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The Value of Anger; The Need For Safety

By Dave MacQuarrie, MD PHD

The Value of Anger; The Need For Safety

Imagine that I am in a crowd, and someone pushes against me. It is very likely I will experience anger, at least to some extent. Now imagine I am in a group exercise where I invite someone to push against me. Will I be angry in this situation also? Highly unlikely.

So what is the difference? I often consider anger to be “an uninvited or imposed disruption of my boundaries.” At the felt sensory level, it is my own desire to push against that which has challenged my boundary. We human beings are complex creatures with complex boundaries; generally these boundaries are expressed in our beliefs and values, and when someone challenges these boundaries, our defensive response is anger. So, in the situations described above, when someone pushes “appropriately,” my response might be pleasure or excitement; when someone pushes against me “inappropriately,” the emotional experience is anger.

Anger is also “the energy of difference in a closed space,” that space being a relationship. When I am angry, I am saying to myself (usually in some unconscious fashion) that: “This is my space. I have a right to my space.” Much of the time, I am also saying (again out of consciousness): “And I want you in my space. You are my … (wife, son/daughter, friend, boss, …).” Thus, anger is a very complex emotion, representing beliefs, values, and ongoing choices.

Anger is a healthy response. I would add: always. It always shows me that my boundaries have been challenged. But it will not tell me that my boundaries are appropriate; my beliefs, for example, may be quite inappropriate.

So what is the problem? Anger is not the problem! The problem is two-fold:

·        the underlying beliefs and values, and

·        what I do with my anger.

I suggest that human beings require two features so as to reach satisfactory outcomes with anger:

·        safety for all concerned (an absolute requirement), and

·        the freedom to explore the underlying beliefs and values, so as to then choose appropriate and safe responses.

Years ago, I coined two short phrases that summarize safety for me: No SAD, and STOP. No SAD means that, when angry, I will:

·        not intend to Scare another human being,

·        not Attack another biological creature, and

·        not Destroy in anger that which I would not destroy when peaceful.

To expand these ideas ---

Within No SAD, I have the freedom to express my anger, to discharge it from my body, safely. There are many ways I could do this, some quietly, some with noise. But always with the intention that no one will be scared by my actions. (Such an outcome is always undesired; if it occurs repeatedly, it is inappropriate.)

Yet, my actions may scare someone unintentionally. Therein is the need for STOP. STOP means that if someone indicates that they are scared by my actions, I stop immediately (no delays, no arguments, etc.) --- someone is not secure with my actions, and therefore I need to desist, and potentially then find another way to deal with my emotional energy, one that is safe for all. Usually, here, some form of time out is required.

No SAD also give me considerable freedom. In my career, I have known people who have been so pent up with rage that they have needed to destroy something so as to achieve relief (at times in my own life, well before I became a therapist, I have been this angry). For such, I have often recommended that these people go to a garage sale and buy a box of old dishes, and then, while wearing safety glasses and heavy gloves, smash the dishes into a garbage can, which they then roll out to the dumpster. Safe, private, no mess to clean up, and effective.

Having created safely for all concerned, and having reduced the intensity of the anger-rage, I am then in a position to explore what has been challenged. Usually I am also in a position to decide if:

·        my own belief system is inappropriate (usually some belief tied into childhood issues), or

·        the behavior of the other is truly inappropriate (e.g., they have lied to me).

The distinctions here are often quite clear-cut, and point me in the direction of needed action:

·        further exploration of myself (perhaps via therapy), or

·        the seeking of cooperative conflict resolution.

My desire, always, is cooperation, and because I manage my own emotions, I can always cooperate. My limitation then is the willingness of the other to also choose cooperation.

If they will not, I will need to find other means of resolution --- a topic of another post.


Please send your comments on this article to Ron at [email protected] 


Dave MacQuarrie is an anger therapist in an age when most of us are trained as anger managers. This article reflects the difference. In terms of survive vs. thrive, Dave helps people not just get through their anger episodes but learn their deeper meaning.

Ron P-E