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Why We Get Angry

Updated: Aug 15, 2023

“We boil at different degrees.” ~Ralph Waldo Emerson

It’s said that in today’s age, the only key differentiating factor between humans and robots, is the presence of emotions. True, heartfelt emotions the likes of joy, compassion, envy and anger. While it may be possible to code an Artificial Intelligence (AI) program that can emulate such emotions, doing so in a similar manner to that of a human brain isn’t possible just yet. Maybe one day in the future it will be. Our emotions are what make us human. As social creatures, we wouldn’t have evolved and thrived in such numbers if our instincts and emotions didn’t help play a part in how we shape our societies. Are all emotions created equal though? Can we simplify the presence of each individual emotion and assert them to be ‘natural feelings’ in our states of consciousness that have no further meaning to them? We could, but by doing so we’d be selling ourselves short.

Earler this year, I wrote about the philosophical concept of Ataraxia, a state of serenity and calmness in oneself, and how it can be beneficial for our lives. In the article, I wrote about how practicing Ataraxia in our daily lives can significantly change our thoughts and therefore, our actions as well. People around us can be frustrating at times and often we may find ourselves faced with a situation that may aggravate us. In these cases, it’s easy to get carried away by our emotions and respond with rage, and act out by saying something hateful that we never meant. Knowing how to gauge our responses and maintaining a state of equanimity in each situation, is nothing less than a superpower and can have lasting effects on our relationships with the world around us. You can find the link to that article here.

Today’s topic is not too far off from the subject of Ataraxia. When introspecting to see why anger takes over us, it’s too simplistic to point towards the cause of the anger. For example, being angry because of traffic, or angry because the dishes weren’t washed, or angry because the food that we ordered arrived late, or angry because we didn’t receive any gifts on our birthday. If these sound trivial, then the same case can be applied to instances such as being angry when someone humiliates or criticises us, being angry when someone makes a plan to hang out with us and bows out at the last minute, or being angry when someone behaves in a way that we consider irresponsible, leading to unwanted consequences.

From the surface, it appears as though anger can have multiple reasons and that different people have different trigger points that makes them angry. However, this is not true. If we look closely, there is one common factor that ties everything together. A core reason why we get angry in the first place, regardless of the external causes that may trigger it.

This reason can be expressed with a simple equation:

We get angry when:

Expectation ≠ Reality

The World in all its Colours

In any of the examples I shared above, it doesn’t take long to see that they’re all cases of expectations not meeting reality. We expect our roads to be empty, for our dishes to be cleaned by our housemate or partner, or for our food to arrive on time or earlier, or for us to be showered by gifts on our birthday. If these expectations are not met, we get angry. Similarly, we expect everyone to be nice to us and acknowledge our work and effort, we expect people to be true to their word and keep any promises they keep, and we expect the people we love to behave in a certain way. When these expectations aren’t met, we get angry. Take any instance of anger, it’s a simple case of one’s expectation ≠ one’s reality.

Upon reflecting on this, you can see that the blame cannot be on anything or anyone else but on us. We get angry, when we hold expectations from the world. Expectations for no reason. One might say that in some cases, these expectations are kept to ensure the wellbeing of others, but it’s an expectation nonetheless. We expect the world to be how we want it to be, for no other reason. We expect people to be how we want them to be, nothing else. Since all of us are expecting things from everyone, it’s no surprise why so many people are so angry all the time. Why these people are so critical of everything that happens around them, that they’re never content, never satisfied. No amount of happiness, joy and comfort around them can live up to their lofty expectations that they’ve preserved with care.

We also tend to have high expectations from ourselves. We expect ourselves to be healthy, beautiful, wealthy, popular, happy and successful all the time. When our minds and/or our bodies cannot meet these expectations for whatever reason, we get into a vicious self-inflicted cycle of blame and negativity, affecting our mental health. This can typically lead to methods of escape such as alcohol, cigarettes, drugs and sex which tend to be addictive in nature. Social media doesn’t help with this, as everyday we see people online supposedly living their best lives, and thus our mind plants expectations from ourselves to do the same in search of a ‘better life’.

When we realise that we cannot change the world, we can only change ourselves, we will find peace in being relieved from these expectations. The world is the world, independent of our existence. The traffic will exist as a byproduct of the population exceeding a city’s resources. The dishes will remain dirty and each person held responsible for washing them may have their own reasons why they are not washing them. The food may arrive earlier than expected, or later than expected depending on the preparation time and the traffic for the deliverer's commute. Gifts are gifts when they’re given by choice, not by compulsion. If you’re being given a gift because the giver feels compelled to do so, the gift loses its value because it was given for the sake of it. People are how they are as a result of all their life’s experiences, and so there’s no point in having certain expectations because we can only assume, and not guarantee their behaviour in any circumstance.

