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Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Anger Revisited

If you'll indulge me in a strained metaphor (and in an essay that may seem ripped from the pages of some pop psychology handbook) I'd like to present a clarification on some of my thinking from the last post. The more I went over the topic of "anger" in my mind, the more I realized I needed a model, a concrete example... hopefully something that would appeal to the inner scientist in all of us.

I struck upon the idea of using a molecular model (maybe because Stave It Off friend and Domestic Violence Specialist CC Rider is taking a chemistry class right now. Thanks for the inspiration!) I've chosen to represent Anger with the simple water molecule.


Covalent bonds are made to be broken!


A quick note about the chemistry of water: It is composed of one oxygen (the negatively charged red ball) and two hydrogen atoms (the smaller, positively charged white balls.) These atoms bond together covalently, meaning that they share electrons in their outer "valent" shell. They are attracted to each other because they have opposite charges (like charges repel each other... just like magnets.) Once they've adhered to one other, they tend to attract other water molecules (though the molecular structure remains H20.) They also act as a great solvent for various other molecules, especially things like sugar or salt.

We all know water intimately. It plays a vital role in the ecosystem of our planet. It surrounds us, it's inside us. We are so familiar with it (and its various vaporized or crystallized forms) that we've come to think of it as a kind of prime building block in nature. Many ancient traditions often refer to water as a primary element (along with things like fire, earth, wind, wood, stone, and electricity.) In short, we think of it as atomic (from the Greek, meaning "unable to be cut".) We do not generally recognize its constituent parts, we just recognize it as the old familiar water. When a basement is flooded, no one says, "Oh my god, look at all this oxygen and hydrogen!"

I posit that Anger is like our friend H20. That it is not an atomic, or primary emotional state. I'm suggesting that it is actually made up of two bonded components. Anger is created when Pain (a big red negative atom) bonds with Self-Preservation (two little white positive atoms.)

Anger will wash over us, it will sometimes drown us. It is easy to see how we pass anger through us and into the world without changing its fundamental structure. When we mobilize basic defenses (like displacing our anger toward some other object, or sublimating our anger into artwork) we let water flow out of us and into the world. This helps maintain our own equilibrium, but I think is still less than ideal. When we do this, we are acting as mini anger factories, combining Pain and Self-Preservation into a dangerous substance and then dumping that substance into our environment like a corporate polluter.

What alternatives are there? Some forms of Buddhism (thanks for that link Dingo!) tell us that anger can be avoided by utilizing our own awareness. If we carefully watch the incoming Pain and Self-Preservation atoms, we can prevent them from combining in the first place. This requires self-discipline, practice and a strong commitment in order to be effective. If you, like me, aren't quite there yet, I'm suggesting that there is another alternative that is also difficult, but can be used "after the fact". This isn't a replacement for preventative measures (which are probably preferable... like in medicine.) But I think it can be used when I'm feeling a wellspring of anger and having difficulty remaining collected in a tough situation.

I think that we feel that swell of anger as an onrushing tidal wave... and we are overwhelmed. Anger, like water, threatens to drown us. But it should be remembered that anger, like water, is made up of component atoms. And one key restoring inner peace is to transform anger (rather than release or repress it.) Transforming the anger requires that we change the way we perceive it. Instead of feeling a rush of water, we have to recognize a rush of hydrogen and oxygen. Instead of feeling a flood of anger, we have to recognize a flood of Pain and Self-Preservation instincts. Armed with the knowledge of Anger's atomic formula, we can dissolve the covalent bonds that create the anger reaction. Instead of being swept way by a torrent, we can unlock the bonded ingredients and just feel a surge of co-occurring pain and a need to protect ourselves. These two feelings are far less dangerous than their combined product. When we express that we are hurt, we rarely enrage the people around us. When we express that we feel a need to protect ourselves, we almost never make a rotten situation worse.

There is a price involved in this task however. I think it can be easier to feel anger than it is to feel pain. Actually feeling our pain hurts us, whereas anger seeks to hurt others instead. Anger takes revenge, anger slakes a thirst, anger is righteous, and anger feels good. It takes a great deal of self-restraint to stop yourself from acting on anger. And once you've stopped yourself, many people feel paralyzed. Some people need to walk it off (avoidance) and some people decide to kick and scream about it. But in that moment of paralysis, I think we have an opportunity: An opportunity to name the anger for what it is. If we name the component pieces and truly recognize the pain we feel, and the need to protect ourselves... the anger can be transformed... Just as water can be transformed into oxygen and hydrogen gas using a simple battery.

