Joy and anger: How to hold on to joy amid strong emotions

By Ingrid Fetell Lee

If you feel like you’re in a perfect storm of emotions right now, you’re in good company. Lately, my inbox and comment threads are full of notes from people who are grappling with the intense swirl of feelings stirred up by the prolonged Covid-19 crisis and the building anti-racism movement, and wondering how to hold on to joy (or if that’s appropriate, or even possible) in the midst of it all.

For example, this note from a friend that landed in my inbox recently:

“I am writing because I’m experiencing a cognitive dissonance that I think you are just the right person to help. Specifically, how do I reconcile joy and anger? I don’t think that joy is the opposite of anger — perhaps apathy is the opposite? — but I do feel a sense of guilt at experiencing joy in moments of societal and personal anger. I also know how much joyful moments and Joy-with-a-capital-J are an essential fuel for me and the family. So… any recommendations of material I could dig into?”

Anger is perhaps the defining emotion of this moment, whether it’s the righteous indignation we feel at the increasingly visible effects of systemic racism and police brutality on black bodies and lives, or the fury of watching, helpless, as the pandemic continues to spread without adequate testing and precautions in place in our communities. Our anger right now is fractal, occurring at scales as small as our daily interactions, and as large as the whole recorded history of a nation.

It shows up in different ways for different people. For some, anger appears as sudden outbursts that flare and recede quickly, while for others, it may be a longer, slower burn, akin to resentment. It may also be hard to parse our anger right now, tangled as it is with other emotions: grief and loss, shame, frustration, and confusion to name a few. Still, even amidst this swirl of emotions, anger has a sharpness that is visceral and unmistakable. And as my friend observed, anger’s force can make it hard to feel joy. Why is this, and how do we make space for joy during times where we’re feeling angry? (Or should we?)

Is anger bad?

Anger is one of the six primary emotions identified by psychologist Paul Ekman as consistent across cultures, and typically it’s classified as a negative emotion. Generally speaking, the experience of anger is unpleasant; usually, it’s in response to an occurrence that runs counter to our desires or expectations. Anger activates the “fight” part of our “fight or flight” response, the sympathetic nervous system that readies us for urgent action. Because of this, anger involves high levels of physiological arousal: increased respiration and heart rate, heightened focus and attention, increased muscle tension. This state may feel cathartic in a transient way, but is unlikely to feel good if it persists for a significant duration.

The connection between anger and violence is one reason that we may be wary of this emotion. Violence is often preceded by anger, but of course not all anger leads to violence. Many peaceful activists, for example, commit no violent acts yet are clear in their anger. Depending on your experience, you might have other negative associations with anger. For example, if you’ve had a history of abuse or a relationship with someone prone to unexpected outbursts, you may have traumatic memories of anger that make it hard to be around other people when they get angry. Children of divorced parents sometimes fear that anger can mean the end of a relationship, or abandonment, and as a result become deeply conflict-avoidant. Or if you yourself have had difficulty controlling your anger, you may have learned that anger isn’t a “safe” emotion to feel.

But this doesn’t mean that anger is necessarily negative, even if you’ve previously experienced it that way. Anger is an emotion that signals that a boundary has been crossed. Something of value to you has been threatened, and your body is literally calling on you to defend it. This might be a physical boundary, like an assault on your body or your property. Or it might be a threat to your livelihood, your security, a relationship, or an ideal. The more intimate and personal the threat, the more urgent the anger will feel. For example, the anger felt by Black people at unprovoked shootings of other Black people by the police is proportional to the threat they face, which is constant and unpredictable. White allies often feel surges of anger at the injustice of these same incidents, but as their bodies do not face the same risk, their anger is less likely to be as intense or sustained. (And in fact, cultivating this anger through research and reading, conversation, and protest can be a valid strategy for sustaining allies’ energy and engagement in a cause.)

Whether in response to a physical trespass or a psychic breach, anger is valuable because it reinforces what’s important to us, and compels us to act to defend it. When we listen to anger, it can often reveal values we weren’t aware of, and help us better align our actions to our intentions.

What do we do with anger?

The key to managing our anger is to remember that like all emotions, anger exists to move us toward action. In fact, the word emotion comes from the Latin roots e- and movere, which together mean “to move out of.” Emotions move us out of ourselves.

