How to Use Anger as Fuel
What makes your blood boil?
Anger is a natural and normal human emotion. Whether you feel slight irritation or great rage, all anger stems from a sense of violation. Some “should” of yours, some expectation or rule, has been trampled.
Not all “shoulds” or violations are created equal. Some violations are minor. Some expectations are unreasonable. Others are foundational. Either way, your anger is a clue. It reveals your values. Your anger can help you better get to know yourself and your boundaries (or where you would like your boundaries to be).
In addition, anger energizes. It can stimulate you to overcome anxiety, fight for what you want, and work for change. There is strength in anger. As Mahatma Ghandi said, “Anger to people is like gas to the automobile—it fuels you to move forward and get to a better place. Without it, we would not be motivated to rise to a challenge.” As emotional responses go, anger is a pretty useful one. Unlike apathy or helplessness, which keep you exactly where you are, there’s enough energy in anger to move you forward, if you use it.
Most people, though, don’t use their anger. They vent it. There’s nothing wrong with venting. Sometimes, for minor “should” violations, venting is all you need. For example, I often gripe about how hard it is to find parking downtown. I don’t care enough to do anything about it. I complain, and that dissipates the irritation. Other times, you’re angry over a substantial violation, yet it’s a one-time event that you likely won’t have to deal with again. So, you vent to your family or friends and get on with your life.
When you find yourself in a pattern—you get angry again and again over the same issue or with the same person and nothing changes—then it’s time to stop venting and do something. At that point, nothing has changed, and nothing will change until you make a change. Venting just perpetuates the cycle, adds to the noise, and amplifies anger and opposition.
Use your anger as fuel. To do that, first, you need to get clear on what the violation is and what it means to you. That’s huge. That could be an entire article or series on its own. For today, though, I want to focus on anger’s energy. How can you use it to provide fuel? Harness the power of the “challenge response.”
You body has many available responses to stress. One is fight-or-flight. Another is the challenge response. You know the difference if you’ve ever watched ESPN or the Discovery Channel. The focused, electric energy all-star athletes bring to a big game? That’s the challenge response. The visceral fist fight that erupts over trash talking and gets that star thrown from the game? That’s fight-or-flight. When an eagle swoops down to catch a fish, it’s not looking for a fight. That’s the challenge response: energy + focus. But if another eagle tries to steal its prey, now you’ve got a fight… and often no one gets the prey.
If you’re angry, you feel threatened. The most common response to a threat is fight-or-flight. When your life is in danger, your brain quickly increases energy and turns to instinct to handle the threat. Most of the time, though, your life isn’t actually in danger and you don’t get to expend that energy fighting or running. You only feel angry or anxious. And because your brain shuts down the slower logical and creative parts of your brain, you aren’t thinking too clearly either. You’re in survival mode, only looking out for yourself, and that gets communicated to others. That’s why fury can be so terrifying to witness. It instantly puts everyone else in fight-or-flight mode, too.
Fight-or-flight produces a burst of energy. But so does the challenge response. In both cases, your body increases respiration and certain hormones in order to allow you to overcome what you’re facing—often with strength you didn’t even know you had! With a challenge response you still get the energy and confidence boost, but with it comes heightened thinking power and creativity. You have more energy AND greater focus. It’s like the difference between a brushfire and a laser beam. There’s a lot of energy in both. One causes destruction; the other is a tool.
There are two things you can do to switch from fight-or-flight to the challenge response:
1. Change your body language.
In fight-or-flight, your breathing quickens and shallows, and you tense up due to the influx of stress hormones. If you want to fight, your body language is twitchy and aggressive. If you want to flee or freeze, you shrink and stiffen. In a challenge response, you gain energy and attentiveness without the tension. You aren’t relaxed, but alert and ready.
The way you hold yourself sends a message to others, but also to your own brain. You can take control of your emotional response by adopting the same confident posture that comes automatically when you’re facing a challenge you expect to win: stand up tall, breathe deeply, open your body language, focus your eyes. This is very different from the way your body looks and feels in survival mode.
The key is to practice when you aren’t angry. Imagine a scenario that triggers your anger; then physically stand up tall, breathe deeply, and focus that energy. You can train yourself to respond differently to a threat. Then you have the power to do something about it. That could be to speak up, end a relationship, argue for your cause, or any number of things. The action isn’t the issue, it’s how you undertake it.
2. Remember the point.
Keep your values and what you’re fighting for front and center in your mind. I don’t mean the specific outcome, because frankly that’s out of your control. I mean the high-level principle that has been violated. What would a relationship or organization or world with more of THAT be like? How can you embody it?
You can’t control the outcome of any interaction. You can’t make a bully be kind or force someone to stop their behavior. But you can control your actions. This takes intention and practice, especially if you’re in a pattern. In fact, if someone has repeatedly made you mad in the past, they’re really good at knowing how to incite you. Figure out how you want to BE, what value you want to communicate and personify, and that will inform your words and actions.
We need anger. Soraya Chemaly wrote that anger is “one of the most hopeful and forward thinking of all our emotions.” Joe Solmonese wrote that anger motivates us to take action, create change, and get the most out of life; but it takes discipline to turn emotion into action.
Every day, there are good reasons to get angry. What are you doing with it?