In this episode, Bridgette and Irvine explore the emotion of anger. Commonly it is called a negative and dangerous emotion. However, anger is a gift that can propel us to defend our values, make lasting change, and uncover solutions.
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Irvine Nugent: Hello, everyone, and welcome to the Resilient Leadership podcast, where everything we talk about is aimed at helping you lead with greater sense of calm, clarity and conviction even in anxious times. My name is Irvine Nugent and I am joined, as always, by my amazing co-host, Bridgette Theurer. Bridgette, how you doing today?
Bridgette Theurer: Well, thank you for asking, Irvine. I am doing wonderfully. Looking out at blue skies in my office window. Loving the month of June, June is a spectacular time of the year in the DC area and just delighted to be in conversation with you as always and on this topic, in particular, the Gift of Anger.
Irvine Nugent: Yeah. So, today’s topic is the Gift of Anger: Rehabilitating a Misunderstood Emotion. Now, hopefully, you’re kind of like, hmmm, that’s interesting. Because I just want to take our listeners to think just a little bit about what are some of the messages that you have in your mind about anger. And think about some of the messages, perhaps, that you grew up with, because I think almost universally, anger is seen as a bad or a negative emotion. And, obviously, it is a dangerous emotion; it can get us into trouble.
And as I was thinking about this episode I pulled up some quotes about anger and I think it tells us a little bit about what our feelings and the cultural inheritance we’ve had around anger. So, one was from Waldo Emerson. “For every minute you remain angry, you give up sixty seconds of peace of mind”. And then Mark Twain said, “Anger is an acid”, interesting. And Joel Osteen, great preacher, said “Every day we have plenty of opportunities to get angry, well, what you’re doing when you indulge these negative emotions is giving something outside yourself power over your happiness”.
That final sentence as well, because I know I grew up in a faith tradition and the message I got from my catholic faith tradition, was that anger is dangerous and anger is bad and be careful not to be angry. So, here we have it that anger, there are messages around anger, and it can’t help but today, really influence how we think and feel about the emotion of anger. So, I’m curious, Bridgette, what were some of the messages you grew up with about anger?
Bridgette Theurer: Well, that is a provocative question, for me, and I have to say that the messages I grew up with were, I think around anger, were negative; I don’t think that it was explicit. I don’t remember either of my parents saying, anger is really bad, don’t ever get angry. But implicitly, I absorbed this message.
Irvine Nugent: Yeah.
Bridgette Theurer: When I try to consider where did that come from. My dad had a bit of a temper and at first it kind of frightened me a little bit. He never hurt me or anything like that, he just had a temper. So, I think what I learned to do is be like okay, don’t poke the bear. I learned to withhold my own anger, because the last thing I would want to do is poke the bear and make somebody else angry. So, I think that is part of the way I got that message. And then just culturally, I think that I grew up in a time when women were just not supposed to display really strong emotion. And anger certainly wasn’t befitting of a graceful woman. So, I got a lot of unpacking to do, and I love the subtitle today which is Rehabilitating an Emotion, because I think many of us do need to rehabilitate it.
So, thanks for asking that because it really provoked an interesting self-reflection for me. Okay, so our listeners know by now that when we have these conversations we really like to ground them in neuroscience. Especially when we’re talking about touchy feely things like emotions, right? So, lead us into that part of our discussion, Irvine. What’s going on in the brain with respect to anger? What does the neuroscience tell us?
Irvine Nugent: Yeah, it’s a really interesting question and maybe let’s just zoom out just a little bit before we get into anger. And that is, we have all these emotions and I always like to ask, what is an emotion? Why do we have them? Obviously, we evolved as human beings with these emotions, so something must be going on. One of the real key researchers that began, really, all research on emotion is Dr. Paul Ekman. And back in the 1960s if you as a psychologist said, I’m going to spend time studying emotions, you would have been laughed out of the laboratory.
