Healthy Anger, Poisonous Hate

(Originally published here)

I want to share something I was thinking about last night, after my insomnia flared. It is a probably long, but I think it is relevant to current events and it might even be helpful to some. It is such a broad topic and I know the readers will have insights that i probably have not considered.

Growing up, for various reasons, I was basically taught that anger is bad and that I should swallow my anger. It’s taken me a lot of work and experience as an adult to unlearn this and to come to know that anger can be healthy.

I. Healthy Anger
Anger is part of the fight or flight reflex, a survival trait that exists in all animals. When we perceive a threat, there is a marvelous mechanism that instantly picks one of those reactions – anger or fear, which lets us deal with the threat and live. Anger gives us the energy to fight the threat, while fear gives us the energy to run away from the threat. And there’s nothing healthier than living versus dying. That’s how anger (and fear) are basic emotions that enable us to survive. No human goes through life without experiencing these.

The energy from anger or fear comes at a physical price, it places a stress on the body. In the animal world, this is usually not a problem — surviving an immediate threat is decided in minutes or hours, and after that you are either dead or can relax and recover. In the human world, however, threats can be perceived long before they are immediate, and that means your fight or flight reflex can be raised for days, weeks, or months. This is very unhealthy physically, so it benefits us to learn to deal with anger in a healthy way.

What I have learned is that the best way for me to deal with anger is to acknowledge it right away. I am angry. Then to examine why. If it is a reasonable reaction, if there is in fact a threat, the next step is to decide to do something about it. Even before I actually do it, or even before I know exactly what I am going to do, that is often enough for me to be able to ramp down the adrenaline, calm down the amygdala, and release the stress. Sometimes that’s not enough and I need to do something therapeutic to release the stress – garden, knit, read, walk, chores, whatever. Some people exercise or run or meditate or pray.

Sometimes we get angry on behalf of someone else, an empathetic reaction. This is a very human thing, and in my opinion, a good thing. We get angry at injustice, even when we are may not be directly affected. Reformers are people who have channeled their anger into good.

Anger can be unreasonable, sometimes from unrealistic expectations. For example, someone might be convinced he is a wonderful singer, then audition on American Idol and get unanimously rejected by the judges. That person might then erupt in anger. I think that’s unreasonable, but still very understandable. It’s a blow to the ego and self-image that hurts. And hopefully that person calms down eventually and recovers. That happens to most of us one time or another, losing our temper unreasonably. I have probably experienced every kind of anger in my life.

It’s ok to get angry. And it’s also ok if someone is angry at you. It doesn’t mean you are bad, it just means you and the other person are both human. If the other person is reasonable, it can be an opportunity, with ground rules and safeguards, to discuss the reason the person is angry and possibly improve the situation. Like when my kids get angry at each other, I get them to work it out under my beady eye.

Anger is about us, about a threat to our selves, or an injury to us. Anger focuses on neutralizing the threat or providing a remedy to the injury. It’s about making the situation better.

2. Poisonous Hate
I am not sure what hate is, honestly. I know we often confuse anger with hate, and in everyday usage we lightly use the word “hate” to signify either extreme dislike or extreme anger. How is hate different from anger?

When we look at hate, from the outside, it is characterized by two things – an object of hate, and an urge to hurt, injure, or destroy that object. When we hate someone, we have no empathy with them; we stop seeing them as a person. Thus they become objects. They exist in our head, projected onto actual human beings. There is an irrational, illogical aspect to hate; maybe, like love, it is blind.

Why do humans hate? I suspect it has something to do with war. Animals don’t have wars, and I don’t think animals hate either. They are to much in the moment. But I think hate is useful in war, and I think it is probable that hate and war are related in a way that feed each other. And maybe an aversion to war can be similarly linked to an aversion to hate. I think there are also a lot of other factors in hate and war, but there is some kind of link.

Dave Grossman, in his Pulitzer-nominated book On Killing, asserts that humans have an innate resistance to killing other humans. Historically more soldiers have misfired than aimed true. Modern military training overcomes this by, among other things, conditioning the soldiers to view the enemy soldiers as objects, and also to avoid face-to-face combat in favor of long-range killing.

So how do you know if your anger has slipped into hate? It’s hard to say exactly, but one clue would be if you find yourself talking not about an action that angered you but about how the person not fully human. How the person is (fill in the blank) and deserves hurt or injury. Another clue would be when other people start telling you that your seem illogical about the person, or over-the-top when talking about the person. Or when you start shunning people who are not sufficiently angry at the person and bonding with other people on how to properly punish or injure the person.

It’s not ok to hate, and it’s not, in my opinion, safe to open dialogue with someone who hates you. Someone who hates you is not looking to improve a situation, someone who hates you is simply looking to hurt you, to kill you. We all know, even as children, know that is – something that wants to hurt you, that wants you cowering under the covers or running away from, is — a monster. And a monster can create a lot if pain, but eventually, the story never ends well for the monster.

Hate is a poison that can turn you into a monster.

Don’t be a monster.

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