Thursday, February 9, 2012

The Gift of Anger

This post was inspired by correspondence with a friend who has emerged from a long term abusive relationship. It is inspired by my application of the knowledge I've gained from researching Beyond Fight-or-Flight to an unrelated real-world experience. This is not to be unexpected because it is often suggested that the lessons learned in studying the martial arts help us live our daily lives in a more functional manner.

Gavin De Becker wrote, The Gift of Fear. It is a '#1 National Bestseller' and the front cover suggests that 'this book can save your life'. 'The Gift of Fear' is followed by: 'And Other Survival Signals That Protect Us From Violence.'

What does martial arts training, stress training, stress inoculation training, stress exposure training, combat fear inoculation training, aim to do? To either reduce the intensity of the experience of fear when involved in a violent encounter, or to change that emotion to another emotion conducive to surviving a violent encounter while engaging in that violent encounter. The 'gift of fear' is not considered so much a 'gift' by those involved in preparing a person to survive a violent encounter. In fact, Bruce Siddle's Sharpening the Warrior's Edge, whose theories are so often espoused by those ostensibly interested in preparing a person to survive a violent encounter, is all about the negative effects of fear on cognition and combat performance.

As per previous posts, women's self defence (WSD) courses often teach turning fear into anger. Why? Because the action tendency of anger is 'fight'. The subjective feeling of anger has a distinctive physiological reaction that prepares the body for the behavioural response of 'fighting'.

I refer back to previous posts and a paper written by James Gilligan titled 'Shame, Guilt, and Violence.' He suggests that, based on his 20+ years experience with inmates in prison and prison hospitals, that shame is at the heart of most violent behaviour. I'd suggest his insights are biased based on his experience, just as Geoff Thompson's insights on self defence are biased based on his door security experience. However, Gilligan's insight that shame is a painful emotion that is emotionally coped with by eliciting the emotion of anger which is then expressed, or coped with, by violence, is indeed insightful.

Shame -> anger -> violence. Recall that I wrote about my analysis of a violent episode of a 7yo girl. Jealousy -> anger -> violence. These are all instinctive reactions. While fight is often associated with fear, I'm more and more of the opinion that fear, when flight is restricted, turns to anger and is expressed as fight: fear -> flight restricted -> anger -> fight. WSD teaches to manipulate our emotions in order to elicit the physiologically charged fight response: fear -> manipulation -> anger -> fight.

Nature does it. WSD does it. The military does it. The 'enemy' are 'bad' and should be 'punished', hurt, and/or destroyed. Dave Grossman writes about how to overcome the instinctive inhibition to kill another human being. One way is to get angry.

DO NOT JUDGE anger, as you should not judge any emotion. Emotions, despite the highjacking of the idea and anger by the religious who suggest it is a 'gift from God', it is an evolved trait that is designed to increase our chances of survival and reproduction. It is designed to be functional, and it obviously has been successful based on our existence here today. But, it can also be dysfunctional given the circumstances in which it is experienced and how it is expressed.

Aristotle, who is often quoted as stating that 'anger is a gift', is quoted as saying:
Anyone can become angry - that is easy, but to be angry with the right person at the right time, and for the right purpose and in the right way - that is not within everyone's power and that is not easy.
Functional anger - get angry at that f**ker that is trying to rape you. Get angry at that f**ker that is trying to hurt of kill you. Get angry at the enemy that is trying to kill you, and your comrades. Overcome your fear by getting angry. Engage your evolved 'fight response' which includes a physiological response that is designed to prepare your body to fight by getting angry. This is a strategy that utilises evolution's survival mechanism.

Now, lets extend that combat-related training to daily life. Anger is not inherently bad, despite societies characterisation.
Anger can ... power long-range, constructive striving, as in the attempt to show a critical parent that you are competent and diligent rather than incompetent and lazy. And the mounting of plans for long-term revenge may motivate the acquisition of useful skills and generate impressive accomplishments that survive longer than the anger.
That quote is taken from Lazarus and Lazarus', Passion and Reason: Making Sense of Our Emotions, a book written for laymen and which should be essential reading for all those involved in preparing a person to survive a violent encounter.
I have learned through bitter experience the one supreme lesson to conserve my anger, and as heat conserved is transmuted into energy, even so our anger controlled can be transmuted into a power that can move the world. Mahatma Gandhi

When we are anxious or scared - get angry. Get angry at being anxious or scared. Get angry at the circumstances that made us angry or scared. Let the anger motivate us to move forward rather than away from things. That is one way emotions have been categorised, as approach or avoidance. Anger is approach; fear and anxiety are avoidance. BUT, you have to be careful. What can make you angry can also make you scared. A WSD course that teaches turning fear into anger suggests thinking about the worst thing this b**tard will do to the women participants and their children. It is designed to elicit the emotion of anger, but, it could also elicit fear, if not extreme fear: 'Oh my God, this guy is going to do this and that to my children.' While Aristotle suggests it is easy to become angry, it may not be that easy. We need to understand anger, but we don't understand it from a functional viewpoint because the focus on anger is on the negative/dysfunctional aspects of anger.

Check out the faces of the tennis players when they are 'geeing' themselves up. Isn't there at least a large degree of anger expressed in their face and body motions. Plutchik talks about blends of primary emotions producing other emotions. For instance, anger and anticipation produces aggression. Major Mawkes, formerly of the Australian Special Air Service Regiment wrote that they train their SAS troopers to have controlled aggression. It could be argued they are manipulating anger to produce elite warriors.

By understanding our emotions, which includes an appraisal, subjective feeling, distinctive physiological reaction, action tendency, and possible behavioural response, we may be able to better prepare a person to survive a violent encounter by utilising rather than fighting against our evolved survival mechanism. By understanding our emotions from a non-judgemental perspective, we might gain a more complete and useful understanding that better prepares us to survive a violent encounter.


  1. I remember, having not trained for a few years, a guy I went out with getting angry at me unexpectedly. He shoved me to the ground and kicked me. In the same position other women might have experienced shock, fear, distress, whatever. I wasn't any of those things. I got up and treated him like a wild animal. Something very dangerous, to be kept at a distance. I would have liked to have said that I broke his nose or something cooler, but I didn't. I guess I didn't get angry either.
    Anyway, my point is that for me, physical violence didn't upset me. I was used to it. So if nothing else JJ gave me immunity to post-bastard-boyfriend trauma.
    And if I ever see that jerk again...

    1. Hi Anon.
      I cannot tell you the emotions I feel when I read stories like yours. Please feel free to email me should you have need of a non-judgemental 'e-penpal'. If nothing else, I'll listen.


Your comments make my work all the more relevant as I use them to direct my research and theorising. Thank you.