The United States’ Troubling Relationship With Anger

The last couple of weeks have been rough, pretty much for anyone who lives in the U.S. There has been a great deal of violence, and a lot of people trying to understand the appropriate way to respond to extreme violence, which means there have been a lot of people stepping in it. One of my favorite examples of this is white people quoting MLK out of context, especially this quote:

Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”

I’ve seen this quote in response to people posting about Black Lives Matter. Let me tell you what I have seen from BLM supporters: hurt and anger. A demand for change. A call for justice. I’ve seen a lot of people talking about the fear they feel, the sadness of seeing their brothers and sisters killed, and the hopelessness of not knowing how to change anything.

So when I saw people respond with the above quote, I found myself flabbergasted. Who was talking about hate? I saw people talking about anger, justice, sadness, and an expectation of basic human decency. How on earth were my fellow white Americans looking at black anger and seeing hatred?

It has become very clear to me that Americans do not understand anger or how to be angry in a healthy way. I get it. I’m still struggling with how to feel and express anger well, and I’ve had five years of therapy trying to work me through the process. Most of the presentations that I see of anger in the media or modeled around me show anger as primarily something that white men feel, and as something that is typically violent. But we need to do better because there are very real impacts to our awful relationship with anger: people are dying because we cannot stop conflating anger with violence.

First and foremost, anger is healthy. Being angry and expressing anger are not mean or bad things to do. Not only that, but anger is something that every person in the world is entitled to feel. Every emotion that we feel serves a purpose. Anger helps to keep us safe. When someone crosses your boundaries, treats you or your loved ones poorly, or hurts you, anger is the response that says “do not let this happen again.” That is a good thing. If you don’t have anger when someone treats you poorly, you are less likely to take care of yourself.

So when we see women or people of color feeling angry, we need to be ok with that. Everyone deserves the space to set their own boundaries. White men: just because you cannot separate your anger from violence doesn’t mean you get to assume everyone else is just as incompetent.

On that note, here’s a problem: when white men feel angry, they seem to think they are entitled to act violently. (no, not all white men).

This may seem incredibly obvious, but it’s important to reiterate (and there are also many people who have never been told): you can feel an emotion without acting on that emotion. Feel the feel but don’t do the thing. The collapsing of anger and violence means many people can’t imagine just feeling incredibly angry and not doing anything about it. That makes anger dangerous, and makes a lot of people dangerous. There are two problems with this: the first is that we can react to anger in a variety of different ways, not just violence. The second is that sometimes anger doesn’t warrant any action.

Let’s start with number one. There are lots of ways to use anger to propel action. Some of them involve violence or yelling or cursing. That’s what most people think of when they think of “acting angry”. But healthy responses to anger can actually present in a wide variety of ways. It could be telling someone that you’re angry with them and why. It could be telling someone not to do whatever pissed you off anymore. It could be protesting. It could be voting. It could be calling legislators. Basically any time that something violates your boundaries and you work to reestablish those boundaries, you are acting out your anger. Violence is probably one of the least effective ways to do that in our current world. If I could change one thing about our relationship to anger, it would be that people could learn different ways of acting on their anger.

But perhaps even deeper than the ways we act on our anger is the fact that there is so very much action when white men are angry. Here are some facts: sometimes we feel angry when no one has actually done anything and there’s no reason to feel anger, or when there’s nothing we can do to change the situation, or our anger is out of proportion with what happened. Those are great times to feel anger and not do anything. It feels uncomfortable at first, but there’s lots of ways to get through the discomfort, whether it’s venting, doing something else to distract yourself, trying some mindfulness, or even just exercising off the steam. But this might be the most important place of confusion when it comes to anger in America.

If someone tells you they’re angry with you, they are not attacking you, doing violence to you, or expressing any kind of hatred or even necessarily judgment on you. In reality, when someone tells you that they are angry, they are doing you a favor. They’re giving you an opportunity to stop hurting them. Love is not at odds with anger: in fact real love requires that sometimes you feel angry, because love involves having some boundaries.

So when I see people responding to the recent police shootings with “why are you inciting violence or hatred against the police? Let’s use love!” I have to laugh. The myth that if we love someone or something we can’t criticize it or expect better from it has destroyed so many lives. You can’t love your abuser into not abusing you. That’s a recipe for feeling guilty and getting hurt. It’s how people get taken advantage of. It’s the lie that society tells women about abusive men. If you’re just good enough then you won’t get hit again. It’s a lie individually and it’s a lie societally.

Anger is a necessary ingredient in change. It fuels us. It helps us to stand strong instead of running away or falling apart. It gives us conviction. Love is not love if it does not expect decent human behavior out of the beloved. Then it’s just co dependence.

This thread of confused anger runs through so many of the problems around me. Rape culture, where men feel they have to exercise violence on others to make up for rejection or negative feelings. Mass shootings, where (primarily) white men take out their frustrations and angers and hopelessness on the world around them with a gun. Cops shooting black men because they confuse anger for violence, and respond in kind.

If you live in a world where every emotion demands an action, and you have been told for your whole live that the only emotion you are allowed to feel is anger, this violence makes sense. I would not be surprised if the same people who lash out when they’re angry are feeling fear in response to black anger, interpreting it as “hate” or “attacks.” If your only understanding of anger is violent, you would not want others to be angry. You might feel afraid of your anger, or trapped. You might not feel you have any other choices beyond violence in response. This is the vicious circle that is spiraling out of control right now.

Unfortunately, our society’s confused relationship with anger is actually, literally killing people. When you put guns in the hands of people who cannot process emotions except through violence, you create killers. When you give some of those people an institutional backing, as in the case of cops, you create an epidemic of violence. If we cannot teach people that anger is not only acceptable, but it is healthy, and that there are other ways to process anger than violence, we will not be able to move forward. If anger is exclusively the domain of white men, we will not be able to move forward. We all deserve to have a healthy relationship with anger.

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