And so, he really changed that and really began our modern understanding of what emotions are and there’s a definition he uses, which I think is really beautiful. He says, “Emotions are processes which help us deal with matters of importance to our welfare without thinking”. And so, there are a couple of things in there I want to pull out. First of all, an emotion is a process, it’s not just one thing that happens, it sets in motion a whole process which enables us to react to something which is very important to our welfare, and it’s without thinking.
And so, therefore, we said this in numerous episodes before this, we evolved and one of the strongest traits we have is the trait to survive. And here emotions are helping us survive. They’re helping us to put into motion a process that will help us survive. So, when you think about anger, of course, anger is this forward momentum, it is protecting us. We have an internal radar, which every seven seconds is looking for threat, and when something threatens us, we have an automatic response; we react first and we ask questions later.
And we have this coordinated and organized response, and anger is a beautiful example of that. So, Bridgette, when we get angry, can you think of what would you say would be the coordinated and organized response of our body?
Bridgette Theurer: Well, one thing that I think we can all relate to is that our muscles immediately start to tense up, right?
Irvine Nugent: Yep.
Bridgette Theurer: You look at an angry person, their face is tense.
Irvine Nugent: Yeah.
Bridgette Theurer: Their muscles become quickly very tight.
Irvine Nugent: Yeah.
Bridgette Theurer: And then, of course, inside the brain there are these neurotransmitter chemicals that are flooding the brain and giving us a burst of energy, which, to me, is one of the most fascinating things. That anger energizes us. We get a burst of energy from this emotion. And then, of course, all these other related physiological things happen; our blood pressure rises, our extremities are flooded with blood, we’re gearing up. Our attention narrows, we get locked onto the target of our anger, whether that’s a person or a subject or an injustice, and soon we can’t pay attention to anything else. We have become ready to fight.
Irvine Nugent: Yes.
Bridgette Theurer: And we all experience the emotion of anger, of course. And, as you said, it’s part of our survival inheritance. So, it’s not like we can wish it away because it is deep in our DNA and deep in our inheritance.
Irvine Nugent: Absolutely. And what’s really interesting, what we understand, as well, psychologically, there’s a term which I love, which is called a refractory period. That means when we’re in the midst of an emotion, but say anger specifically, and you just mentioned our target focus narrows into that which is causing us anger. And in that period the only data we’re willing to receive is that which backs up how we are feeling. That’s why at times when someone is angry, it can be difficult to talk to them and maybe a little time out, little cooler heads, that’s why, perhaps that can lead to a better conversation.
Now, we are not slaves to our emotions and, of course, we’ve talked before that there is a dialogue; there’s a dialogue going on between the prefrontal cortex, which is this front part of our brain which is the center of reason and logic et cetera, and, of course, the amygdala, where our emotional part of our brain is. And so, it is possible when we notice anger, for us to be able to engage the prefrontal cortex and to have, first of all, a more reasonable conversation, but also to integrate tools that can help us target our anger in a way that is helpful.
And this is something I really want to say, is that instead of us using the terms good or bad when it comes to emotions; we have good emotions, we have bad emotions. I like to say that emotions are conveyors of messages, of information that’s important to our welfare, are we able to notice what the message is and can we use that emotion in a constructive or a destructive way? So, we know anger can be used in a destructive way, but it also can be used in a constructive way and I think that’s what we really want to focus on in this episode, and that’s why we’ve called it the Gift of Anger. So…
Bridgette Theurer: You know what this is reminding me of, Irvine, as I’m listening to you?
Irvine Nugent: Yeah.
Bridgette Theurer: Is the episode that we did recently on managing leadership and anxiety, and remember how one of the key points we were trying to underscore there is that anxiety, in and of itself, is not the problem, it’s what we do with it. And really what you’re reminding our listeners and reminding me of is, anger is not the problem, in and of itself, it’s what we do with it.
Irvine Nugent: Yes. Absolutely.
Bridgette Theurer: If we are not slaves to our emotion, as you said.
