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Developing emotional intelligence - Anger is a volatile fuel

Updated: Feb 19, 2023

As part of my morning routine, I listen to or read a short Stoic passage. It is helpful to get myself grounded and my mind thinking about the day ahead. Sometimes the passage will resonate with a particular challenge or get me thinking about something completely different. Both are helpful. One of the passages this week was on the topic of anger. I thought I’d give my take on what I read. Here's the passage:

“There is no more stupefying thing than anger, nothing more bent on its own strength. If successful, none more arrogant, if foiled, none more insane—since it’s not driven back by weariness even in defeat when fortune removes its adversary, it turns its teeth on itself.”


Ryan Holiday, Stephen Hanselman

The Daily Stoic

We will all have our version of what anger looks and feels like. For some, it’s very physical, for example, finding ourselves or observing others slamming a door or raising voices. For others, it's bottled up inside with little to see on the surface. But, no matter what version it is, there is minimal, if anything, to be gained by anger. Here are three observations as to why.

  1. Getting angry never solves anything in the medium to long term. Some people say that anger is a strong motivator to do things differently. It can be used as fuel. It can be, although it’s a volatile fuel that is very difficult to manage. Often any perceived progress in the short-term has medium to long-term unhelpful consequences—a short-term answer to a situation that only builds resentment from others. Overproduction of hormones and chemicals in our bodies over time leads to a greater risk of severe health issues. Being blinkered from another person’s point of view means you make an irrational decision because in the moment, you respond with only half the story.

  2. Behaviour breeds behaviour. It’s common that when you get angry with someone, they feel threatened. They get angry themselves. Then what follows is an emotional escalation. Something that may have been relatively trivial becomes a full-blown battle of self-worth and identity. Who will back down first becomes a power play with people, often drawing on their position to exert authority over the situation. This leaves a trail of physical and emotional damage in its wake. Hopefully, this gets resolved quickly. However, in my experience of coaching people, sometimes they will hold on to their anger for a long-time. Maya Angelou said, “people will forget what you said, people will forget what you have done, but they will never forget how you made them feel.”

  3. It gives the impression of control. Anger gets us doing all sorts of dumb stuff. Have you ever seen someone take out their anger on an inanimate object? You may have even found yourself hitting the keys on the keyboard that bit harder as you hastily respond to a clumsily written email you’ve received. Despite maybe making us feel in control of the situation and for a short period better, there’s a high probability the anger-fuelled typing is not helping resolve a problem but making it worse. And yes, I hear you say, but if I’ve been wronged, I need to let the person know. In no way am I suggesting you shouldn’t. However, doing that from a place of balance and objectivity is way more effective.

This is hard to manage. So many of the systems that drive our anger are designed for our survival. They, indeed, are brilliant at it. However, they haven’t been given the update to contend with the modern-day world. So can often provide a response that just isn’t appropriate. That traffic jam or small child misbehaving is not a threat to your life. However, the aggregate impact of the body's overreaction to situations can be.

So, what can you do?

Often our anger comes from a loss of balance and perspective. So here are ideas and approaches to consider, develop and practice. And for transparency, these will need practice unless you achieve zen status.

  1. Have a bigger picture. Put the issues of the moment into a bigger-picture context. This will help bring perspective and objectivity.

  2. Bring scale into play. Asking ourselves where a situation sits on a scale of 1 to 10 (where 10 is death) can jolt your thinking. Likewise, asking how critical a problem will likely be in 6 months will do the same.

  3. How is this helping? Asking ourselves how this is helping is a great provider of perspective. Asking the question will help us step back and observe what is happening.

A final point. Inevitably, we will not always behave as we’d like. If you find yourself in this situation, acknowledge what you have done and, if possible, take steps to put things on a better path. Whatever you end up doing, judging yourself or berating yourself are poor options. Always be kind to yourself.

As always, I’m interested in any comments or observations you have.

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