You hop out of bed, the alarm didn’t go off for some reason. You have to rush to get ready for work. You sprint out the house and know that if you can make it there without any delays you’ll be on time. But any delays at all and you’re 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 flew out of your hand when you collided.
You frantically look around but just 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 I don’t care next time you are late I’m 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 got 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 is 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 really 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 that was anger’s actual goal? To make us move, to force us to move towards 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 (and being less than 50 seconds late not a minute). If our anger was talking to the boss, asking for something, what would it be saying? Aside from all types of obscenities, it’s basically saying: “I want my job!!! You suck! I can’t stand you! You shouldn’t fire someone for being less than 50 seconds 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 2 other times, you should have had a backup! This is crap! You should punch or kick him!”
Notice the difference? Anger isn’t simply irrational, it’s asking us to do something about the situation, trying to force us to do something. Just because 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’s actually wanting something more, just like the baby being angry, wanting food.
Memory is Better When We are Emotional
Now add the fact that there are plenty of studies out there that have found memories and various cognitive functions are stronger when there are 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? To remind ourselves why we should punch the boss some day? No. (Well maybe), it’s really a reminder just like getting burned by a hot stove. It’s a reminder to make sure we do something next time, 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.
Now most of us likely 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 to Solve Problems
Knowing that it’s there to remember and remind us to do something is half the battle. But deciphering what our emotions are telling us and what our emotions actually 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. Anger is saying kick, punch, and scream at him. But you know what your anger really wants? It wants the job back. And if it can’t get it, it wants to pay the bills. It wants to not lose a job in this way again. Even though it’s 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 a identifying a clear path forward, most likely you haven’t resolved the situation fully or found the real 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. Bottom line: Start listening and do something positive about it one step at a time.
This is a touchy subject by definition… I never liked the disclaimer crap, but it feels relevant here. 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.