Irvine Nugent: Yes. So, with that in mind then we’ve titled this episode The Gift of Anger. So, Bridgette, why don’t you kick it off? What comes to mind when you think of that and how anger can really be a gift for us and that message of anger?
Bridgette Theurer: Well, I think certainly if it’s going to be a gift, then the gift is in the message, right? But I want to speak to something before we even talk about the message of anger, and that is just acknowledging the range of angry feelings because it goes from annoyance. When somebody is annoyed with you, you know they’re angry. But they’re not necessarily yelling or doing anything like that, but there’s anger there but it can go from annoyance all the way to rage. So, there’s a variance in terms of the strength of the feeling of anger and then on top of that, there are different kinds of anger. There’s indignation, where there’s sort of a self-righteous anger, they’re sulking, which is sort of a passive form of anger.People use the term passive aggressive, right?
Irvine Nugent: Yep. Yes.
Bridgette Theurer: So, the sulking is the passive part of that, just the exasperation of your patience being tried. I have a daughter who has two small children, a four-year-old and a two-year-old, soon to be three. And I see exasperation being expressed from time-to-time, because they try her patience mightily. So, to your question, though, about what’s the message and potential gift of anger, is really when we can look at what’s behind it. What is it telling us? Why is it there? And there are different reasons for anger, sometimes it tells us that our boundaries have been disrespected or trampled upon. But we get angry when that happens. And rightly so. Or sometimes it’s not about boundaries; it’s really that someone has thwarted our forward progress. It’s like, I’ve got a goal here, I’m heading toward it and you’ve just come in and thwarted me. Or maybe it’s about fairness. Maybe our sense of being treated fairly has been violated. And depending on the why of the anger is an important message underneath. What is it that’s really making me angry? And it’s not always obvious. First blush, you might say, of course, this is what’s making me angry. But if we sit with that question a little bit more, what’s the message this anger is here to reveal to me? Something else might surface.
So, yeah, anger can get us into trouble, we all know that and sometimes we say and do regrettable things under the influence of anger. I know I’ve done that, but, I think what we need to really share with our listeners now is, okay, what are the gifts? What are the possible gifts of this emotion because it wouldn’t be with us if there weren’t some very positive things that come from it. So, what do you think, Irvine?
Irvine Nugent: Well, we’ve used this word before earlier and we saw the topic of energy, and so I think one of the things, first of all, is anger energizes and it pushes us forward. I grew up in a pub in Northern Ireland, if people don’t know that. My father, God rest him, had an amazing sense of when there would be a fight or not. And I would say, well, how do you know? And he says, well, when there’s going to be a fight, he said people puff themselves up and he says, and they’re getting ready and they’re kind of like, come on, come on. And it’s just because anger is this, it’s this forward propulsion. And so, therefore, first of all, it keeps us safe.
So, it was there to keep us safe, but I think, as well, that anger could truly help us to mobilize our resources to increase our vigilance and to remove any obstacles in the way of our goals. So, just think about the goals that we have set ourselves and something gets in the way, and it’s so easy just to declare defeat. Well, that was a stupid goal, I’m not going to go there. And yet anger has the power to really push us, to energize us, to really help us push toward this goal, perhaps, that otherwise we would have been prevented from realizing, so to really push ourselves in service to this goal or working toward your ideals.
So, I’m thinking of a client I had, Bridgette, a few years ago, who really had some negative talk toward her, and she had a dream of being one of the first person, a generation in her family to go to college. And she had all these negative messages; you’re not going to be able to go to college, why even try? And she said it made her angry.
And I always said, well, maybe that anger can be used and she learned how to use that as energy to really push herself and say I’m going to show you. And this is a story that’s very common of how things that have been said to us which make us angry and instead of us hitting out, rather it’s being used as this amazing energy to help us achieve the goal at hand.
Bridgette Theurer: That is a really great example. It was a gift to her because it really was a source of fuel for her, wasn’t it?
Irvine Nugent: Oh, I love that word, fuel, yes. Yeah.
