When I was eight my dad bought me a punching bag. He thought it was better for me to punch a bag than to punch the wall, or flip my mattress over, or empty my dresser drawers onto the floor. My rages were always sparked by my inability to do something well – make my drawing come out right, do my math homework, get my big brother to admit he was wrong. And as anger swamped me, I’d destroy my work rather than see its imperfections any longer.
I didn’t learn how to control my anger until I was an adult, and one day my husband, carrying a load of laundry upstairs, saw me bashing some woodworking project that had gone wrong, and he simply looked at me and raised his eyebrows, shook his head, and went upstairs to sort the socks. I saw myself as he saw me in that moment, and I didn’t like it. With the recognition that my anger was hurtful and unacceptable, it mostly lost its power over me. I forced myself to drop projects before they drove me nuts, and walk away. I learned to take a breath, and just tell myself: No. Unacceptable.
This all might surprise you, if you know me. I’m pretty laid back, and work doesn’t generally poke the spots that trigger anger. And so it was with some surprise that I found myself telling my boss that I hoped he’d join me in a meeting, because I was feeling frustrated and angry, and the meeting was likely to make me really, really mad. I didn’t want to let my anger show in front of other people – it wasn’t going to help anything – and his even-keeled support would steady me. He did come to the meeting, and it went fine, though it wasn’t easy. After that meeting I began to think about anger a little differently.
Mostly I’ve thought of anger as binary: you are angry, or you are not. Either you shut it down completely or you risk an unacceptable display. But of course that is hogwash. Anger, like boredom or joy, comes on a continuum, and there are levels of each of those emotions that are appropriate for work, and levels that simply aren’t. I’ve never had a problem letting other emotions I feel at work (excitement, pride, disappointment, sadness) bubble to the surface as a way to connect to other people. But I’ve made a practice of not using anger at work, because my history was only of using anger as a tool to break things, not a tool to build things.
But there is a role for reasonable, controlled anger at work. Anger at injustice, waste, manipulation, unkindness, sneakiness, or willfully poor work is appropriate to feel. The question is, should one express that anger, and if so, how? The old saw about how porcupines make love is appropriate here: the answer is carefully. After I told my boss I was likely to feel angry during the meeting, I thought about how I’d express myself. I thought about my body language, and my tone of voice. I imagined the words that were going to be said that would make my blood boil. I made some rules for myself. I would not raise my voice. I would not snort, throw my hands up, or roll my eyes. Those, in the workplace, are pretty close to bashing your woodworking project – they lessens your credibility as a reasonable person. What I did allow myself to show was intensity. I would have command of the facts, and I would use them. I would show that I felt passionately, and that I disagreed. That intensity and passion might arise from anger, but they didn’t need to be expressed as anger. I could use anger, rather than having anger use me.
Anger isn’t going to make a regular appearance in my work toolkit. I don’t like being angry, and to be honest, I don’t feel angry all that often – I’ve got a pretty awesome job and I work with lovely people. I don’t have much cause to be angry on a regular basis. But I am going to think about anger a little more, and watch for when it arises, and what it might be telling me. And when I feel it, I am going to think of what kind of tool it might be – can I only use it to tear down, or do I have the control to also use it to build up?