Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Anger Mismanagement

Outside of the worlds of cognitive psychology and behavioral economics most of what passes for conventional wisdom in the therapy world is little more than diluted and distorted ethics.

Since these precepts pretend to be scientifically valid, journalists often pick them up and present them as objective facts.

As I occasionally mention, David Hume famously showed that science does not contain an ethical dimension. It can describe what you did, not what you should do.

Today Elizabeth Bernstein tackles an intriguing issue: how best to express anger; as the saying goes, she punts. Link here.

I was somewhat hopeful when I started reading the article. Bernstein is correct to say that we learn to express anger by watching the way our family members express theirs. My hopes were dashed when she gratuitously added that the way to overcome parental influence is to have lots of therapy.

If it happens that your parents did not present a very good example of how to express anger, then the solution is to find someone better to emulate.

From there Bernstein presents the therapeutically correct way to express anger.

It makes you-- or, I should say, me-- want to rush to open a volume of Aristotle’s ethics.

Where the therapists are clearly in over their head, the philosopher did, literally, write the book on ethics.

When he addressed the question of how to express anger, Aristotle did not think in terms of what a person who had been therapied to within an inch of his life would do. He described how a virtuous person should do it.

Given that therapeutic correctness is enmeshed in a gauzy empathy, it sees the expression of anger as a productive moment in a relationship.

Given that anger, almost by definition, is hostile and aggressive, you have to wonder how the therapists could have decided that it is going to restore loving affinity to your relationship.

According to Bernstein the therapeutically correct expression of anger should lead to a hug. I would say that if it leads to a hug you have not expressed anger effectively… if at all.

We get angry because someone has offended, insulted, or demeaned us. Having been knocked down we want to get up, to assert our dignity, and that can only be done forcefully.

Do it nicely and you are not expressing anger. You are accepting the diminished status you have just been assigned.

Aristotle would have said that the failure to respond to an offense with the right kind of anger makes you subservient, even servile.

For now, let’s examine the therapeutically correct way to express anger, as Bernstein, relying on her “experts,” presents it.

First, she says, when you feel a rush of anger, you should take a deep breath.

Here, I concur, in part. It is often a good idea to reflect on what has happened, whether you are right to feel anger, and how best to express it.

Yet, the larger issue is when and how to express your anger. If the moment is right, you would do well to get angry. As the old saying goes: carpe diem. Procrastination is not always your friend.

It is not always right to get angry on the spot, but it is also not always right to sit back and think it over.

Second, Bernstein says that you should make an appointment to express your anger. She wants you to say that you need some time to calm down, and would like to find a convenient time to discuss the matter.

This is obviously wrong. If someone has disrespected you, you should not respond with a gesture of respect. That would feel like a reward. And why would you want to telegraph your punch, thus to put him on guard? This is beginning to sound like: Anger for Eunuchs.

If you make an appointment to tell someone something that he does not want to hear, will make him more or less likely to show up?

Third, the experts believe that your first move should be to excuse and explain yourself.

By that they mean that you should begin by saying that while you would normally shut the person out or get angry, this time you are trying to do things differently.

So, now we learn that the best way to express anger is to declare, from the top, that you are not going to get angry.

When you say that you are trying out a new technique, you are saying that your anger is less serious, more theatrical… even a rehearsal.

If you follow this step, you will have told the other person not to take your anger very seriously. This means that you are afraid of his reaction, and thus, are willing to accept subservience.

Fourth, you are supposed to tell the person that it takes courage to express your anger and you already feel badly because you know that it is hard to hear that someone is angry with you.

This tells you to open with an apology, accompanied by lots of ego massage. Again, we are in the realm of subservience.

So far, not a single angry word has passed your lips. You have shown yourself to be weak and pusillanimous, afraid of your own shadow.

If the other person has not yet started to laugh at you, the only reason must be that he is having too much fun watching your squirm.

Fifth, you can now express your personal feelings. Not your angry feelings... Heaven forfend. No, you must open up about your hurt feelings, thus continuing to place yourself in a feeling of weakness.

If the insult that has occasioned your anger was intended to weaken you, then, by expressing your weakness, you are embracing the lower status that the insult was conferring on you.

Besides, when you say your feelings have been hurt, you are appealing to sympathy and pity.

Still, no anger.

Sixth, you are now supposed to excuse the other person. Therapists recommend that you say that you know that the other person did not mean to hurt your feelings, and that you would like to give him the opportunity to explain himself.

But, what gives you the right to occupy both sides of the conversation? And how can you presume to speak for someone else? Are you that afraid of hearing what he might say?

Keep in mind that if you are not acting like someone who has been insulted, then your friend will be thinking that he did not do anything wrong. He treated you as servile because you are servile.

Besides, the last thing you want to hear is an explanation. You want to hear a sincere apology.

If the apology is accompanied by an explanation-- the Devil made me do it; I was having a bad hair day-- it is, by definition, insincere.

If you get the expression right, your antagonist will apologize, accept responsibility for what he said, not try to explain it away, withdraw it, and vow not to say it again.

At that point, you do not shower him with hugs and kisses. You forgive him.

The therapeutically correct way to express anger expresses no anger. Score one for the therapy culture.

In order not to wallow in despair, let’s turn to Aristotle’s view.

The philosopher makes two essential points. These concern the way a virtuous person can express anger.

First, like all emotions, anger can be excessive, deficient, or tempered. Not too much means that the anger should be directed toward the person who caused offense, and should not, in degree, exceed the severity of the offense. Not too little means that you there are times when you cannot and should not ignore offensive behavior.

Some people are irascible; they get angry too often for reasons that do not seem to pertain to the situation at hand. Others are diffident, they do not seem to know when they are being abused, so they absorb it and wonder why they feel like they lack self-respect.

In Aristotle there is no one-size-fits-all view of anger, and there is no single formula that tells us how to express it.

How should one express anger? Aristotle’s statement is classic: “The man who is angry at the right things and with the right people, and, further, as he ought, when he ought, and as long as he ought, is praised. This will be the good-tempered man, then, since good temper is praised. For the good-tempered man tends to be unperturbed and not to be led by passion, but to be angry in the manner, at the things, and for the length of time, that the rule dictates; but he is thought to err rather in the direction of deficiency; for the good-tempered man is not revengeful, but rather tends to make allowances.”

But how do you know what is right here? That, after all, is the fundamental question.

In my view, you have gotten it wrong if you have made yourself and your emotion the center of attention. You have gotten it right when you have directed attention toward the person who has offended you.

When anger is expressed effectively it will shame the other person, causes him to apologize, quickly, directly, and sincerely.

If he fails to apologize, that can only then mean that the offense was intentional, and that he will continue to treat you as subservient.

In that case, expressing anger is fruitless. It’s best to cease contact with the person.


Anonymous said...

"If the insult that has occasioned your anger was intended to weaken you, then, by expressing your weakness, you are embracing the lower status that the insult was conferring on you."

in some ways, anger *is* weakness.

people seeking to elicit anger are seeking to elict...weakness.

not seeing much discussion of
taking a breath and considering if the source is worth one's anger.


Stuart Schneiderman said...

Thanks for the comment, Shoe.

I did mention the notion that one might well sit back and think it over under the first point of the advice.

I did add that it is not always right to delay a response.

When someone insults you or offends you he is trying to diminish you. It seems to me that anger is the right pushback, though only if it is expressed well. The prescribed expression that Bernstein presents feels a lot more like weakness to me.

Anonymous said...

People and the responses vary a lot; I've personally seen people respond to each of these methods, and would target my style (had I my emotions in check) to the individual.

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Pretty helpful material, much thanks for this article.