Bridgette Theurer: And so, if it weren’t for anger, sometimes we wouldn’t be able to overcome huge hurdles in our midst.
Irvine Nugent: Yes.
Bridgette Theurer: Huh.
Irvine Nugent: Yeah. Bridgette, what other gifts can you think of?
Bridgette Theurer: Well, I think anger can reveal or remind us of our values and our very deeply held beliefs. What do we truly cherish? What matters most to us? And when people or situations are not in harmony with those values, we will get triggered. And often we will be triggered with anger, and if we can step back and say is there a value here at stake that I care deeply about, I think that can be a gift, right? And it’s an emotion that can remind us of what we care most deeply and fundamentally about.
Irvine Nugent: Yeah. And I don’t know, Bridgette, it’s interesting, I was just thinking there, we came from an episode last week on missing conversations and I think sometimes a missing internal conversation. Is that kind of, yeah, I got angry, but what value? Why did I get angry? What value there? And I love this idea of really exploring some of the values, perhaps, that have been violated and why is that so important for me.
Bridgette Theurer: For sure. And then I’m listening to you talk a lot about how anger energizes us, how it has a forward momentum to it. And I think paradoxically, anger can help make us more optimistic. Because, if we are deploying it properly, we’re using that energy to feel empowered. To feel that we can change, it’s a call to action. Acres of call to action. We can change a situation. And we feel the energy needed to do that, so I think that’s a huge gift and then I would just say that this is kind of closely related to reminding us of our values, but anger can really remind us of social injustices that we no longer want to tolerate. We no longer want to put up with. And, of course, you can probably think of a lot of movements, social movements that were rooted in the emotion of anger.
Irvine Nugent: Yeah. Absolutely. No, when you think of some of the great social movements, kind of, here, you have a figure like Gandhi, Mahatma Gandhi, who hello, always espoused peaceful demonstration, but yet it was the anger of the British rule there and some of the laws et cetera that propelled him to action, propelled him from being an attorney into taking action in his own way. Martin Luther King, Harvey Milk, all these great figures; there was an element of them looking at present situation and saying this cannot continue.
And either it was an injustice toward them or injustice that they saw to the wider society and it propelled them, it energized them, helped them take courageous stands, and that energy was used in a way which helped us perhaps make change that otherwise we wouldn’t have done. So, Bridgette, we’ve kind of talked here a little bit and we’re kind of touching upon leadership and I know that one of the core areas of resilient leadership for us is at times having to lead with conviction. And we all know that sometimes leading with conviction requires us to take some courageous stance. And I’m wondering; does anger have a part to play there and maybe helping us to be more courageous?
Bridgette Theurer: I think so, and I’m really glad that you’re bringing up this point, because we really want to root this in the notion of leadership and how could anger help us be better leaders; more resilient leaders. And I think it really is connected to this notion of leading with conviction. Because as leaders we are called sometimes to be bold, to take risks, to take tough stands and the energy behind anger can sometimes in empower us todo that. I’m thinking of a client I worked with once, who was really angry from the get-go.
When we started coaching together, the anger was palpable and it made our sessions interesting, they certainly were never boring, I’ll tell you that. And so, as we explored what was really going on for her, one of her biggest sources of anger was her boss. And the reason is that she says my boss keeps telling me, keeps giving me huge projects and more and more work to do and really saying to me, we got to take this on, we need to do this, you can do this and yet at the same time he would say to me, and I really want you to have a good work life balance.
And she said, I was so pissed at him, because he’s acting like he wants me to have a whole life, he’s saying he wants me to have balance and yet his behavior is such, that he’s, basically saying do more with less, do more with less, do more with less. Now, here’s the thing, she was so trapped in her anger that she couldn’t figure out what to do with it, except to rail at him until she was really able to step back from it and get on the balcony, like we talk about, and use that anger as a source of energy to say what is it that I care most deeply about and what is it that I’m going to do here and she took a stand. And she took a stand for herself and her life and she left that job and found a completely different one in another part of the organization. And, by the way, he got angry at her for that, but, oh, well.