Anger moves us to correct the violation by restoring the integrity of the boundary. Some of these actions are more productive than others. For example, anger might move us to fight for our safety or let someone know they’ve crossed a line. It might make us call our elected officials or volunteer our time for a cause. But it also can lead us toward vengeance, such as when we cut off another driver because they cut us off, an action that can escalate the conflict and lead to danger without addressing the root cause. It’s worth noting when your anger is nudging you toward productive action, and when it’s simply looking for an outlet to express itself.

If you find yourself feeling angry with someone who you know is generally well-intentioned, ideally you’ll use that anger as a motivation to work with the person to rectify the problem. This kind of conflict may not feel good in the moment, but it leads us toward a resolution that can avoid resentment down the road, and ultimately make our lives more joyful.

But what about when we feel angry at a larger entity or situation, one that we cannot directly influence? Or what if we are angry at a person who won’t listen, or refuses to change? The risk here is that we become overwhelmed by this kind of anger, and feel paralyzed by it. When we feel angry, but are incapable of acting, anger can build up or become repressed, surfacing in response to unrelated triggers at other points in our life. It can also lead to a sense of learned helplessness, where we respond to the feeling of anger with despair and anxiety, because we have become conditioned to see our circumstances as unchangeable and anger as futile.

It’s these states of repression and helplessness that I believe are fundamentally threatening to joy. If anger is a something that propels us forward, whether it makes us speak, march, learn, write, connect, or engage, then anger becomes a form of fuel. But if anger keeps us stuck and overwhelmed, if believe we can’t do anything about it, then the result is a persistent state that wears down our energy, saps our self-esteem, and risks making us numb to the positive aspects of life.

To avoid this, here are a few thoughts on working constructively with anger:

  1. Separate feeling from identity. When we’re overcome by emotion, we often use language that turns emotion into an identifier: “I am angry.” Instead, try saying, “I feel angry.” This small shift acknowledges that anger is a feeling that moves through you, not a fixed aspect of your character. I also think the more active verb “feel” creates a greater sense of agency. Once you’ve put a modicum of space between yourself and the emotion, you can decide what to do about it.
  2. Make a list of actions you can take. Anger can make us feel simultaneously clear in our needs and cloudy in our next steps. So when you’re feeling cooler-headed, do a bit of research around actions you can take at different scales, from writing a letter or deepening your learning to marching and organizing. Your forms of action don’t have to be the same as those of your friends; as long as your actions influence others in some positive way, they are meaningful.
  3. Channel each fresh wave. Intense emotions have a way of blurring together, making it hard to distinguish one from the next. But it’s easier to harness the power of emotion if you recognize each wave as distinct, with its own propulsive force. Make it a point to take a specific action each time you feel your anger reignited, and soon that anger will start to feel purposeful.
  4. Resist the temptation to wallow in guilt. If the anger you feel is accompanied by a realization that you could’ve taken action sooner or that you’ve inadvertently caused harm, you may find that your anger is mingled with guilt. Like anger, guilt can be a powerful impetus to “make things right” with others, addressing your biases, putting in place corrective steps, and where appropriate, apologizing. But without action, guilt has a kind of unhelpful narcissism; it causes us to obsess about our own failings without having any positive influence on others. (Put more simply: your guilt, on its own, never made anyone’s life better.) So if you notice you’re beating yourself up, take a moment to refocus your lens on action. How can you harness your newfound awareness to prevent similar harm in the future?
  5. If you truly can’t change it, release it. In some cases, the appropriate remedy is to work with a therapist on processing anger and letting it go. This is especially true if there is no action that can remedy the situation (for example, if you’re angry because of a personal issue with deceased parent, or you’ve exhausted all other possible courses of action). This isn’t to say you aren’t entitled to your anger, or that it isn’t occasionally helpful to feel it. But recognize that living in a persistent state of anger is wearing to your body and soul, and that granting space for other emotions is necessary for your own well-being.

What does this have to do with joy?

Though anger and joy feel like night and day to us, they do have certain attributes in common. Both are high-arousal emotions. They activate and energize us. They heighten our attention and make us feel more alert and more attuned to what’s happening in our surroundings. Anger and joy are also both what psychologists call approach-oriented emotions. They motivate us to move toward something: conflict, in the case of anger, and reward, in the case of joy. (By contrast, avoidance-oriented emotions, such as fear and disgust, compel us to move away from something.)

The approach orientation of anger and joy even influences in how these emotions appear on our faces. Though the facial expressions for joy and anger are dramatically different, both involve reddening of the face, caused by vasodilation, or increased blood flow to the extremities. (Approach-oriented emotions prime us to be ready to engage physically, but the redder facial coloration may also serve as a signaling function to others, in the same way that facial expressions do.)

