Have you ever been frustrated with a loved one who didn’t seem to get as mad as you did about a perceived injustice? Did you ever feel flattered or impressed by someone else’s anger, thinking, “they must really care”? If so, you might unconsciously be using anger as a barometer for caring.
Most of us understand that anger is an emotion, but did you know there is a theory that all emotions arise from just three feeling states: pleasant (wanted), unpleasant (unwanted), and neutral? According to this theory, the particular flavor or nuance of our emotional reaction depends on our narrative – the story we tell ourselves – which is based on things like culture, early learning, expectations and beliefs. If our interpretation of a situation identifies a threat, we are more likely to react in anger as a sort of defense. Unfortunately, angry reactions often are not well thought out and so they don’t tend to have long-lasting beneficial outcomes.
We commonly find ourselves getting angry when we are “emotionally invested”. Being emotionally invested can be motivating, but it’s not necessarily caring with a capital C. It makes us feel vulnerable, because it means that we have allowed ourselves to be very attached to a particular outcome and it feels very personal. We have developed a powerful desire for something to be or turn out a certain way – the way we believe it should or the way we want. The problem is, it’s often not about us or entirely up to us. So while it may be important to take action toward change, unexamined anger may just get in the way.
Ever wonder why we so often want other people to be angry when we are angry? One reason is we are hardwired for affiliation – it feels good when we are mirrored. Another reason is that when we are emotionally invested, a response that is different from our own feels invalidating – as though our desires are being frustrated. Finally, our unexamined minds tell us our reaction is the only right and rational one for the situation – any other response seems perplexing, wrong or insufficient. So, we start making interpretations about why the other person isn’t as angry as we are and this usually further fuels the fire inside.
Compassion is a better measure of caring than anger. It is the willingness to see suffering clearly and the inspiration to alleviate it, without attachment to immediate outcome. True compassion does not require fear, pity or outrage to motivate it. If it did, it would be unsustainable because it would quickly drain us and high levels of activation cannot be maintained in the human body indefinitely. How can we respond effectively out of kindness and compassion when we are simultaneously burning with anger? It is actually quite difficult for compassion and anger to share space simultaneously in the mind. You can experiment with this yourself by practicing lovingkindness meditation. You will see that over time, it is harder and harder to locate the fires of anger in your heart, even for those who have hurt you or the ones you love.
We can however, notice and acknowledge anger, and then take a step back to consider how we’d like to respond. Next time you feel anger, take a moment to look very closely at the thoughts and body sensations that accompany it before you react. Move past the surface and really get in close. You will likely notice that there is some sort of defense of your own personal investment there. You can tell this is so because the words or images will involve “I”, “me”, “my” or “mine” in some form, rather than a more universal wish for collective wellbeing. You may also notice there are some untested beliefs and assumptions underneath the anger. These may include thoughts about the nature, motivation or character of the “other”, blame statements, or ideas about fairness, right and wrong, good and evil. Instead, let limitless compassion, free from ego and prejudice, be both your barometer for caring and your primary response to injustice.