Ryan Martin: Why Do We Need Anger?

Oct 18, 2019
Originally published on October 18, 2019 1:52 pm

Part 1 of the TED Radio Hour episode Reframing Anger.

About Ryan Martin's TED Talk

We often assume any expression of anger is negative and irrational. But psychologist Ryan Martin says anger is there to tell us something important-- and we should view it as a healthy force for good.

About Ryan Martin

Ryan Martin is a professor of psychology and an associate dean for the College of Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. His research covers the healthy and unhealthy ways that anger can be expressed.

Martin received his Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology from the University of Southern Mississippi, and his B.A. in Psychology from the University of St. Thomas. He has worked in community mental health centers, college counseling centers and a VA Hospital.

Martin also hosts the podcast Psychology and Stuff. His work has been featured in the New York Times, NPR's Invisibilia podcast, and BBC Radio's Digital Human, among others. He co-hosts a podcast on anger and violence called All the Rage.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

GUY RAZ, HOST:

It's the TED RADIO HOUR from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. So think about the last thing that made you angry.

RYAN MARTIN: I'm driving along and...

RAZ: There's a really slow driver in front of you.

MARTIN: And it's stopped by a train. That's a common thing here for me.

RAZ: And you're just sitting there, wasting time. The kids are yelling in the back. And you realize...

MARTIN: Oh, it's going to set back my whole day.

RAZ: Your heart rate increases, your muscles get tense, and your mind starts to race.

MARTIN: I'm going to be late to this meeting, which means that I'm going to be late to this meeting. And that's going to be embarrassing because that meeting is with someone important, right?

RAZ: And pretty soon, you're fuming. You're yelling at your kids. You're yelling at the train.

MARTIN: And so all of a sudden, I've taken this - what feels like a relatively small thing, and I've exaggerated its importance into a really, really big, bad thing.

RAZ: This is psychologist Ryan Martin, and Ryan studies why and how people get angry.

MARTIN: Anger is associated with a bunch of consequences - everything from physical aggression and physical fights, verbal fights, property damage, cardiovascular disorders, other negative emotions, substance abuse problems. I mean, when people have - experience anger too often in great intensity, they are likely to experience some sort of interpersonal or physiological problems. However, despite all of that, I think a lot of people misunderstand anger. It's this built-in emotion. Much like sadness, much like fear, much like a lot of other emotions, it's something that is universal.

RAZ: Ryan Martin picks up the idea from the TED stage.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

MARTIN: It's something we all feel, and it's something they can relate to. We've been feeling it since the first few months of life when we didn't get what we wanted and our cries of protest, things like, what do you mean you won't pick up the rattle, Dad? I want it.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: We feel it throughout our teenage years, as my mom can certainly attest to with me. Sorry, Mom. We feel it to the very end? In fact, anger has been with us at some of the worst moments of our lives. It's a natural and expected part of our grief, but it's also been with us at some of the best moments of our lives with those special occasions like weddings and vacations, often marred by these everyday frustrations - bad weather, travel delays - that feel horrible in the moment but then are ultimately forgotten when things go OK.

So I have a lot of conversations with people about their anger, and it's through those conversations that I've learned that many people - and I bet many people in this room right now - you see anger as a problem. You see the way it interferes in your life, the way it damages relationships, maybe even the ways it's scary. And while I get all of that, I see anger a little differently. And today, I want to tell you something really important about your anger, and it's this - anger is a powerful and healthy force in your life. It's good that you feel it. You need to feel it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: So anger is an emotion. It's a feeling, everything from, maybe, the mild frustration you feel when you can't find your car keys to the intense rage you feel when someone treats you really, really horribly. It's really separate from many of the behaviors that people, oftentimes, associate with anger, like violence and aggression. Those things come along with anger sometimes, but people can do all sorts of things when they're angry. We also know that it's a motivator in that it encourages people to act in positive, pro-social ways.

Anger can fuel, whether it's political movements or other sorts of problem-solving. It really exists in us to alert us to injustice and then to energize us to respond to that injustice.

RAZ: Anger is universal, but it's also a complicated emotion. We tend to think of anger as an irrational response. And we think of people who get angry as unhinged. And when it's uncontrollable, anger can be really destructive. The thing is we also need it. Anger tells us when something feels wrong or unjust or unfair. So today on the show, we're going to explore different sides of anger - what it is, when it happens, who is allowed to feel it and why. And for Ryan Martin, the first step towards reframing anger was to think of it as something essential.

MARTIN: I think if you think of emotions as I do, they exist in us to alert us to things. So my sadness, which also feels bad in the moment, it alerts me to loss. My fear, which feels bad in the moment, alerts me to danger. My anger alerts me to injustice. And so, really, the purpose it serves is to tell me to focus on something and says, OK, you're angry right now. That must mean something.

RAZ: All right. I understand that, but in your talk, you say that many people in the room listening - right? - at that moment see anger as a problem.

MARTIN: Right.

RAZ: And to that, I would say yes. I totally agree. I see it as a problem in others and myself. Like, anger, to me, does all of these things. It interferes with my life and makes things more complicated and it causes so much stress. So on a day-to-day basis, why do we need it?

MARTIN: So if you think about kind of the real, real basic reasons why we get angry, one of the most basic reasons is when our goals are blocked. And we actually can study this in animals. We can study it in infants. I mean, when you take an object that an infant or toddler wants and you put it just out of their reach or behind glass or something like that...

