I’ve heard so many times that anger is an unhelpful emotion. I used to believe it and avoid acting on anger as much as I could. I’ve changed my mind and believe that anger can be helpful when it’s channelled appropriately. Recently I heard an evolutionary psychologist explain her view of anger. In her view anger is a tool for protecting relationships. According to her, anger occures when we feel that someone has done something that had a big cost for us but a small benefit for them. This shows they don’t value us as highly as we believe our relationship deserves.
Lets unpack that a bit with an example. Suppose that your boss asks you to stay late one night to finish something. The factors that determine whether you get angry about this might include:
- If your boss never asks this of other team mates. This would show that your boss is valuing your personal time lower than your team mates which would make you angry unless your boss had a good reason.
- How important and urgent the work is. If it’s very important and urgent you are less likely to be angry as your boss is asking something that has a big benefit.
- What your plans were that night. If you had hard to change plans or you’d made a comitment to spend the time with someone else you will be more angry as the cost to you is higher.
- If the person making the request is not actually your boss but someone junior. Then the request probably isn’t appropriate to your relationship and would make you angry.
- How the request is phrased. If it’s phrased as a demand rather than a request then the implication is that the demander doesn’t care what it costs you. This can make you angry even if the cost to you is not that high, as it is telling you that the demander is not valuing your relationship.
Understanding the point of anger and the factors that have made us angry can point us to helpful ways of expressing that anger with the goal of strengthening our relationships and our standing in them. That’s a topic for another post.