“Anyone can become angry — that is easy. But to be angry with the right person, to the right degree, at the right time, for the right purpose, and in the right way — this is not easy.”Aristotle
These famous words from Aristotle remind us of the need for caution in how we deal with our anger in conflict situations. One thing however is for sure, simply holding onto the annoyance, irritation, frustration or resentment is not in our long term interest.
The damage that staying angry can do
1. Staying angry limits our ability to think strategically and see ‘the bigger picture’
When we get angry, it sets off a complex set of physical reactions in our body, whereby the emotional centres of the brain become activated to the detriment of the reasoning centres. The net effect of this is that our ability to think in a strategic and rational way is greatly reduced and instead we start to engage in reactive behaviours. Physiologically, our muscles tense, heart rate, blood pressure and breathing rate all increase as we prepare to protect ourselves. The focus of our attention narrows greatly, to one of defending and/or attacking the percieved source of our anger. Our ability to reason and think through logically what is taking place and make good choices for ourselves is greatly inhibited and we are much more likely to ‘cut off your nose to spite your face’.
2. When we are angry, we are likely to react in a way that exacerbates rather than resolves the situation
The physiological changes caused by anger are the body’s way of gearing you up to fight so anger brings with it a great surge of energy, which is designed to ensure an effective defense or attack on the target of our anger. So when we are angry, we are likely to engage in behaviours such as arguing, raising our voice, threatening or withdrawing and closing down. In the workplace, many of us of course do have a ‘stop’ button that we can press in order to manage such reactions so we might sit and smoulder rather than react. However, this suppression of the anger without really dealing with it is likely to result in it emerging – maybe even sub-consciously – at another time. So instead of reacting at the time, it gets stored up and comes out at a later date as a sarcastic remark, coldness, small act of revenge – and as it happens later, is without context for the other person and feels like an unprovoked attack.
3. Holding onto anger damages our health and well being
Not processing and dealing with our anger means that every time we think about the situation or come into contact with the person who triggered us, we tend to go through the same reaction again and again. This means that we will continue to experience the same type of physiological response which over time, takes its toll on our body. Anger stimulates the stress hormones and repeatedly flooding our body with these chemicals will have a negative impact in the long-term on our health. In fact, the person who ultimately suffers the most from unprocessed anger is the person who is experiencing it in the first place.
4. Anger can get in the way of learning valuable lessons
When we are angry with someone, in many cases, if we stop and think about it, we will discover that there are other emotions there also. Anger tends to be a very good ‘mask’ for other feelings that might be going on in our bodies. So by focusing only on our anger and seeing how we can direct action to the other person in reaction to this, we are missing for example the fact that we might be hurt, feel rejected, feel powerless. We might also miss the fact that we are feeling a bit angry towards ourselves for some part that we might have played in the situation. Even if it’s ‘I should have been more assertive’, by not stopping and reflecting on the anger and looking at all of these aspects to it, we miss out on what it is we can do differently in order to ensure this doesn’t happen again.
5. Staying angry ultimately disempowers ourselves
Interestingly, the experience of anger tends to be very energising and give us a sense of having power in the situation. This is the positive aspect of anger – it is motivating us to take an action to improve a situation that we feel is frustrating or threatening us in some way. However, how we then act on this emotion very much determines whether we really do take control and responsibility over what is happening for us. By simply reacting or holding onto our anger, instead of taking the time and space to look rationally at what happened and working through this, we stay locked in our perception that ‘they’ did something to ‘me’. Implicit in this sort of thinking is that we have no control over what is happening to us and leaves us feeling victimised and disempowered. This in turn will have an impact on other aspects of our lives and sap our motivation and energy for these also.
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