Anger Can Be Useful

Your anger problem and you

Anger Facial Expression

January 27, 2017

Anger is Not Always Destructive

We shouldn’t try to get rid of anger, which seems to be the mistaken goal of some new age-y groups and some Buddhist-influenced practitioners. Anger is not always destructive; it wouldn’t have been preserved over the course of the evolution of our species if it was inherently harmful to us. Those who argue that anger may have once been useful but in our contemporary circumstances no longer is, I think are wrong. Let me explain why.

Even in the most civilized settings we can’t completely avoid encountering a circumstance in which we are threatened with physical assault. Anger then provides the force needed to defend ourselves. But it is not only in such dire circumstances that anger can be beneficial. Anger can motivate actions undertaken to correct social injustices. Anger can motivate actions to diminish or, if we are lucky, turn back climate change. Even in personal relations, with our family members or intimate partners, anger can be useful. Is that surprising?

What Anger Tells Us

Anger tells us we have a problem that ideally we should deal with when we are no longer angry. Sometimes we can’t postpone; we must deal with a provocation or interference without postponing pursuit of our goal. What then? It requires skill to focus our anger on the actions — not the actor — that are either causing (or threatening) harm or blocking our path.

I believe that harming the person interfering with us is so often a goal when we are angry that it may well be built into the very nature of anger. But it can be redirected to stop the actions of the interfering person instead of attempting to harm the actor. Often those who act angrily regret later what they said or did. It is not uncommon for a person to explain the actions which they later consider regrettable with a remark such as ‘I lost my head’. You can give it back to them!

One way to do that is by helping the angry person calm down. If the angry person doesn’t ask for a ‘time-out’, you need to. The time-out works best if you have had a prior discussion of its benefits when matters may be getting too hot. Anyone should have the right to call a time-out, and by prior agreement it must be granted. It takes presence of mind to ask for a time-out rather than reciprocate anger directed at you.

Anger Awareness

Think for a moment about the phrase: presence of mind. It means you must be consciously aware of what you are thinking and considering doing. Your response to someone’s anger directed at you must resist the impulse to reciprocate anger. It is especially hard to do when you think their anger is totally unjustified. It is hard not to reciprocate anger, for I believe that anger inherently tempts its target to join in the battle. Don’t do it. Taking a time-out will help you resist the urge to hit back, figuratively or physically. The initial angry person who set it off will thank you for stopping his or her outburst even if that person isn’t able to say so.

When we get angry or someone gets angry at us, it shouldn’t be ignored. Anger can be communicated not just by words, but also by facial expressions. This emotion is an important sign that there is a problem or a misperception that needs to be addressed. Just don’t try to do it in the heat of anger. We need to find out what provoked the anger and see if we can correct it. The most common trigger for anger is frustration, felt typically when our pursuit of something that matters to us is blocked. Anger is rarely useful in removing a block, but it does tell us that there is a block that needs to be identified, examined, and hopefully diminished or eliminated. That rarely can be accomplished when we are still angry.

We need to take our time. Calm down. Think it over. Discuss it and then jointly remove the block, or if it can’t be removed, arrive at a way to live with it. It is almost always possible, just not necessarily easily or quickly, but in the long run it is what will sustain collaboration with others. Collaborating with others is a necessary condition of the life of all social animals. We can’t make it alone; and, it is more enjoyable when we accomplish a goal together.

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Paul Ekman is a well-known psychologist and co-discoverer of micro expressions. He was named one of the 100 most influential people in the world by TIME magazine in 2009. He has worked with many government agencies, domestic and abroad. Dr. Ekman has compiled over 50 years of his research to create comprehensive training tools to read the hidden emotions of those around you.