The Trust Card

When it comes to expectations and anger, trust can be a grey area. For example, we may have certain expectations from our partner to remember our birthday or anniversary, to share in efforts of looking after the house, to manage the family’s finances responsibly, or to remain faithful to the relationship. We expect productive behaviour from our employees and co-workers, to be diligent with their work efforts and put 100% into everything they do. We may expect loyalty and support from our friends, to celebrate moments that are joyous with us, and to remain with us during the toughest of times.

Since we often spend most of our time with these people, and they hold a special place in our hearts, the anger felt when these expectations aren’t met is different to the other cases. This anger may often be a mask over an underlying layer of disappointment and sadness. We also tend to take these people for granted, and so it’s easier to get angry at them versus anyone else because we feel as though they’re with us no matter what. No matter how poorly we behave with them, they won’t leave us and if they do, it’s on them. It’s important to note that even in these cases, anger doesn’t help the cause. Anger won’t change the past, whether that's moments ago, or days, weeks or months ago. So dwelling upon it won’t necessarily change the future. What may happen as a result of anger can be far worse than what initially made us angry in the first place. However, this is easier said than done, especially when it involves someone close to us.

A degree of empathy can alleviate this concern. Empathy towards our loved ones and to people in general. Empathy that acknowledges that we’re all human and slip up from time to time. Our loved ones are no different, and their mistakes should not blind us to their place in our hearts. Taking them for granted is also a form of expectation, expectation that they will last forever, that they are infinite. Everything and everyone we love, can be taken away from us in an instance. When we realise the finitude of our lives and those of other, we become more appreciative of everything that surrounds us, and anger loses its place in our minds.

Break the Chain

Break the chain of expectation, and in the process you break the grip that anger has on you. Anger may be considered ‘natural’, but that doesn’t mean that being angry is a a good idea. Anger almost always makes matter worse, for ourselves and for those around us. If you’re unable to lose the expectation, than it’s also worth noting the idea of detachment, which can help with the practice of Ataraxia. I'd like to mention that I'm not proposing that we never get angry. That itself would be yet another expectation to hold, one that's also rather difficult and unreasonable. We're humans, and so we will most likely find ourselves getting angry. However, practice can help prevent us from staying angry. Put into context, there is a big difference between being angry for mere moments, versus being angry for hours, days, weeks or even months on end. Choosing the former, will alleviate a lot of the stress, tension and anxiety that may otherwise accompany anger if left unattended.

Loosening the expectation, rather than breaking it altogether is a helpful way to start with this. This can be done through detachment. For example, if you have expectations from your loved ones, acknowledge that their human when those expectations aren’t met, and think of instances where you yourself may not be meeting their expectations as well. Times when you were the triggering source behind their anger. If you can slip up, they can too. This way, you have the expectation, but are not too attached to it, and so, the sting of anger is not as harsh. With this practice, we can move closer to the state of not having expectations at all.

You may be thinking, that a state devoid of expectations is one that is apathetic, descriptive of someone who doesn’t care about anything at all. If we can’t change the world, why care about what other people do? What happens if someone does something to harm us, or harm someone close to us? Actions have consequences, and turning a blind eye towards them does not help with maintaining the wellbeing of society. To this, the answer is again, we cannot control other people’s thoughts and actions, we can only control our thoughts and actions, and our responses to others’ thoughts and actions. Acting out to protect oneself and one’s own loved ones from external sources of harm is not the same as acting out in anger. Aggressive behavior of any kind, active or passive is not the same as retaliation taken in a form of self-defense. Harm to others is harm to oneself, and anger is no different. If someone continues to harm us despite our efforts to stop them, appropriate action needs to be taken. Whether that involves removing them from our lives, or reaching out for help to stop their behaviour if necessary.

Sometimes a civil conversation can help with the regular fights and arguments we have in our relationships. A conversation that is free of judgment and that is approached with both parties having an open mind towards the other’s concerns and emotions. If done properly, we can see that anger elevates as a two way street, where one retaliates with anger, making it worse. If one person is angry and the other is calm, it won’t take long for the angry person to realise that their anger may not be needed. Moods can be infective, so keeping company alongside bitter and irritable people can lead to us feeling the same way. Surrounding ourselves alongwise calm and composed individuals can help maintain that sense of equanimity and find the joy in our everyday lives that we weren’t able to see before with the blinds of anger over our eyes.

We humans are emotional beings, it’s what separates us from robots. Emotions are the reason we have evolved as a species and why we form relationships as social creatures. Anger is no different, and there will be moments where our anger gets the better of us. In those moments, don’t hold onto it. Let it go.

Like a cloud passing through in the sky.


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