The importance of learning to distinguish anger from violence

Anger makes me uncomfortable, I must admit. And last month, I finally realized exactly why that is. It is because for me anger has often seemed indistinguishable from violence, whether it is direct or indirect. Anger seems dangerous, uncontrolled, and frightening, and so I have often had difficulty expressing anger or hearing others express anger to me.

I have discovered I am not alone in that. I attended the Anger, Boundaries and Safety workshop at The Haven, on the west coast of Canada. The Haven is a place where I have gone several times over the past 15 years to learn about myself – why I think and behave the way I do, how it affects my relationships with those around me, and how I can change what I don’t like and celebrate what I do like.

This workshop is based on the pioneering work on anger done by the late Dr. Joann Peterson, a world authority on this topic. She ran these workshops at Haven for many years, based on her book of the same name, and is featured in a video called The Anger Toolbox – A Blueprint for Responsible Anger, Boundaries and Safety, to which I have just been listening.

A courageous choice?

One profound realization for me is how few of us learn, as children or as adults, to feel and express anger responsibly and safely. We don’t often think of anger as being a courageous choice or a constructive choice, because too often in our own experience, anger and rage may have been intertwined. Unexpressed anger doesn’t go away, however, Joann said. We carry it in our body, which has health consequences for us and thus costs for society as a whole; or we express it in socially sanctioned ways, from violent video games through addictions through sporting riots, that often can be damaging to ourselves and our relationships with others.

There are ways to express anger responsibly and safely, and the workshop helps participants understand how to do this. It involves being clear about our own intentions, getting permission from the other person, being determined to express anger in a way that is ‘personal, relational and constructive’, and doing it in a way that is boundaried and safe. There are tools, and strategies, that we can learn and apply.

Violence, whether it is socially sanctioned or indirect or direct attacks on others, sees others as objects, not as people; does not care about what they think or what their personal boundaries may be; and is impulsive and reactive. It is about exercising control, about getting one’s own way no matter what others may think or wish. It harms others emotionally and often physically as well, and it damages our relationships with each other. Put simply, violence is crossing a person’s boundaries with intent to hurt that person or to exercise power over that person.

Lessons for peacebuilding?

While I went to the workshop because I wanted to learn about anger and boundaries for myself, I cannot help but reflect on how sharing such knowledge widely could affect peacebuilding and governance around the world.

How many of us as peacebuilders understand and are comfortable with expressing anger responsibly and are able to walk with others as they do the same thing? How many of us might be more likely to shut down, rather than to facilitate, responsible expressions of anger within a group or community that is recovering from conflict? How many of us are able to clearly distinguish anger and violence?

Fear of anger, or internalization of anger because it cannot be expressed outwardly, can cause great harm, I think. I remember meeting some young boys in Africa who had joined armed groups because they feared their parents would be angry because they had lost the family cow while herding. I remember hearing people in various parts of Eastern Europe apologize in case they had said something incorrectly, if they had said something that could be construed as being mildly critical of others.

Then there are the examples of how governments and police forces have chosen to respond to citizens’ honest anger (individual protests against injustice and inequality which effectively say “I matter; listen to me”, like the one that set off the Arab Spring) by preparing to meet anticipated violence with violence, thus setting off an escalating cycle of violence that causes injuries and death and damages property.

How different might the outcomes be, both individually and societally, if we distinguished clearly between anger and violence; learned, and taught others, how to express anger responsibly and safely; and were absolutely clear about the nature, characteristics and impacts of violence in all its forms, both indirect and direct.