In Defense of Anger and Pride: How Negative Emotions Can Be Healthy

Anger and pride, in most religious traditions, are conceived of as engendering vices, corrosive feelings that cause us to react in irrational and unethical ways. Some philosophical traditions agree with them, proposing strategies to mitigate, or even eliminate, those responses. The way I conceptualize anger and pride differs in that I apply to them Aristotle’s ‘golden mean’, the idea of moderation.

I spent a good portion of my life dealing with an irrational and emotionally abusive/threatening step-father whose moods never made much sense to me, in addition to being bullied in elementary school. So, when you associate these circumstances with the notion of anger and pride being, in themselves, negative emotions, you can imagine how stuck I feel. Is it possible, that in some cases, both states are justified, that, in some contexts, anger and pride are the preferable responses? I argue that they can be.

Excessive anger, as evidenced in road-rage or overreacting to a misunderstanding perceived as a slight, is an obvious mistake. The person who cuts you off on the road doesn’t know, and isn’t mistreating, you because you’re you; they’re just assholes. And, the person who misunderstands feedback as an attack is likely sabotaging their relationship, when feedback is expected, not when it’s purely unsolicited. In both cases, the response is primarily due to a sense of being worthless, or insignificant, which is then activated, or made conscious, by another’s action. Thus, when anger abides in this realm, it’s easy to discern its toxic outcomes.

In those instances, the actions aren’t meant to be personal. But, when they are, when someone is intentionally criticizing you in an attempt to make you feel insignificant, anger begins to make more sense. I felt helpless when I was a kid. I was small, afraid, and unable to tolerate conflict. After I finally stood up for himself to my stepdad, he became so enraged that he decided to shove my mom to the ground. Was it the smart thing to do? Probably not. But, I can’t even describe how powerful it made me feel. Just being able to say, leave me the fuck alone, made me feel so strong, which I hadn’t felt before.

Moreover, fighting back, and I mean physically, against the kids who mistreated me also helped me discover my sense of agency. While I don’t believe that fighting is always the answer, I think that, sometimes, when alternatives have been exhausted, one really does’t have a choice. For me, my anger felt positive and justified, and it was effective. It’s a cliche for a reason, but bullies back down when stood up to, and that doesn’t occur without a sense of anger and pride in who one is.

Emotions are varied and nuanced, each containing the potential for both positive and negative outcomes. In the proper contexts, the so-called negative ones (i.e. anxiety, anger, and sadness) can contribute to positive effects. If I’m sad because I failed an exam, I can use that sadness to guide me to a better studying strategy (or to actually study). If I’m anxious, I can ask myself if I’m danger and respond accordingly. And if I’m angry, I can ask myself: Is this a misunderstanding, or am I being mistreated and harshly criticized? If I am being mistreated, I can, then, begin to chart my course.

If I were more mentally healthy, it would be easier for me to depersonalize and accept others’ rage toward me as a symptom of their own self-conceptions of inadequacy. But, the combination of my own self-doubt and their unjustified actions, makes me want to stand up for himself whenever I’m put-down. If I were a true Stoic, I probably wouldn’t let it bother me; I’d remind myself that their actions are outside of my control and, thus, are not my problem. I would do that if I could overcome my past. Maybe it’s better not to ever be angry, which, necessarily, entails full self-acceptance; you can’t be angry if you aren’t, on some level, internalizing the mistreatment and seeking to change your abuser’s conception of you. But, I don’t think it’s realistic, at least not for me.

My inner state is one of conflict, where my pride and anger are pinned against my poor self-image. On the one hand, I’m convinced that I am who they think I am; but, on the other, I won’t allow it. It could be that one’s journey through anger ends in its negation, that I’ll extinguish it through self-acceptance. However, as it stands, I’m proud of myself for even expressing it when called-for, for battling back against those who think I’m worthless and that part of me which agrees with them. Maybe, someday, I’ll look at them and laugh, believing that there isn’t anything to be upset about. Maybe, someday, I’ll fully accept that it was never about me. Maybe, I’ll be able to simply walk away. Maybe anger is only anger because I conceive of myself as being worthless, which is made clear to me in others’ actions. But, maybe eliminating anger altogether is nothing but a pipe dream.

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