RAZ: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...You will see them get visibly frustrated. You'll see them start to cry. You'll see them pound on the glass or make a fist and things like that, and that extends into adulthood. One of the reasons why driving can be such an angering situation is because we have a goal. And all of those things, they interfere with our obtaining that goal. Now, achieving goals is pretty important to human beings. It's pretty important to all species. And so anger is one of the mechanisms that allows human beings to kind of motivate us to plow through those frustrations to get - break through that and to obtain our goal.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

MARTIN: Now, whether it's minor or major, whether it's general or specific, we can tease out some common themes, all right? We get angry in situations that are unpleasant, that feel unfair, where our goals are blocked, that could have been avoided and that leave us feeling powerless. This is a recipe for anger. But you can also tell that anger is probably not the only thing we're feeling in these situations, right? Anger doesn't happen in a vacuum. We can feel angry at the same time that we're scared or sad or feeling a host of other emotions.

But here's the thing. These provocations, they aren't making us mad - at least, not on their own. And we know that because if they were, we'd all get angry over the same things, and we don't. The reasons I get angry are different than the reasons you get angry. So there's got to be something else going on.

What is that something else? Well, we know what we're doing and feeling at the moment of that provocation matters. We call this the pre-anger state. Are you hungry? Are you tired? Are you anxious about something else? Are you running late for something? When you're feeling those things, those provocations feel that much worse. But what matters most is not the provocation. It's not the pre-anger state. It's this. It's how we interpret that provocation; it's how we make sense of it in our lives.

RAZ: When you start to recognize your body responding to something in a way that most people will respond, what do you do? Do you - are you - do you become aware of it? Do you stop? Do you breathe? Do you - like, how do you respond?

MARTIN: I think this is where I, oftentimes, encourage, from people, this sort of search for insight. So when you notice that's happening to you, first thing I encourage people to do is think about why it's happening. And oftentimes, people will externalize that. They'll put it on the thing and say, well, this is making me mad. And that's good. That's a good start, but the next part of it is, OK, how am I interpreting that thing that might be exacerbating that? And that's where you can identify the things like catastrophizing or maybe I'm being too demanding or maybe I've labeled that person in a way that's unfair.

And so once you've kind of established that piece, I think then is the intentional goal of, like, deciding what you want to do with it. That might be, OK, now's not a good time for me to lose it, so I need to take deep breaths. I need to think about something else.

RAZ: Yeah.

MARTIN: Or you might say, well, you know what? Am I catastrophizing? If I am, then I need to catch myself here and think about, what is the realistic outcome? Is this train going to make me five minutes late? Or is it going to ruin my whole day? Is there a way I can fix this? And so then you might channel that anger into solving that problem.

RAZ: So - OK, so, Ryan, as an adult - right? - I can regulate my behavior, right? And I don't - like, I don't generally show anger to friends or colleagues. But, you know, I can get angry. And I hate that I can get angry or frustrated with my kids, you know? I - and I feel so jealous of people who don't get angry easily.

MARTIN: Yeah. I mean, the good news is I don't know that there's too many of those people out there who don't get angry easily.

RAZ: Yeah.

MARTIN: I guess what I would say is there's a limited capacity for human change as they go on. And so for people like you or I, we might just be sort of stuck with the amount of anger we feel throughout the day. And then it really becomes a question of how we deal with it. Are we dealing with it in the healthiest of ways? Are we experiencing consequences because of it? If we're not, then, you know, honestly, it might be OK. Because the problem is, at some level - for me, for example, to feel angry less would mean, on some level, that I stopped caring about some things that are really, really important to me that I don't want to let go of.

RAZ: Yeah, for sure.

MARTIN: And sometimes, we have to acknowledge that, OK, this is a thing I can't fix, and I need to somehow find a way to go on and accept this. Acceptance is one of the most, I think, complicated psychological processes when it comes to anger because sometimes it works, and it's associated with some positive outcomes. Sometimes, though, acceptance ends up being more like suppression, right? And it's really just someone pretending this thing doesn't bother them anymore. And that's not really a healthy way to go.

RAZ: Yeah. I mean, I'm curious about anger as a motivator for social change - right? - because it can be. I mean, it can motivate people to do really destructive things and to do really constructive things. So I guess I'm a little reluctant to say, like, yes, anger. Look. You can spur people to, you know, change the world for the better. But...

MARTIN: Right.

RAZ: ...It can also spur people to go to war and to do really bad things, right?

MARTIN: Absolutely. And, yeah, it encourages people to go to war. It also encourages people to pass policies that, you know, maybe I don't support and things like that. So I don't know that the outcomes are always inherently good. But it definitely motivates people to care about big political issues and to embrace policy changes and to go after policy changes.

RAZ: Yeah.

MARTIN: By and large, I would discourage people from wanting to live without anger because I think, on some level, it means that they don't care enough about a lot of things going on in their lives and a lot of people in their lives. And that to really be passionate about things, to be passionate about goals, to be passionate about the community we live in, means that you're going to experience frustration when things don't work out the way you hope they do. And that's kind of a good thing.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: That's Ryan Martin. He's a psychology professor at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. You can see his full talk at ted.com. On the show today - ideas about rethinking anger. Stay with us. I'm Guy Raz, and you're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.