So (extending the metaphor,) what is the battery? What is the source of power that breaks the covalent bonds of Pain and Self-Preservation? I don't think it's anything mystical or difficult. I think it's just a desire to deal with the component parts rather than the combined reaction... I think it comes naturally if you want it to. If you are willing to try it, to use patience, and let yourself feel some pain, maybe even cry about it... I think it works without any magic battery. Maybe there is an energy, but it is created by our own hearts and minds trying to create a more peaceful and forgiving world.

(PS... I'm a social worker, not a chemist, so I apologize if I oversimplified or misrepresented any hard science for the purpose of this piece.)

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8 Comments:

At 7/31/2007 02:53:00 PM, Blogger Olaiya said...

I feel a little silly posting on here since a) I'm usually more of a blog lurker (a "blurker"?) and b) your posts on anger are related to (among other things) conflict we've had in our relationship. But I felt compelled to post because I find your chemical analysis of anger intelligent and important.

As you know, I'm someone who tends to get angry when I feel threatened (think: poisonous pufferfish). This isn't something I especially like about myself, but it's been my preferred mode of self-protection for the last 3 decades. So it's getting pretty old.

Your metaphor, and in particular the idea of a powerful "wave" of anger, really speaks to me. And as you explained it to me, this idea of anger being formed of pain + the self preservation urge made a lot of sense. I'd never seen it like that before. I don't think it will be easy to get in the habit of breaking those covalent bonds, but I think it's worthwile. So I guess I just wanted to say thanks for the fresh perspective.

 
At 8/01/2007 04:57:00 PM, Anonymous cc said...

I feel famous and silly- since I am not really participating in this conversation...

 
At 8/01/2007 05:29:00 PM, Blogger Yojimbo_5 said...

"I'm a social worker, not a chemist!"

Can I start calling you "Bones," now?

I think the chemical metaphor is a good one-"Anger" is the component parts of a specific element--keep one of those elements in stasis and the bonds can't form to produce anger.

Trouble is--that's us at our best. Anger comes at our worst. It sneaks up on us and taps us on the wrong shoulder when we're weak and makes us start, and then regretful and doubtful and we're on the slippery slope to anger.

But being on guard for weakness makes us self-absorbed and on-guard and unapproachable and defensive. Isn't that pretty destructive, too?

 
At 8/02/2007 02:50:00 AM, Blogger soapysteve said...

See you in the octagon.

 
At 8/02/2007 10:23:00 PM, Blogger John said...

Fascinating point Jim... "Being on guard for [potential anger] makes us self-absorbed...unapproachable and defensive."

I think you might be right about that... and I'm not sure how to resolve that. It's pretty hard to be a spontaneous free-spirited person and also a moderate even-tempered respectful Buddhist.

 
At 8/03/2007 01:23:00 PM, Anonymous Kris said...

What about just being immediate with your feelings when they arise. You don't have to be wary of anger or try to cut it off. You just need to be able to see yourself getting angry and then take care of it. Personally, talking about what I am angry about usually lessens the feelings enough to process it further. By doing that I am addressing it right away and I am resolving it with my partner, not by myself.

 
At 8/03/2007 03:45:00 PM, Blogger John said...

Jeesh... way to make it sound so easy, Kris.

I think we're actually onto the same thing here... but what does "being immediate" with your feelings mean to you?

 
At 3/22/2012 07:47:00 PM, Blogger Phoebe Kitanidis said...

I agree that anger is a compound, and I like your way of universalizing it with the terms "pain + self preservation." Where we differ is that I'm not especially afraid of my anger. I don't feel overwhelmed by it, or worried that it will turn into a destructive tidal wave. Historically speaking, it's not an emotion that causes me to lash out at other people or spread negativity.

For me personally, anger is a normal, natural, authentic part of how I release pain. Both an urgency alert keeping me from denying my distress, and a fuel to get me moving physically which helps me start processing my feelings.

Because of that I can't get behind the Buddhists on this one. :) I see anger as potentially part of a healthy system rather than automatically bad and to be prevented in all cases.

My particular system's imbalances mean that I am much more likely to freeze and numb my emotions than I am to go wild with them. Unless I have been holding them back for so long they've festered without my knowledge. Anger helps prevent that, and a small dose is usually all it takes. In your case it may be very different, so please don't think I'm telling you your way of doing things is wrong. You may have some other balancing act going on altogether, and I respect that.

 

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