Like my previous post on Tiredness, Grieving and Depression, this piece is part of the chapter on Emotional Competence from a book on the Inner Work of Leadership  that I worked on some years ago.


Still from the movie "12 Angry Men"

Walk into pretty much any bookshop in the developed world and it will soon become evident to you that there is a very substantial body of contemporary literature on anger. This fact probably reflects both that anger is the emotion with which we have the most complex relationship, and that it is the feeling on which the widest range of perspectives is held. These opinions range from the view that you should seek to express anger fully so as to avoid bottling it up and doing yourself damage whatever the damage to others, through to the belief that anger is completely without justification and should always be avoided. While there are doubtless times and individuals for whom both of these extremes are true, the former perspective runs the risk of you simply creating more and more anger so that you are constantly angry, blow your top at the slightest thing and are a nightmare to work with. The latter risks denial and repression that can result in illness and unacknowledged and destructive shadow expressions of anger. In the same way that you need to develop your own model of leadership, you will need to develop your own model of how to respond creatively and constructively to your emotional experience, and to do this you will need a clear idea of how to work with anger in yourself and others. Consequently this is an important issue for leaders, and it may well be the case that it is more important for you to read this section if you do not believe you have a problem with anger than if you do!

Physiologically anger is effectively the same experience as anxiety. Under a perceived threat the body releases hormones such as adrenalin that prepare it for fight or flight. The distinction between the two arises depends on the perceived nature of the threat: if the threat is in the future and so has yet to fully present itself then the experience is one of anxiety, if the threat is present in the here and now then the response is one of anger. This distinction makes evident the fact that there is a cognitive role in the development of anger, whereby your body produces hormones that develop a somatic affective response, and your cognitive faculties make a decision about how to respond. This ‘thinking’ aspect of anger is a feedback mechanism that leads to the production of more of the hormones associated with anger, and allows you to feel angry about things that have happened in the past, and also to develop feelings of anger with some degree of selectivity. The positive aspect of this is that it gives you the opportunity to choose whether you feel anger or not, and offers you the possibility of reprogramming your responses to be more helpful to us, so as to ensure that when you feel angry it is both appropriate to the circumstances and open to you to choose how and if you express it.

Our cultural ambivalence to anger, and perhaps to emotionality in general, can produce two apparently contradictory consequences. On one hand, many people’s family and cultural conditioning place a taboo on anger, so that their expressions of anger have received such a negative response that they eventually cease to express it, and ultimately deny to themselves that they even experience it. In this case anger is often expressed very indirectly and unconsciously, in things like passive aggressive behaviours or through inertia as the blocked energy in the anger results in the person shutting down. On the other hand, some environments accept or even encourage anger but do not accept grief or distress (‘big boys don’t cry’), so that distress is manifest inappropriately as anger. One example of this might be kind of anger a parent might show when their child has been put in danger, so that a mother may scold her son for falling and injuring himself as she unable to fully feel and express her fear and concern.

Many of us need to do a lot of work in order to be able to fluently understand the language of our emotions, as our usual methods of understanding are largely conceptual and our emotions speak to us in an entirely different way. The first stage is to learn to experience and recognise your emotions, and there will some tools to work on this later in this chapter. Anger has a huge range of levels of intensity and euphemisms and it is important to recognise that irritation, annoyance, feeling miffed, being teed, pissed or anything else-d off, irked, etc. are all the same experience at root. It is important to be aware that you also need to develop the capacity to be in relationship to your emotions and feelings in a way that allows you to fully accept and acknowledge them as part of your experience, yet without getting lost in an emotion so that it becomes the whole of your experience and you have no choice other than to express it.

Having this kind of perspective on your emotions allows you to choose the most effective and appropriate mode of response to the circumstances you are in. This degree of emotional competence offers you six possible ways of responding to an emotional experience:

The 6 modes of positive emotional process, from John Heron

  1. You might decide to control your feeling of anger (or any other emotion) to allow you to accomplish the task you are engaged in, or to allow you to interact with another individual or group This is a conscious form of suppression, in contrast to unconscious repression.
  2. You might chose to redirect the angry energy into problem solving or vigorous activity such as competitive sport.
  3. You can choose to switch your attention to another aspect of your experience, which will drain the energy from the anger and allow you to focus on another activity or state. This brings out the important point that emotional competence allows you to experience your feelings in a broad perspective so that when anger arises it does not dominate your experience – you experience anger but do not ‘become angry’.
  4. In certain circumstances you might choose to sublimate and refine the anger to a subtler state. This form of transmutation is related to spiritual practices, and is unlikely to be something that is a regular choice in most working environments.
  5. If the anger triggers issues from the past or touches other issues, it might be appropriate to express the emotion in a process of catharsis – the conscious discharge of painful emotion.
  6. The final option is that of a simple expression of your experience in a way that connects you to your own and other’s humanity.

The case for managing anger is a strong one, with clear links established between those who have a propensity for anger and increased likelihood of high blood pressure, heart disease, and digestive problems. It is also linked to reductions in creativity and flexibility, isolation and diminished self-view.

While there is a range of choices to be made in the moment about how to deal with anger or any other feeling, there is also investigative work to be undertaken to explore the nature of the experience, what you can learn from it, and how you can utilise this learning in your continued development as a leader and an individual. It has been suggested that anger is an appropriate response to frustrated volition: when you are unable to act in the world in the way that you would choose then anger arises. From this perspective, anxiety can be seen as a response to frustrated comprehension, manifesting when you are unable to understand or to make yourself understood, and you can see grief as a response to a frustration of the need to express and receive connection, affection and love. Like all models, this is of course a simplification, not least because it is seldom the case that these things happen quite so neatly – to be frustrated in one’s capacity to act inevitably includes a degree of experience of personal negation and a sense of being misunderstood, so that all emotional experiences are a complex mixture with anger being fully recognised as an important stage in the process of bereavement or change. Nevertheless it can be helpful to use this simple schema to look at your experience, because if you notice that you have a predisposition for feeling misunderstood to the exclusion of other feelings, for example, this provides you with an indication that some further work in this area would be useful to free you to respond more effectively.

When we display anger in response to circumstances that do not appear to warrant it there can be a host of different causes and underlying processes, and there is a wide range of strategies for simplifying and clarifying your experience. Much unhelpful patterning is rooted in irrational and archaic beliefs and thinking patterns which we have developed through our lives. The section on personal myth offers one way of working with these self views, and we will move on to looking at some straight-forward ways of ensuring that the messages that you give yourself are ones which are accurate, rational and helpful.

Anger can be seen as a way of avoiding stress through distracting or blocking difficult experiences. These can include:

  • painful emotions like fear and anxiety, loss, depression, hurt, guilt and shame, and feelings of unworthiness and failure.
  • physical sensations such as physical pain, muscle tension, overstimulation, tiredness and overwork
  • frustration resulting from blocked needs or want, things not being the way they ought to be or how you would like them to be, or the sense of being forced
  • the experience of threat created by being abandoned, overwhelmed or attacked

The problem with the use of anger as a defence against these experiences is that it clouds the issue, making it more difficult to address the causal issues directly and straight-forwardly. One useful perspective to maintain is that you and you alone are responsible for your emotional experience. Whatever happens in the world or anyone does to or around you, the way that you feel and respond is entirely up to you.