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ANGER AS AN EMOTION

Last week’s post is titled, ANGER: A COMIC STRIP LOVER’S GUIDE.  There we chiefly focused on the variety of anger expressions.

Anger, in addition to being viewed as something that we express, is also viewed as an emotion.  To deeply understand the nature of anger we must understand what emotions are.

The Four Basic Emotions

There are four basic emotions.  Two of them, hope and happiness, are positive emotions.

Illustration by Deanna Martinez

The other two, threat and grieving, are negative emotions.

Illustration by Deanna Martinez

Although threat and grieving are referred to as negative emotions, they are not necessarily bad emotions. They actually can be very helpful in some situations.  And although hope and happiness are referred to as positive emotions, they are not necessarily good emotions.  Although they can be very helpful in some situations, they can make a mess of things as well.

Each of the emotions gives us a shot of energy to deal with some important moments in our lives.  The positive emotions can help us to deal with positive moments and negative emotions can help us to deal with negative moments.  To understand this a little better, let’s take a look at a quick story.

The Story of Alexandra

 Alexandra is seventeen and an excellent swimmer. 

Illustration by Eric Sailer

She is fully confident that she has the skills necessary to use her legs and arms in a coordinated way that will enable her to reach the surface of the water in time to avoid drowning.

Because of her confidence about her swimming skills, Alexandra doesn’t experience any emotion about her swimming.  There is a mild, pleasant feeling that she has when she swims, but this is different than what I will mean when I refer to an emotional experience.   For sure, there are some feelings that we have during an emotional experience, but they are stronger than other feelings. 

Because Alexandra is so confident that her swimming skills can deal with anything she will have to deal with while swimming, Alexandra can carry out her skills without much thought.  This permits Alexandra to free her attention from staying completely focused on her swimming.  Her thoughts begin to drift away from her swimming to events that happened in her past. 

“That boy I met yesterday at the ice cream store was real cute!” she recalls.  She then begins to think about what she has in store for her when she returns to school after the weekend.

Some of these thoughts that are drifting around in her head do lead to some emotional reactions.  “Mrs. Smothers might yell at me in front of the whole class because I didn’t do well on my science test!” her thoughts cry out.  This threatens her desire to be treated with respect.  Her heart begins to pound as she begins to focus more intensely on this, and she is now experiencing the emotion of threat.

Suddenly Alexandra finds her foot has become entangled in sea plants. 

This is a dramatic change in what she had expected to occur while she went about her swim.  Recognizing a threat, Alexandra’s attention shifts rapidly away from the images of what might happen at school to what is going on in her present physical world where she is swimming.  At the same time, she begins to experience an emotion about what is currently happening to her.

Alexandra’s emotion is serving the function of giving her an extra burst of energy, and she uses it to begin to carry out the fight-or-flight response.  This is serving the function of trying to keep her alive.  First, she says to herself, “If I don’t get free, this could turn out bad!”  While saying this she tries to take flight from the grip of the plants and experiences the emotion of fear.  Her effort fails.  She then turns angry as her thoughts cry out, “Let go of me you stupid plants!”  And with that, her legs fight against the grip of the plants by giving a violent yank, thus tearing her free.

She now feels hopeful that she can reach the surface and breathe safely, but her hopeful emotion keeps her extra focused on what is happening in case there are any more problems that may spring up.

When Alexandra reaches the surface, happiness wells up in her as she takes her first breath in beautiful safety. 

 

 

Story Interpretation

In this story we get an introduction to what people do when they are NOT experiencing an emotion about something that is currently happening to them.  Here’s the idea in a nutshell:  Oftentimes we go on automatic pilot.  That is, when we develop enough confidence that the desires we hope to achieve in the near future can be achieved by a set of skills that are already well practiced, we may set them in motion, freeing our attention for other matters.

Alexandra, at the beginning of our story, has a desire to safely get some exercise and to achieve this she goes for a swim.  She has done this often enough in this area that she is confident enough that nothing will go wrong.  Thus, early on during her swim, she does not experience any emotion regarding her swim.

