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Anger and conflict

This is the first of two articles on anger and conflict

Anger, even when handled well, can be troublesome during conflict.  However anger is not violent, aggressive, harmful or shameful.  Anger does not break or damage relationships, hurt peoples' feelings, or mean that people will not like you.  Nor does it mean that you are a bad or unfriendly person, being out of control or yelling and screaming.  These and many other misrepresentations give anger a bad name and alienate us from the vibrant life-energy that is anger.  Anger is a valuable emotion - it sets us in motion.  It is how we understand and use this energy that may be harmful, violent and have undesirable consequences.

Anger is natural, healthy and meaningful.  We need to take the time and have the skill to understand it.  Anger is part of our internal emotional communication system - it alerts us to danger, it tells us when our needs are unfulfilled, when our values have been violated, when our beliefs or expectations have not been realised.  Our emotions are like the display on the dashboard of our cars.  They provide valuable information alerting us to how we are doing, what we need, what is going wrong.  But we must learn how to read and understand them and act constructively on the information they provide us.

We often confuse the external threat or stimulus that triggers our warning system (anger) and blame the external trigger for our unpleasant feelings.  For example: you make me angry, the noise is irritating me, that man enrages me, and so on.  In actual fact, it is our own needs, values, beliefs and expectations that generate our anger, annoyance, frustration, etc.  Failing to realise this can leave us at the mercy of circumstances and our anger outside our control.  The first steps in taking charge of our anger and other emotions is becoming aware of the signals in our bodies and getting to the root of the needs, values etc. that generate them.  We need to take responsibility for these.  We create our emotions - nobody else does!  And we also need to separate our emotional from our behavioural responses.

Yet so many of us are poor at noticing the early signs of emotion in our bodies and fewer are able to decipher the meaning of these signals in terms of needs, values (what is important to us) beliefs and expectations.  Thankfully, the importance of these abilities is being increasingly recognised in education, management, and living in the drive for emotional literacy and competence.  Such self-awareness and understanding forms the bedrock of effective social and work relationships. 

Anger is a name we give to an energetic experience we associate with lack of fulfilment or satisfaction.  It is toward the stronger end of a family of emotions ranging in intensity from mild irritation, frustration, annoyance, etc. through to fury and rage.  It is often generated when experiencing limitations or barriers to self-assertion, to our choice and freedom, or when encountering obstacles to reaching our goals or desires.  It serves to amplify or step up the energy available to meet the challenge, interference or threat.  How we use this energy is critical to our sense of achievement and the relationships we have with the people around us.

Yet we all know that inability to manage our emotions, in particular anger, is one of the most difficult challenges we face during conflict.  For some people this means that they suppress their anger and deprive themselves of the energy to assert their values and needs - for others, they are hijacked by the intensity of their anger and cannot separate emotion from behaviour - they are no longer in charge of their behaviour.  Neither imploding, which damages yourself and your self-esteem, nor exploding which may damage others or your relationships, is healthy or satisfactory.  So what can we do?

To begin with we need to understand how anger works as well as what drives it as outlined above.  Anger, as I have said, alerts us to danger.  It is part of our defence mechanism.  Fight, flight, play-dead are our instinctual responses to danger.   In anger, we are pumped up with adrenalin and in this volatile state we are primed to attack the threat, to annihilate it or, at very least, to overcome it so it is no longer perceived as a threat.  It is very easy to lose control of our anger and actions in such a state, which is usually fear driven, though we may only recognise or acknowledge this once the perception of threat has receded.

These self-protective responses are pre-conscious - they get us into action almost instantaneously before we have a chance to consciously choose how to behave.  We do not have control over these responses when we are in unconscious defence mode.  However, we can learn from our experience to recognise our psychological vulnerabilities and, for the most part, avoid the destructive consequences of the sudden onset of defensive emotional hijack.  When it does happen, the best we can do is to become conscious as quickly as possible that we are in defence mode, whether that is fight, flight or playing dead, and get back in charge.  Self-awareness and mindfulness training and the feedback of those we trust can help here.

A further complication posed by our natural defence mechanism is that it cannot tell the difference between a threat to our physical survival and a threat to our psychological identity.  In both cases it reacts as if there is a death threat and this often leads to over-reaction.  Such over-reaction in the midst of a heated conflict interaction can escalate an already difficult situation.  Early recognition of our defensiveness, however, can help us suspend our reaction, assess the danger and choose a more appropriate response.  The old adages of stepping back from the danger and counting to 10 are still excellent strategies here if we can be mindful enough to use them.

Besides overcoming the limitations of our instinctual defence mechanisms, the other major challenge in handling our anger is to notice the internal signals, discover their meaning and communicate it in a clear but constructive manner.  Once we recognise we are in defensive mode and have checked that we are not in physical danger, we may be able to create the time and space to discover what it is that is at risk or under threat and that we are protecting.  Most commonly if our safety or that of others close to us is not at risk then it is often our freedom/choice, what we regard as important, our goals and our psychological identity - self-esteem and self-concept that may be at stake.  The more we get to know ourselves the easier it will be to recognise what is under threat and to choose appropriate action.

An example of blocked choice is the child who wants to eat sweets rather than a nutritious dinner but is prevented from doing so by parents who want to ensure a healthy diet for the child.  The limitation on the child's freedom of choice comes in the form of an angry tantrum of frustrated crying and stamping of feet.  Most of us appear to have a strong drive toward self-direction and freedom and we experience anger when this is interfered with or we are forced to comply with directives of others that appear not to serve our interests, or as we mature, of those we love. 

Our anger mounts rapidly when what we value is at risk or is violated.  This may be our health, interests, freedom, family, possessions, our future, and so on.   Most of our values have been conditioned/assimilated through our upbringing in our families, schools, religious education and communities and while we live our lives by them we are not necessarily conscious of them nor have we chosen them freely from among alternatives.  When I ask the question "what are your values?" many find it difficult to answer.  Most of us tend not to be clear about our values or about their relative priority (order of importance) in our lives and work.  Not being clear about our values renders us more vulnerable to emotional hijack and inarticulate angry outbursts.

Besides danger alert, anger is very much about values - what is worth fighting for.  It is very common that we discover that something is important to us when we have had an angry reaction to the violation of one of our prime values.  Unfortunately when this happens such reactions and interactions are often heated but inarticulate in communicating what is important to us.  It often comes across in a negative form - what we hate or are against rather than what we are for.  This may fuel the frustration we have about not being understood or being able to communicate our values.  It takes time to clarify our values and this is best done prior to engaging in conflict where possible as it leads to clearer communication and makes it more likely that what is important, i.e. what is driving our anger, gets addressed.  

Along with danger alert, constraint on our freedom and values, our anger is most often triggered when there is a threat to our identity, self-esteem and self-concept.  Most commonly if our self-esteem or self concept is fragile or vulnerable we may be on a low threshold of defensive reaction - we may be a bit oversensitive to direct or indirect attacks, typically, on our worth as people, our competence, our goodness or lovability.   When our self-esteem is low, we tend to be very critical of ourselves and in this vulnerable state we tend to take things personally.  We pick up the slightest inferences or criticism, even if unintended, and react angrily as if the sender of the message were responsible for our pain and suffering. 

The angry response may temporarily protect the gaping wound in our self-esteem or identity but it also has the unwanted effect of alienating others and the support and comfort they bring.  Only by owning, and taking responsibility for rebuilding our damaged self-esteem - the cause of our anger - will we be able to heal our wounds and strengthen our identity.   With a stronger sense of identity and self-esteem we are less vulnerable to negative comments, criticism and angry outbursts - even if they are true!