You hop out of bed in a daze, the alarm didn’t go off for some reason, so you have to rush to get ready for work. You sprint out of the house and know that you can make it on time. But if there are any delays at all, you’ll be late. You know that this is the third time. That dang phone freezes in the middle of the night and doesn’t start the alarm. You were going to buy a new one but never got around to it. Now there’s a chance you’ll get fired because it’s the third strike.
As you make your way sprinting out of your house and next to the street, you fail to look the opposite direction, not realizing someone is riding a scooter, and you all crash into each other. It’s not a horrible crash, but both you and the rider are on the ground. As you apologize and get up to continue on to work, your phone is nowhere to be found! It must have flown out of your hand when you collided.
You frantically look around but can’t find it. With no phone and no time to spare, you figure “screw it, I was due for an upgrade anyway” and take off sprinting without it. You get there, and the manager says, “Sorry, you’re one minute late. I told you that I didn’t care, and the next time you were late, I’m was going to have to let you go.”. You look at the clock, and it’s only 50 seconds after actually … which you explain, but he’s not hearing it. He says, “I’ll have your last check sent to you when the pay period is up.”
All you can see is red! You want to punch this guy so bad. This is ridiculous. If you knew he’d be that much of a !@#%, you would have just gotten coffee and called it a day.
Anger Is Asking for Something
When we are babies, we appear angry and cry when we want food. We are telling others that we want food, or at least that’s what it seems. As such, when we think about emotions, we tend to emphasize social communication and interaction. Of course, this is reasonable, but what we don’t seem to do well is look into how we are communicating to ourselves with our emotions.
What purpose does it serve to be angry while we are a baby? Why would we instinctively get that emotion or what appears to be anger? We clearly want something, and we are clearly frustrated that we aren’t getting it. The baby is kicking and screaming and seemingly exercising every movable limb. But what if anger’s goal was to make us move, to force us to move toward the goal of getting food? It is speaking to us telling us, “Hey, let’s do something about this.”
Now let’s go back to our boss firing us after our Olympic efforts to make it on time without our phone. If our anger was talking to the boss, asking for something, what would it be saying? Aside from all types of obscenities, it’s saying: “I want my job! You suck! I can’t stand you! You shouldn’t fire someone for being less than a minute late! You shouldn’t fire someone who lost their phone and sprinted here anyway! You should be punched!”
Yet while the anger is telling the boss off, it’s also screaming at you. “You need this job! How are you going to pay the bills? How the heck did you not see that person on the scooter? Why the heck didn’t you replace that dang phone earlier? It’s happened two other times; you should have had a backup! This is crap! You should kick him!”
Do you see the difference? Anger isn’t simply irrational; it’s asking us to do something about the situation and trying to force us to do something. Even though there could be extreme thoughts, there is something more behind those thoughts. Anger’s purpose isn’t to be mean or do mean things. It wants something more, just like the baby being angry and wanting food.
Memory Is Better When We Are Emotional
Now add the fact that there are plenty of studies out there that have found that memories and various cognitive functions are stronger when they include heightened levels of emotion. Anger, in our example, is forcing us to remember this situation. It’s engaging our memory of all things surrounding the situation. Why? Why would we want to remember such a crappy event and all the details that led up to it? Is it to remind ourselves why we should punch the boss someday? No. (Well, maybe.) Its purpose is to serve as a reminder, just like getting burned by a hot stove, to make sure we do something different next time and to learn from the situation. In our scenario, there are several things we could do to prevent this from happening in the future. Knowing the alarm didn’t go off two other times and not having a backup alarm is like gambling. What for? Have a backup alarm. Plan ahead.
It’s likely that most of us don’t deliberately try to ‘learn’ when we get emotional. We just bathe in the emotions without thinking, not realizing they are trying to tell us something more basic: “please do something about this.” All emotions, in my opinion, are trying to tell us that there’s a problem or an event that our instincts want to do something about.
Managing Anger Is Solving Problems
Knowing that anger is there to remind us to do something is half the battle. But deciphering what our emotions are telling us and what our emotions want is the tough part. When a baby is kicking and screaming, she’s saying, “Get attention! Kick! Punch! Scream! Solve this problem! DO SOMETHING!”. But really, all she really wants is the problem solved: food. She wants to do something about her current situation; she wants to eat. The moment food is in front of her, she starts to calm down.
Now imagine that you are in front of that boss one last time. What the anger is highlighting is the fact that you want to be able to pay the bills, to keep the job and not have to worry about it. You want to not lose a job in this way again, even though the anger is also saying kick, punch, scream. If you convince the boss to let you keep your job, the anger would likely subside. But if you didn’t, the anger would likely continue until you figure out a good, clear path forward. If you are still angry, even after identifying a clear path forward, most likely you haven’t resolved the situation fully or found the real or only problem behind the anger.
Managing emotions (not controlling them) is a matter of always knowing that they are simply there to help drive us to do something, to solve a problem. It’s up to us to determine what that something is by listening and being self-aware. It’s not easy because many times, the problems our emotions are asking us to solve are complex. If our emotions seem to be pointing in the wrong direction (if our anger seems to *only* want something negative or extreme, for example), then it’s a sign that either we don’t understand and/or we have ignored our emotions for way too long and the problems are too complex. The bottom line is to start listening and do something positive about it one step at a time.
P.S. This is a touchy subject by definition. There are exceptions to every rule, so please seek professional help if your emotions are unmanageable, negative, and extreme, or are causing problems despite your efforts.