And off she went. So, yeah, it’s essential to leading with conviction. Again, because you said, Irvine, it can be a dangerous emotion, we have to use our prefrontal cortex don’t we?
Irvine Nugent: Yes.
Bridgette Theurer: To uncover the message of the emotion, harness the fuel it is giving us and figure out where we want to go with it.
Irvine Nugent: Absolutely. And then with that in mind, Bridgette, I think it’s a great segue into the acknowledgement. We’re not trying to say here, that anger doesn’t get us into trouble, of course, it does. Oh my god, I can look back in so many regretful angry episodes in my life, however, let’s just explore then, how might we be able to use this tremendous fuel and energy but direct it in a constructive way rather than a destructive way. And I think that’s really the course. So, let’s just maybe explore a few practices that people might want to use or techniques. Bridgette, have you any techniques that you’ve seen, that you suggest to your clients or you’ve seen your clients use?
Bridgette Theurer: Well, really, I think in the example I just shared, come to think of it, the real practice that we worked on together was helping her to get on the balcony. So, what did that mean practically speaking? She had to get some emotional distance from the situation and some perspective.
Irvine Nugent: Yep.
Bridgette Theurer: She had to be able to step back and up, she had to take some breaths and then she had to ask from a place of curiosity, and this is hard when you’re really angry. She had to ask herself some questions like well, what is this anger really about? What is the message that this anger is here to reveal to me? And what do I stand for? Now, that sounds easy as I’m saying it and it’s not because the emotion of anger fills up our bodies and our brains with all of that stuff that we talked about earlier, so you have to find, actually, I think a lot of times, a trusted partner to help you do this. Don’t you think, Irvine?
Irvine Nugent: Oh, absolutely. Yes. And explore it in a safe place in a dialogue there that someone that can help you really think about what’s happening. Yeah, I love that idea.
Bridgette Theurer: What do you think works, well, what works for you and what has worked for your clients?
Irvine Nugent: I think also reappraising situations is important as well. And I think that’s a wonderful technique and it’s kind of going back. We’ve talked about empathy before and this marvelous ability of the human person to put ourselves in another person shoes. And that in a way, fundamentally changes the way we think about things and reengages the prefrontal cortex in a different way.
I always go back to the great example Stephen Covey had in the seven behaviors of successful leaders and he talks about an example from New York City and there is Sunday morning in the subway, it’s very quiet and there’s a gentleman there. And all of a sudden it stops and a man gets on with two kids and one of the kids is just being annoying. They are being disruptive, they’re making noises, et cetera, and the man is getting more and more agitated. And so much so that he decides to go to the gentleman and to kind of berate him for the behavior of his kids.
Bridgette Theurer: Oh.
Irvine Nugent: Because he was getting so angry, and so he just says, look, can you not do something about your kid? They’re annoying me and the man looks at him and says, you’re probably right and I apologize, but we’ve just come from the hospital where his mother died. And then all of a sudden, it’s like, whoa, here is the same situation, the exact same thing is happening, and now we’re receiving that data in a totally different way and the anger now has abated and the anger has turned into something else. And so, this is a really dramatic example, but I think at times it shows the power of the human brain to take something and to be able to really reappraise it.
What might be happening? What’s something I’m missing in this situation? Is the cause of this something other than what I’m thinking? And I think that power to reappraise a situation can truly help us manage anger in a much different way.
Bridgette Theurer: Yeah, especially when we feel like we’re the victim of it, right?
Irvine Nugent: Yes.
Bridgette Theurer: And what a powerful example there that you just shared. And I’m quite impressed with that father, because many people would be so triggered by that because of the context that they would have had an angry outburst. But he didn’t. And I think it’s important to remind us and remind our listeners, that sometimes our anger or feelings of anger are so intense that there is not going to be, in that moment, an ability to access our prefrontal cortex and that just isn’t going to happen and what we need to do then is probably step away. Call a timeout. Put ourselves in timeout.
