Why we need to be angry sometimes (regardless what the Stoics say)
I don’t know about you, but I can get quite angry sometimes. It doesn’t happen often, but things like injustice, cheating and disrespectful behavior can really piss me off. It is a trait that I have had all my life; as a child I used to throw a tantrum if I felt treated unfairly.
In philosophy (and also psychology) there are different ideas about how best to deal with anger. According to the Greek philosopher Seneca, who considered peace of mind as the most important characteristic of a happy life, you must suppress anger. If you’re angry about something, you have to deal with it rationally and not let your emotions run wild, Seneca said. Immanuel Kant also believed that getting angry is unwise. According to him, we have to deal with our emotions in a ‘sensible’ way and according to Kant that means we have to control our anger.
The problem with this rational approach is that anger is a strong emotion, often popping up in a sudden wave. It is difficult to keep your head cool in such a moment of strong emotion and to react in a controlled and rational manner. That sounds nice in theory, but staying ‘zen’ in the middle of such an eruption is not easy to do. You may even question whether it’s necessary. Isn’t it better to express your emotions rather than suppress them?
Following Seneca, the Stoics (and many contemporary Stoicism-based movements) say: Anger means that you want the situation to be different than it is. And that is pointless, because the situation is the way it is. What has happened has happened, you cannot change that anymore. Of course they are right about that. But rejecting anger because it doesn’t change the situation is – in my opinion – a fallacy. Firstly, there is a difference between your reaction to a situation and wanting to change that situation. And secondly, anger can indeed be a driving force for change.
Getting angry is human, and in some situations it would be weird if you didn’t. By showing your anger, you can show the person you are angry with what his or her behavior is doing to you, that you have been hurt by something someone has said or done. I’m not saying you should start kicking and screaming, but reacting very cool and rational may not do justice to the emotional pain you feel. Anger is sometimes necessary to make your point, make yourself heard, or stand up for yourself (or someone else). To make sure something doesn’t happen again.
Anger can also be an outlet. Suppressing anger can cause you to bottle it up and become bitter. Denying your emotions this way leads to a resentment that continues to simmer, but sooner or later it will surface. Expressing your anger appropriately, on the other hand, can be a relief and, if the anger has subsided (which always happens!), offer room to move forward.
So I think anger is not necessarily wrong, also not from a moral point of view. Sometimes it is completely justified to get angry, for example when you are confronted with great injustice or when someone shows offensive or disrespectful behavior. Anger is not seldomly one of the driving forces behind social protest movements. German philosopher Wilhelm Schmid sees anger as “rebelling against what is intolerable.” In this way, anger can be an incentive for seeking respect and justice.
However, it is important to know why you get angry. That may sound strange, because when you are angry, you usually think it is entirely justified anyway. But as with most intense emotions, there is often an underlying emotion. Anger can be an expression of the pain a person feels because he or she feels hurt. It can also be an expression of powerlessness because the person in question sees no way out of the situation.
Anger can even be an expression of irritation about something completely different that has nothing to do with the current situation. The situation has then only been the ‘trigger’. These cases can often be recognized by the intensity of the emotion, which is not in reasonable proportion to the event. If your reaction is not angry, but furious, if you are raging like a madman, it might be good to ask yourself what is going on and where exactly your reaction is coming from.
That is why Seneca and Kant are not entirely wrong; after all, it is wise to control your anger to a certain extent. Giving your emotion free rein can have a destructive effect on the relationship with the person you are angry with, uncontrolled anger does not contribute much to the solution of the situation and usually doesn’t make you feel any better. So try to make your point without lashing out.
In my opinion, the Greek philosopher Aristotle has come up with the best way of dealing with anger. According to Aristotle, it is important “to be angry with the right person, to the right amount, at the right time, for the right purpose, and in the right way”. He adds that this is not easy. But as an ideal, I think it can help you to consciously manage your anger and use it for the better.
It is therefore advisable, when you find yourself angry, to try to build in a moment of reflection and ask yourself if your anger is justified. Ask yourself three questions: Why exactly am I angry? Is the situation really worth getting angry? And what do I want to achieve with my anger?