The story makes a distinction between emotion and feeling.  The touch of the water can be pleasant to some, and to others, unpleasant.  Emotions, as I define them, do have feelings that accompany them.  Emotions involve a distinctly stronger charge of energy than feelings in general.  This stronger charge of energy is most easily observed by the quickened pace of our heartbeat.  The extra energy permits us to stay focused on the situation that triggers the emotion and to carry out far more work than the more gentle states that tend to produce a rather quick smile or frown.

With the energy that is freed up when Alexandra utilizes her automatized swimming skills, she begins to think of other desires besides getting her exercise in for the day.  What she thinks about while exploring her memories and anticipations of future events in her imagination may lead to an emotion just as much as what she meets in the present physical world.

Another aspect of automatized skills that this story introduces is the idea that as we use them, we are still appraising the environment in case we notice an important change in what we are expecting.  Appraising means evaluating or assessing.  We are not always aware that this appraisal is going on, but we realize its existence each time we suddenly notice something unexpected and find our attention drawn to it.

In the story, Alexandra suddenly notices her foot is caught in the plants and she is not expecting this to happen.  This is a change in what she is expecting to happen as she goes about her swim.  She evaluates this change as threatening her desire for safety. Alexandra uses her burst of energy to carry out some skills that set her free.

One set of skills that she uses is to cry out in her mind, “Let go of me you stupid plants!” At this point, Alexandra is experiencing anger.  Because Alexandra is under water, she cannot scream these words out loud, but under normal conditions, she probably would.

If it was an animal or a person who had hold of her leg, Alexandra’s screams might have scared away the attacker.  Or her screams might have been heard by friends who could have come to her rescue.  And so, under some sets of circumstances, the angry screams could have helped to save her life, but not under water.  Instead, Alexandra’s skill to violently yank her foot away from the grip of the plant saves her.

In this blog, whenever people are experiencing the basic emotion of threat and then they either give off a signal that a fight might occur at any second, or they actually begin to fight, they experience anger.  In last week’s blog post when we saw our comic strip friends displaying such actions as glaring, waving their fingers, shouting, insulting, or baring their teeth, they were giving off signals that a fight might soon occur.

A threat to any desire can lead to the basic emotion of threat.  Examples are a desire to be liked, to be treated with respect and to be free to make our own choices.

In the story of Alexandra, when she becomes angry her actions end up saving her life.  As helpful as anger can be in certain types of situations, it can often make a situation worse.  Moreover, even when helpful, anger still may not be the best response choice.  To become wise, you must learn to recognize when to use anger, when to replace it with something better, and how to prepare yourself so that you can skillfully carry out more optimal plans even under highly threatening conditions.  By following this blog, you will learn these very skills.

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Some people will enjoy reading this blog by beginning with the first post and then moving forward to the next more recent one; then to the next one; and so on. This permits readers to catch up on some ideas that were presented earlier and to move through all of the ideas in a systematic fashion to develop their emotional intelligence. To begin at the very first post you can click HERE.

ANGER: A COMIC STRIP LOVER'S GUIDE
CONFLICT: A COMIC STRIP LOVER'S GUIDE

About the Author

Jeffrey Rubin grew up in Brooklyn, received his PhD from the University of Minnesota and has taught conflict resolution there as well as at a psychiatric clinic, a correctional facility and a number of public schools. He has published articles on anger and conflict resolution and has authored three novels.

2 Comments

  1. Anger is a signal for us to change. If you stop and analyze your situation for clues as to why change is necessary, said situation is more likely to have a positive outcome than if you were to just blow up. Defusing someone else’s anger would include suggestions that they calm down and enumerate the reasons for their anger–going so far as to list them in writing. The trick is to insert a “cool down” period betwee escalating anger and blowing up.

  2. Hi Sharon. Thanks for your comment. I agree that a “cool down” period can be very helpful.

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