Irvine Nugent: Yeah.
Bridgette Theurer: And then when we have calmed down a bit, we engage. What we don’t want to do is sort of have a cooling down period and then we don’t ever go back to the situation, because then it can become a missing conversation, as we talked about in the last episode, right?
Irvine Nugent: Oh, I can relate to that so often, sometimes I’ve walked away in anger, but I’ve never had the follow-up, so the anger just stews, and it gets worse. And I think you’re spot on there, at times we don’t have that follow-up conversation.
Bridgette Theurer: Yeah. And it’s understandable, because I think that we are uncomfortable. And as we’ve said we have conflicting feelings about the emotion itself. So, when we have anger and we’ve cooled down, we don’t reengage, in part, because we don’t want to deal with anger. We don’t want to go there again.
Irvine Nugent: Absolutely.
Bridgette Theurer: Alright, Irvine, so I think we always like to leave our listeners with some kind of a core practice. What would you like to share with folks that would sort of bottom line this and helped them to access anger as a gift?
Irvine Nugent: Well, I think I’m going to go back to, at times we really don’t spend enough time exploring our anger and how it shows up. And one of the ways that I like to do this with some of my clients in the workshops is I actually ask them to draw out what the anger looked like, because very often we don’t visualize it. So, I actually have them create this little graph and on the vertical line, that is the intensity, and then on the horizontal it’s the time, and you draw out the graph, what would that look like? If you had to draw, so how quick did you get angered?
If you got quick, of course, you know that vertical lines going to go up very quickly. How long did it last? And then you kind of draw that on the vertical line and then how quickly did it fall away. And I think it’s really helpful because it gets us, first of all, to recognize some anger patterns, what are triggers? What got my anger going and why is that important? And then, am I normally a person who’s quick to anger or do I let it stew and stew and stew and all of a sudden it comes out?
So, I think understanding our patterns is essential. Now, you mentioned something else, as well, which I think this works with, about at times it’s great to have a dialogue. And if you’re in a relationship where there’s some anger, this exercise can work really well. If you chart out and draw what you thought your anger looked like and you ask the other person, what did that anger look like to you on the receiving end? And I think it can really lead to some really amazing conversations about anger and about how it shows up.
So, I think it’s important for our listeners, just take some time, explore this energy that we have, this fuel that we have, which I think is a wonderful way of thinking about anger. How does it show up? And then ask some of the deeper questions. Why? Well, what’s going on here? And then, hopefully, we can harness that to really lead us into constructive, rather than destructive action.
Bridgette Theurer: I love that. Irvine, I want to just also say once again that anger is so relevant to leadership, because at the end of the day we are often called upon to make very difficult decisions, take unpopular stands, issue a call to action, stand for a principle, initiate change in an organization that no one will initially like, on and on and on. And sometimes anger is, as you said, that source of energy that propels us forward to do the tough work of leadership, to lead with conviction.
Irvine Nugent: Yeah.
Bridgette Theurer: I feel like this conversation was a gift to me. I appreciate it so much. It’s given me a lot to think about, I hope it’s done the same for our listeners and we look ahead to the next episode and our topic for the next episode is, The Art of Letting Go. Which is an essential skill for leadership and for life and you know what? It’s kind of related to…
Irvine Nugent: Totally.
Bridgette Theurer: and will build upon this topic, because sometimes we have to let go of our anger, right?
Irvine Nugent: Yes.
Bridgette Theurer: At the end of the day.
Irvine Nugent: Yes.
Bridgette Theurer: Well, thank you, Irvine. Thank you to all of our listeners, we so appreciate you coming along on this journey with us. Irvine, I hope you have a great rest of your day.
Irvine Nugent: Thank you, Bridgette. Thank you for this conversation too, it’s given me a lot of food for thought as well, so I really enjoyed it. Thank you so much.
Bridgette Theurer: Take care, everybody.
Irvine Nugent: Take care.