driving well below the speed limit. And it’s frustrating because you can’t really see why they’re driving so slow. That’s primary appraisal.
You’ve looked at this and you’ve said it’s bad and it’s blameworthy. But maybe you also decide it’s not that big a deal. You’re not in a hurry, doesn’t matter. That’s secondary appraisal — you don’t get angry.
But now imagine you’re on your way to a job interview. What that person is doing, it hasn’t changed, right? So primary appraisal doesn’t change; still bad, still blameworthy.
But your ability to cope with it sure does. Because all of a sudden, you’re going to be late to that job interview. All of a sudden, you are not going to get your dream job, the one that was going to give you piles and piles of money.
Somebody else is going to get your dream job and you’re going to be broke. You’re going to be destitute. Might as well stop now, turn around, move in with your parents. Why? “Because of this person in front of me. This is not a person, this is a monster.”
And this monster is here just to ruin your life.
Now that thought process, it’s called catastrophizing, the one where we make the worst of things. And it’s one of the primary types of thoughts that we know is associated with chronic anger.
But there’s a couple of others. Misattributing causation. Angry people tend to put blame where it doesn’t belong. Not just on people, but actually inanimate objects as well.
And if you think that sound ridiculous, think about the last time you lost your car keys and you said, “Where did those car keys go?”
Because you know they ran off on their own. They tend to overgeneralize, they use words like “always,” “never,” “every,” “this always happens to me,” “I never get what I want” or “I hit every stoplight on the way here today.”
Demandingness: they put their own needs ahead of the needs of others: “I don’t care why this person is driving so slow, they need to speed up or move over so I can get to this job interview.”
And finally, inflammatory labeling. They call people fools, idiots, monsters, or a whole bunch of things I’ve been told I’m not allowed to say during this TED Talk.
So for a long time, psychologists have referred to these as cognitive distortions or even irrational beliefs. And yeah, sometimes they are irrational. Maybe even most of the time.
But sometimes, these thoughts are totally rational. There is unfairness in the world. There are cruel, selfish people, and it’s not only OK to be angry when we’re treated poorly, it’s right to be angry when we’re treated poorly.
If there’s one thing I want you to remember from my talk today, it’s this: your anger exists in you as an emotion because it offered your ancestors, both human and nonhuman, with an evolutionary advantage.
Just as your fear alerts you to danger, your anger alerts you to injustice. It’s one of the ways your brain communicates to you that you have had enough.
What’s more, it energizes you to confront that injustice. Think for a second about the last time you got mad. Your heart rate increased. Your breathing increased, you started to sweat. That’s your sympathetic nervous system, otherwise known as your fight-or-flight system, kicking in to offer you the energy you need to respond. And that’s just the stuff you noticed.
At the same time, your digestive system slowed down so you could conserve energy. That’s why your mouth went dry. And your blood vessels dilated to get blood to your extremities. That’s why your face went red.
It’s all part of this complex pattern of physiological experiences that exist today because they helped your ancestors deal with cruel and unforgiving forces of nature.
And the problem is that the thing your ancestors did to deal with their anger, to physically fight, they are no longer reasonable or appropriate. You can’t and you shouldn’t swing a club every time you’re provoked.
But here’s the good news. You are capable of something your nonhuman ancestors weren’t capable of. And that is the capacity to regulate your emotions.
Even when you want to lash out, you can stop yourself and you can channel that anger into something more productive. So often when we talk about anger, we talk about how to keep from getting angry. We tell people to calm down or relax. We even tell people to let it go.
And all of that assumes that anger is bad and that it’s wrong to feel it. But instead, I like to think of anger as a motivator. The same way your thirst motivates you to get a drink of water, the same way your hunger motivates you to get a bite to eat, your anger can motivate you to respond to injustice.
Because we don’t have to think too hard to find things we should be mad about. When we go back to the beginning, yeah, some of those things, they’re silly and not worth getting angry over.
But racism, sexism, bullying, environmental destruction, those things are real, those things are terrible, and the only way to fix them is to get mad first and then channel that anger into fighting back.
And you don’t have to fight back with aggression or hostility or violence. There are infinite ways that you can express your anger. You can protest, you can write letters to the editor, you can donate to and volunteer for causes, you can create art, you can create literature, you can create poetry and music, you can create a community that cares for one another and does not allow those atrocities to happen.
So the next time you feel yourself getting angry, instead of trying to turn it off, I hope you’ll listen to what that anger is telling you. And then I hope you’ll channel it into something positive and productive.
Resources for Further Reading:
- Agoraphobia: The Fear of Fear – Linda Bussey (Transcript)
- Why Politicians Shouldn’t Appoint Judges: Aziz Huq (Transcript)
- Human Complexity Simplified: Jennifer Sorensen (Transcript)
- How Sci-Fi Informs Our Climate Future — and What to Do Next: Zainab Usman (Transcript)
- Phobia Relief: From Fear to Freedom – Kalliope Barlis (Transcript)