Anger, at first glance, seems like a pretty straightforward emotion. It’s easy to identify in myself and others.
“I was sooo angry!”
“He really got angry when he heard that.”
“That makes me very angry.”
What is it, really, though? A burst of adrenalin? A raise in blood pressure? A quickening of the pulse? A foot stomp, door slam, red face…a yell? Why am I always so close to tears when I’m angry?
There are times when anger is simply that. It makes me angry when I see someone litter, or hear someone make unkind comments, even if I’m not in a position to let them know.
Sometimes anger serves as a motivator. Over the last several months, I’ve been sending out postcards to my state and federal representatives. I opted for postcards, with no return address, because I don’t want to start a discussion. I’m not looking for a smooth, politically-tainted reply with empty promises or suggestions of progress. It is simply a way to let them know I’m mad, and I’m aware.
“Why, after all these long months, do we still have children who have not been reunited with their parents?? Outrageous!” “Protect our environment!! It matters!” “Protect Social Security!” “Health Care is Important!!” I sign them simply with my name, and the identifier, “a concerned voter.” The messages, a response to feelings of anger and helplessness, help me to feel like I am doing some small thing to support my principles.
Even when anger is not serving an immediate purpose, it is a definite and specific feeling. At other times, though, anger seems like a foil for other feelings.
I was thinking the other day how patient I’ve grown. A dozen times, while I’m trying to work, I’ll be interrupted by one dog or another wanting to go outside, or come back in. Sometimes I feel bothered, but it is not reflected in my words or actions. “Do you have to go outside?” I ask, calmly, followed by, “do you want to come in?” a few moments later.
I know, when my children were small, and the cause of interruption, irritation – even anger – would have shown up in my tone of voice. My frustration would have been evident in the way I opened the door, or the look on my face. That tells me that a show of anger is a means of communication. Every day, as I get up to let a dog out or in, I think, “I wish I had shown this much patience when I had small children.
Anger doesn’t work with my dogs, as they don’t really care if I’m irritated. Rosa Parks fixes me with a steady, lidded gaze. It is the canine equivalent of a nonchalant shrug. It says, “Yes, I peed on the rug, big deal;” or, “if you would simply stop what you’re doing and rub my belly, I wouldn’t have to go to such great lengths to get your attention!” True.
Anger didn’t really work with my children, either, though it made them uncomfortable and it made me feel guilty. After all these years, the guilt is still there; I think that never goes away. When my mother was dying, she said her biggest regret in life was that she hadn’t shown more patience with her children.
Sometimes anger presents itself as the more macho cousin of the true, hidden emotion. Envy or jealousy commonly present themselves as a burning anger. Fear, embarrassment, and other feelings of inadequacy often hide behind a show of anger, too. That may be why I’m always so ready to cry, when I’m angry.
Maybe we just need more accurate categories to define our feelings, more of a sliding scale to grade our level of anger. And maybe we could learn from my little dog, as to how to respond to unjustified anger!