Of course, humans do have an innate negativity bias, and when our anger becomes paralyzing or persistent, it can squeeze out space for joy. This can happen for a range of different reasons. For example:

  • We’re overwhelmed by anger. Sometimes a constant, low-level rage makes it impossible to feel our other emotions. When all circuits are already occupied, it’s hard to find room for joy.
  • We’re trying not to feel our anger. If anger is particularly scary or painful to us, we may try to avoid it (through repression, denial, substance abuse, or another path). But in an attempt to numb this pain, we inadvertently blunt our capacity for joy.
  • We feel guilty about experiencing joy. If our anger is in response to the suffering of others, we may feel guilty about our joy, as if our joy somehow indicates that we don’t take others’ pain seriously.
  • We feel we don’t deserve joy. If we end up in a state of learned helplessness, where we believe we cannot change the circumstances causing our anger, this can take a toll on our self-esteem. We may feel that joy is unearned, and that we’re not worthy of it.

What’s important to recognize is that anger and joy are simply different kinds of fuel. While anger feeds resistance, joy feeds restoration. Moments of joy help us recharge our batteries, increasing our resilience so that we’re better able to take action in the future. I’m thinking of the way that a moment of laughter in the midst of a terrible fight with your partner can temporarily shatter the tension. It doesn’t erase the conflict, but it breaks the deadlock, allowing you to come back to the fight calmer, perhaps slightly more open to listening.

No one can spend every waking second fighting, no matter how righteous or essential the cause. Joy replenishes our energy so that we can be more effective in our defense of what really matters.

But more than that, joy also reminds us what we’re fighting for. It gives us glimpses of what makes life worth living. If we only have anger, then the risk is that we’re defending the boundaries of a hollow country, and even if we win, we may return from battle to a place irreparably scarred by perpetual war. But if we make space for joy alongside our fury, then we are cultivating a deep well of power.

Ultimately, I come back to the idea that what this time is asking of us is to get comfortable with holding the strength of seemingly conflicting emotions together. I was struck by this passage in a piece by Elizabeth Alexander in this week’s New Yorker called “The Trayvon Generation”:

“Black celebration is a village practice that has brought us together in protest and ecstasy around the globe and across time. Community is a mighty life force for self-care and survival. But it does not protect against murder. Dance itself will not free us. We continue to struggle against hatred and violence. I believe that this generation is more vulnerable, and more traumatized, than the last. I think of Frederick Douglass’s words upon hearing slaves singing their sorrow songs in the fields. He laid waste to the nascent myth of the happy darky: “Slaves sing most when they are most unhappy.” Our dancing is our pleasure but perhaps it is also our sorrow song.”

There can be joy in the fight, but perhaps there must be fight in our joy as well.

June 20th, 2020


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    Discussion (8 Comments)

  1. Becca on June 20, 2020

    Thank you, Ingrid, for your explanations of the emotions of anger and joy. For those of us who are white, I think we need to pay attention and be deeply honest about our ego and it’s need to defend itself. You say, we experience anger when “Something of value to you has been threatened, and your body is literally calling on you to defend it.” What are you defending? If it’s your sense of yourself as a “good person” or your personal freedom which is being restricted for the greater good, then what actions will this anger create? When we see another’s life, or dignity, or worth being threatened, then this is anger that is not self-serving, and moves us to action that has lots of room for joy. 

    1. Ingrid Fetell Lee on June 22, 2020

      Becca, thank you so much for this comment. This is such an important addition to this conversation. Especially given what I’ve been reading about how we tend to see racist=bad, so to be a “good” person, we have to argue our way out of any ownership of racism or privilege, when in fact it’s this “ego-defense” that makes it impossible to truly challenge our participation in or complicity with racist systems. I’m so so glad that you brought this up!

  2. Raymond Dreitlein on June 21, 2020

    ANGER is just natural-we experience it as a wave that seems to wash over us but it moves on! We don’t have to hold onto it-when we do it becomes more than a feeling, it becomes an attitude toward life. I would rather cultivate JOY-happiness-laughter-fun rather than get stuck with Anger as my attitude toward life. “This too shall pass” a famous 12 step motto-biblical in nature, that helps point a direction on flow of feelings —PASSING thru us- letting go and letting them move beyond me and replacing them with JOY-Laughter-and as these flow thru us—lets be open to the next wave-it’s coming- “I try to greet it with great expectation of love and JOY.


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