The English language has some problems. Some of those problems can make conflict worse. Take the simple statement, “I’m angry with you.” Immediately, the amygdala leaps into action and starts the cascade of chemicals that causes us to decide to fight or flee. Before we can blink, we wonder how angry the person is with us.
The problem is that the preposition “with” doesn’t explain whether we are the object of the anger or whether the person is standing beside us in the anger. If they’re standing with us in our anger, then they’re an ally. If we’re the object of their anger, then we’re an enemy. We’re presented with dozens of these contradictions as we communicate with others.
Unconditional Positive Regard
Carl Rogers’ way of saying it was “unconditional positive regard.” It conveyed judgement-free listening and the general expectation of positive things from the person he was with. Instead of assuming the worst, he assumed the best. Instead of looking for threats, he looked for ways to connect. Instead of instantly judging what the other person said and assuming he knew what they meant, he maintained an element of curiosity about whether his perception was the one the other party intended.
Rogers’ framework is a good start. It sets us up to differentiate between the times that someone has made us the object of their answer and when they stood beside us in solidarity with our anger.
Buddhists speak of emotions as afflictive and non-afflictive. That is, is the emotion harming us or not? In Western terms, we speak of whether the emotion is adaptive – that is, providing value – or maladaptive. Maladaptive emotions include those where the emotion and the responses it generates for us are harmful. Given the trauma associated with anger – and the anger associated with trauma – one would assume that anger is maladaptive. It does, after all, often cause harm.
Despite this, anger is more nuanced. If one becomes angry for the right reason, at the right time, and at the right person, then anger can be adaptive. That is, anger is not in and of itself a problem. The problem is learning how to effectively manage our anger. The anger that we associate with trauma is often not expressed in the right way, at the right person, at the right time, or for the right reasons.
The trauma-associated anger is different. It exposes us to the disappointment that underlies the situation. Whether the disappointment is in the behavior or lack of behavior of a person or is simply due to life not being fair, it’s anger that rises up to protect us when our expectations aren’t met.
Anger is an emotion that many people struggle with. Anger management has become both a phrase and a common source of humor. Anger’s challenge lies in the fact that few have been taught what it is and what to do about it. However, the Buddhists have a simple translation that can allow us to process our anger and get to its root.
The heart of this is the awareness that anger is disappointment directed. We’re disappointed because someone or something didn’t meet our expectations. We’ve directed this disappointment at someone – ourselves or others –and that disappointment takes the form of anger.
With this knowledge, we have a powerful set of questions. We can ask what we’re disappointed in – and who we’re disappointed with.
Our expectations are a part of the human condition. In fact, more than anything else, our consciousness exists to allow us to prepare for potential threats – and that means prediction. Given our limited ability to process and cognitive capacities, our ability to predict is nothing short of magic. We can anticipate what others are thinking and what we expect them to do. We apply patterns and rules of thumb. When we’re missing data, we just make it up – which sometimes can be a bad thing.
Behind all these inferences and filling in the holes is a judgement system that is constantly making sense of the outside world. Despite the wonderous machinery that makes this possible, it’s not infallible. We make mistakes in our judgement – and anger is the result.
The reason that our judgement does so well with so little is that it’s constantly tuning itself. Whether it’s laughter when a comedian makes us think one thing before snapping us back to their true meaning or the burn of anger, we’re constantly refining the prediction process to make it better.
Still, Rogers implores us to challenge our assumptions and to be surer that we understand the other person and the situation better. That is, how do we slow down the judgement machine?
When someone we care about is angry, we listen to their anger and often we absorb it ourselves. We listen to the evidence as they lay it out. We, of course, draw the same conclusions they did. We apply the same judgements, and we reach the same disappointed conclusions. We accept their explanations, and we become angry with them – about the situation.
While this statement indicates solidarity, it does little to encourage us to seek our own data and our own conclusions. We may be angry with the rude subway passenger who was letting his kids terrorize the other passengers in the car. We may never ask the question about why. Instead, we may believe, as they did, that the father was not a good father. It’s only through asking that we can learn that he just buried his wife, and the family is now on their way home and desperately missing their mother.
Being angry with someone can be a show of solidarity – as long as we’re willing to investigate whether our anger is directed at the right person, in the right amount, and for the right reasons.