Why do humans get angry? We’ve all been there. You’re half way through an argument with someone, and something happens. It is as though you stand apart from yourself, and look at yourself, and marvel at your own capacity to be irrational. You can hear yourself say these strange words, accusing someone, or blaming someone. But you carry on, as if you are locked into an inevitable story.
And it is a story, in a way. We all tell ourselves stories about what is happening, and those stories define our reactions. It is part of our evolutionary heritage.
THE STORIES ANIMALS TELL THEMSELVES
I am not one of those who is convinced humans are the only self-conscious beings. I think that’s just arrogance. Many animals tell themselves stories about the situations they find themselvs in. Interpretation of situations is a skill most common mammals have. And going further back, a huge amount of life lives according to long-understood participation in chains of events. True, a lot of the time it’s what we call instinctive rather than rational thought. But we’re a little too rigid about that distinction. Much of what we think of as rational is instinctive, and vice versa.
A SIMPLIFIED VERSION OF AN ANGRY DOG
Take a dog as an example. A dog is faced with something unusual, perhaps a sudden noise, or an unexpected behaviour. A useful simplification, transferable to humans, might be: that dog has a choice, made in an instant. That choice is: 1. Do I withdraw, run from this unusual thing and hide until I understand what’s going on? Or 2. Do I attack, try to scare this unusual thing into not attacking me first?
Those who know dogs will know that they differ widely in their responses. Some will usualy choose to sit back and watch; some will usually choose to come forward and attack. But both, in a sense, are living out a story. For the attacking dog, they are living in a long tradition of animals who survived by attacking as a standard response. For the withdrawing dog, they are living according to a long tradition of animals who survived by withdrawing. Their conscious mind may or may not see all this and understand it; but their being knows the story, is familiar with it.
ANGER IN HUMANS
Anger, in a way, is the impulse that lies behind the attack dog’s behaviour. People who get angry usually see themselves as vulnerable in the moment, and the story they are living out, is that they need to assert themselves in order to defend themselves. So, ironically, the angry person who hits somebody, or lashes out verbally, sees themselves as the victim. It seems absurd from the outside, but we all know what it feels like from the inside.
What about the withdrawing humans? Don’t they feel anger? Oh, absolutely. But a funny thing happens in their case: the anger gets turned inwards. All that energy has nowhere to go, so it turns into internalised fear. When you’re disabled, paralysed by an unnameable fear of the world in general, sometimes it’s just the anger you have turned inwards. It’s the choice you make as an animal: that you’re not going to lash out. So instead, you lash inwards against yourself. A lot of depression has its root in this kind of self-laceration.
IS THERE AN ALTERNATIVE?
Whether you’re an ‘innie’ (someone who turns their anger inwards), or an ‘outie’ (someone who barks at and attacks others), it would be nice if an alternative could be found. Both tendencies can be destructive. Sure, they helped us survive over milliions of years, but in modern society we aren’t so often under threat of death. For us, anger raises its ugly head not when our bodies are under threat of death, but when a more abstract thing, our identity, is under threat. It feels like dying when your identity is threatened: this is because your identity is your ongoing picture of yourself; and if you lose it, you imagine that your very self (i.e. your self-image) is dying.
So what’s the alternative to this reaction we are all prone to, the one that has us becoming rude to others, but insisting that we are only defending ourselves?
LOSING YOUR SELF
In a good way, I’d like you to think what it would be to lose yourself. Deliberately. What if you willingly gave up any concept of yourself as something that needs protecting. If you accepted, especially, that your identity is fluid, not fixed; flexible, not static. What if you forget the evolved story of yourself as a separate being that need protecting at all costs, and replaced it with a different story… a story where you are a bit like water; you just run through the world like a river through a valley.
Who could hurt you (or hurt your identity) if you thought like that? If a person or situation suggests that you are not clever; or not good… and you just thought ‘yes, you’re probably right’, and got on with living. Who could hurt your pride? No one.
ANGER IS JUST PRIDE IN ACTION
Watch someone next time you see them get angry. I challenge you to find any story other than this: they feel threatened, and are blaming someone or something for their feeling of threat. They are playing out a story of ‘poor me’.
I am not referring to those times when a person passionately fights for what is right in others’ interests. That kind of response I would suggest is more of a fierce wish for the right thing to happen. I am referring to those times when a person is anrgy at the world, or others, because they are not getting what they want, and their identity is being threatened. It’s pride. Simply selfish pride.
A MEDITATION PRACTICE: GIVING YOUR SELF AWAY
Next time a difficult situation arises, maybe try to imagine you are willing to give away your current identity. imagine you don’t need it, that you can simply flow into a new understanding whenever necessary. You are like an octopus – you can squeeze into unusually tight spots, because your shape is malleable.
Instead of being like a brittle piece of glass, not budging until you break, you are being like a blade of grass, bending with the wind.
Notice how this makes you feel. Maybe you feel relieved, that you won’t have to waste energy on maintaining a self-image. Maybe you feel suddenly free, because you’re not so invested in fighting back unnecessarily.
I would like to emphasise that I am not saying roll over and accept other’s misreatment of you. But I am saying that the best form of reaction is not anger, but a fierce desire for the right thing to happen. The difference is in your focus. You can still defend yourself. But your mind is no longer clouded by the illusion that you are of supreme importance. You can now fight without your heavy crown of pride, and you’ll probably be more effective.
Your evolutionary story traps you into either fight or flight. When you fight, you end up misbehaving. And when you fly, you end up mistreating yourself. Try stepping aside of evolution, and losing your sense of self. If you have no self to defend, in the sense of an artificial identity, then you can see clearly.
So watch yourself, especially in difficult situations. Learn to get over your self-importance. And you will find your need for anger disappears, and peace returns.
In short, next time you are either fearfully self-punishing, or angry with others, get over yourself, and develop a sense of humour. Eventually, you will become able to just watch situations without self-interest. It’s a healthy ability, because you won’t be so frustrated. You’ll flow better.