Knowing how to label our emotions accurately is an important step towards gaining control over them. We are often taught growing up to ignore all our negative emotions, which is part of the reason we can easily get confused when we try to break things down and analyse our own emotions.
Anger can be a particularly tough emotion to analyse. Have you noticed that it can be very difficult to think clearly when you’re angry? This is completely normal.
When the body goes into “fight mode” it shuts down non-essential parts of our body, such as digestion and clear, logical thinking.
Besides, anger is often accompanied by other emotions which can make our task even more complicated. When we speak about anger, we often use it as an umbrella term to mean a number of different things, including aggression and resentment. However, they are not the same thing.
Anger is an emotion, a normal and usually healthy reaction to a threat. Under normal circumstances, anger should not last more than 90 seconds (you can read more about the 90 seconds rule here).
Aggression, on the other hand, is a behaviour.
Resentment, meanwhile, is a form of persistent anger based on one or more past events. Resentment can be triggered by new events, but it usually involves something that happened in the past.
When we feel angry, we have a number of options. We can express it or we can inhibit and repress it.
There are as many ways to express anger as there are people. The best way to express it is by what is sometimes referred to as “clean anger,” the ability to express anger in a kind but effective way. However, anger often leads people to have aggressive behaviour (insults, hitting). When anger is repressed, people can become passive-aggressive (indirectly aggressive) or withdraw completely (such as sulking or shutting down).
There is a common belief that resentment only occurs when we haven’t expressed anger but this is not the case. Resentment is a sign that we are not able (or choosing) to forgive and forget. It is a sign that we are hanging on to anger, regardless of whether it has been expressed or not.
In other words, while anger is a natural and healthy emotional response, resentment and aggression are a choice (conscious or not) that we make.
While anger is a natural and healthy emotional response, resentment and aggression are a choice (conscious or not) that we make.
Connecting to our clean anger.
On December 10, I will be hosting an online workshop looking at some of the main lessons horses can teach us about anger.
Horses are prey animals who live in herds. This means that they combine a very strong flight instinct with an equally strong need to bond. They are also very sensitive to hierarchy and are constantly navigating each others’ emotions. This makes horses a great case study for us to learn how we can better navigate our own anger better and how we can express ourselves more effectively while connecting with others and still feeling safe.
What about anger, resentment and aggression in the animal world?
I’m sure I don’t need to convince you that animals feel anger. In fact, it is a very important emotion that plays a key role in the hierarchy and relationships animals have with each other. Aggression is the natural expression of that anger in the animal kingdom. The level of aggression depends on the individual and his place in the hierarchy, and can be affected by training too. (Unsurprisingly, so-called “clean anger” is not something we see much in the animal kingdom!).
Animals do not feel resentment, as far as we can tell. They definitely remember and react to aggression, but there are not (yet) any apparent signs that they hold on to their anger once the moment has passed.
A possible explanation is that animals don’t seem to have the same sense of entitlement that humans have, and resentment is often linked to what we think we ought to have, or how we thought we ought to be treated. Psychologists say that resentment has a component of “moral injury.”