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The positive psychology of anger and hate

Hate is such an aggressive word

Some time ago, I worked with people who used the word “hate”, a lot.  I was mesmerized.  I “loathed” doing my tax return. I “loathed” broccoli (I like it now – good with a lemon sauce).  But “hate”?

Hate is an active word.  Hate is a doing word.  When we hate something, we want to do it harm.  I didn’t want to do my tax return harm.  It wish it wouldn’t bother me.  But I didn’t want to do it harm.

I also never used the word loathe for people, either.  I sometimes said that “I can’t stand so-and-so”.  I didn’t want to be around them and avoided them if I could.

More often I would say something like “I think so-and-so annoys me because <reason>”.   Once, my reason was that “he seems to think he is my equal.”  My interlocutor agreed with me.  “I think that’s why he annoys me too.”

With that out of the way, we could relate to this “johnny-come-lately” without visible annoyance and without allowing our sense of his impudence to impede a constructive relationship.

Hate is a funny thing – it comes from anger

Hate is closely linked to anger, of course.  Some people make a career of anger.  Others have had so much go wrong in their lives that they’ve lost hope of being treated decently.

For that is what anger is about.  Disappointment and dejection that people who we treat well, treat us badly.

So my colleagues had probably had hard lives.  At the time, I was young, so I thought they should get on with being positive.  I sure they could have done.  With age I have become more compassionate and recognize that they might have had a lot of shit-happen.

Anger is a funny thing – very dangerous but easily resolved

If hate is a contorted emotion, so is anger.  It is so easy to help someone who is angry.  Agree with them.  Let them know that it is OK to be angry.  Watch them relax as their status is restored.  Then help them make a plan.

It is much harder to deal with your own anger.  The triangle of disappointment locks us in.

  • We like so-and-so.
  • They disrespect us and don’t care what they do to us.
  • We can try talking to them about what they are doing to us but we run the risk they confirm they don’t care!

We are left with 4 choices.

  • Living with an uncomfortable double bind where we know they don’t care about us but we all pretend that they do.
  • A dishonest hypocrisy where we know our relationship is rubbish.  But we keep up a pretense and do the minimum.
  • We walk away but wonder forever if we could have restored the relationship.
  • We bring up the problem and have our worst fears resolved.

This choice of 4 bad choices is why social support is so necessary.

Social support cleans up anger in families and organizations

In well run families and work organizations, uncles and aunts and other senior members of the organization step in to resolve conflicts.

  • They alert people to the effects of their behavior on others.
  • They broker apologies and restore status.
  • They suggest equitable separations when a relationship must end because it no longer has an honorable foundation.

Sadly, when we are made angry we don’t tell many people.  We are already suffering from an acute sense of shame and aren’t going to advertise our loss of status to the world.

Unless the uncles and aunts and elders of an organization or community are alert, a lot of anger gets buried.  Pressures and tensions build up and eventually they explode.

People have personal policies for dealing with anger

  • Some people raise the problem immediately.  Their policy is that if you choose to disrespect me, you will live with it.  It is a case of Strike 1 – you know I am unhappy.  Strike 2 – I ask you for an apology.  Strike 3 – If you don’t make good, we share the discomfort -I won’t absorb it alone.  Some people do this explosively.  Some people are brilliant at making a joke.  Both are asserting themselves and making it clear that you should deal with them respectfully or accept loss of status yourself.
  • Some people never raise the problem.  They try to absorb the tension themselves.  They really shouldn’t because the other person might just be clumsy.   But they’ve made a habit of absorbing tensions and will continue to do so.  Watch out for those quiet ones.  It’s not good for any of us that they absorb all the pain.
  • Some people won’t raise the problem but retaliate in due course.  “I don’t get mad but I get even”. I know people who pursue someone else for years until they get even.  One fellow I know would sit in his office doing nothing and keep someone waiting in his outer office for the same time (or more) that he was late.  He would agree to give references and then spike them with faint praise.  His aggression was never overt.  The other person might never know.  But he felt better.  I looked on in wonder.  A lot of energy went into this.  Why not just say “you are late!”?  Well, for the obvious reason that the relationship might break up altogether.

Only the transgressor can truly resolve anger

The trouble with anger is that its resolution is in the hands of the transgressor.  If the transgressor does not apologize quickly, then we are in a lose-lose situation.  It doesn’t matter how you deal with anger – you are still in a lose-lose situation and yours style is just a matter of preference.

Pick your style

Maybe we should just live an “extreme life”?  Deliberately work with people who make us angry for a longish period until we settle on a style that makes the best of lose-lose situations – though there is nothing best in them.

A positive style for dealing with your anger

Or we could be like Ben Zander, the orchestra conductor who lectures on positive psychology:  apologize and invite.

Apologize to the person who made us angry and invite them join in.  Would that work for you?

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Published in POSITIVE PSYCHOLOGY, WELLBEING & POETRY

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