Life as Our Ancestors Lived It

life of our ancestors

Life of Our Ancestors

January 11, 2017

Finding the Universal

In most of the time human beings have lived on Earth, it was in circumstances very different from those we encounter now. I learned about how people might have lived in Stone Age cultures when I lived in one fifty years ago. I chose to do so in order to examine facial expressions and gestures that could not have been influenced by contact with outsiders or the media. Would they be the same as I had observed in many literate cultures, or would there be new expressions I had never seen before? (They were the same.) Even if I saw familiar expressions and gestures, might they signal entirely different emotions than they did in literate cultures? (They did not.)

I knew that time was running out; soon there would be no more isolated cultures uninfluenced by outsiders and the media. The culture within which I lived, the South Fore in the highlands of New Guinea, was overtaken by the media and material culture just two years after my second visit in 1968. The people I studied traveled less than ten miles from the villages into which they were born during their lifetimes. They lived in a series of small villages, each of less than two-hundred persons. There wasn’t much privacy, as we know it today.

The South Fore

The South Fore people were cannibals eating only people they had cared about. From a public health viewpoint it would have been safer if they had eaten their enemies who died in battle. Battle victims should pass on less lethal germs to those who ate them than loved ones who died of some disease. But that is not what was practiced.

Since I never learned their language, I had to rely on what I observed, and the answers to my questions provided by a few boys who had learned Pidgin (a lingua franca), which I also learned.  My knowledge of their motivations is very limited, but since most of their lives were lived out in the open, not behind closed doors, I could see most of their actions.  

The small huts in which they lived had no doors. Assignations occurred in the bushes, where intimate acts could be hidden from sight. I was told that violence occurred when a man unexpectedly came upon his presumably exclusive mate in the midst of intimacy with another man. The inability to completely hide sexual activity is one of the biggest differences from urban life in industrialized societies today when private rooms can be rented by the hour.

Houses, or more precisely huts, were circled around a large open space where children played and food was cooked and consumed. In Wanitabe, the village where I lived, the men lived together in a men’s house, with each woman and her children in a separate hut.

The village was surrounded by fences which kept the pigs inside the central area, as the pigs lived with their female owner and her children. Pigs had multiple roles: they were treasured pets, money, and on special occasions slaughtered for food. Once or twice a month more than one village would meet together for dancing, singing, communally cooking and killing a few pigs which were eaten barely cooked.

Daily, everyone cooked their food in the common fire. Jointly eating what was cooked did not occur every day, but often within a given week or two. Men appeared to engage in two activities: maintaining and repairing the fences that surrounded a village, and hunting. Birds were the prey, a bow and arrow the weapon. I didn’t observe a high level of success, but it must have been sufficient to maintain their predatory attempts. Women were the tractors who tilled the land adjacent to but outside the village, providing the vegetables that made up most of what daily was consumed. A wealthy man had more than one wife.

There did not appear to be a ruler or king. There appeared to be a joint concern for the welfare of young children, who acted and were treated as if they were in the care of all adults. Vegetables were abundant, seeming to be in sufficient supply to avoid ownership conflicts.

Different Lifestyles

The most apparent differences in how they and urban dwellers today live are:

  • Privacy; we have much more than they had.
  • Shared responsibility for child rearing; they had more than we have.
  • Conflict over resources; they appeared to have few, while some of us have many.
  • Sexual segregation of where adults resided; they did, we don’t.
  • Authority or status differentiations; we have it explicitly, they didn’t.
  • Acknowledged ruler (by inheritance, election, or force) we have, they didn’t.

We don’t have the choice to live as the South Fore did or, presumably, as many of our Stone Age ancestors did. Are the ways most of us live our lives today in urban settings better than how our preliterate ancestors lived? I think better in some ways, worse in others.

Thinking through the answer is enlightening, so I leave it for each reader to do.


Paul Ekman is a well-known psychologist and co-discoverer of micro expressions. He was named one of the 100 most influential people in the world by TIME magazine in 2009. He has worked with many government agencies, domestic and abroad. Dr. Ekman has compiled over 50 years of his research to create comprehensive training tools to read the hidden emotions of those around you.