Some months ago, I was watching my toddler struggle to scale a playground structure. He climbed and fell, climbed and fell. After hitting the ground, he let out a small growl, got up, and tried again. Face flush with anger, legs visibly shaking, he refused to give up until he made it to the other side.
In the end, he succeeded. Resolute mind conquered wobbly limbs.
But there was more.
I was intrigued by how angry he got. The more frustrated he became, the more determined he was to continue. This got me thinking: could anger be a prelude to courage?
There’s research to support this view. A 2020 study entitled, 'The functions of anger in moral courage' demonstrated that when people are angry at a moral violation, they're more likely to act courageously. Another study showed that, compared to people in a fearful state, participants induced to anger had a much greater sense of self-efficacy and optimism (essential ingredients for courage).
Yet, the story of anger is more complicated. There’s a long philosophical and religious tradition – spanning both East and West – that views anger with great suspicion. According to this perspective, anger is an inflammatory emotion that leads to wanton destruction and suffering. The stoic philosopher Seneca echoed this view when he warned: “Anger is like a falling rock which breaks itself to pieces upon the very thing which it crushes.”
It’s not surprising then that studies show anger is also associated with a host of deleterious health outcomes.
So, is anger a catalyst or a corrupter of courage? What are we to do with the Janus face of anger?
While we often have no control over how we experience anger, we do control how we express it. At NextArrow, our position is that anger is an emotion that orients towards courage, but must be harnessed to be useful.
Our recommendation: Don’t get angry, get MAD.
Manage: Breath and label.
The goal of managing your anger is to turn down the intensity of the emotion (without repressing it). Two of the most powerful ways of doing this is through deep breathing and 'affective labeling.'
Breathwork allows you to redirect your attention and create balance in your body. At NextArrow, we are big fans of the Navy Seal “box breathing” technique (origin of which comes from the Chinese tradition of Qi Gong): inhale for 4 seconds, hold for 4 seconds, exhale for 4 seconds, hold for 4 seconds.
Labeling involves naming your emotion: “I feel angry,” “I feel pissed off” (it should be noted that anger is often accompanied by other emotions like sadness and fear). Labeling emotions has been shown to decrease activity in the emotional regions of the brain and increase activity in regions associated with reasoning. Another type of labeling involves locating the sensation of anger in your body. Do you feel it in your head, chest, stomach, hands, etc.?
Ask: What is this about?
After management, the next step is to identify the nature and source of your anger:
You could do this by filling in the following sentence: “I’m angry about X because of Y.
I’m angry about the way our policy impacts our clients because I value fairness.
I’m angry about being talked over because I want to be treated with respect.
I’m angry about being reduced to a stereotype because I value individuality.
Having such clarity reduces misunderstanding (we're often unsure about what we're angry about), provides context, and directs our attention to the source of the problem.
Decide: How might I best respond?
Once you have managed your anger and identified its source, you’re ready to consider a response. The single most powerful question you can ask now is: How might I best respond?
For example, if I’m angered by being talked over in meetings, I could:
Give the interrupter the stink eye
Talk badly behind their back
Do nothing and hope someone calls it out
Let the interrupter finish and jump in the conversation again
Commit to interrupting the interrupter by saying: “Sorry John, I’m not finished just yet.”
Ask the meeting leader to create a no-interruption ground rule
Schedule a feedback conversation
Providing options allows us to be more flexible and think divergently about a problem. All too often, especially when we are angered, the first solution to our problem is not the best one (who doesn’t like a good stink eye?). You can even order your solutions based on desired impact. Once you’ve done the work, you can decide on a course of action that will increase the likelihood of employing our anger to constructive ends.
So next time you feel anger rearing its head, get MAD instead. Take a breath and label your emotions; get curious about the nature and source of your anger; and come up with at least 3 options before deciding on a course of action.
If you need inspiration, just visit a playground.
Or click here to learn more about our offerings. At NextArrow, we specialize in helping people enhance performance by doing hard things in the face of their fears. Our live workshops are designed for professionals who face business and career challenges that call for courage.