Painful emotions are not problems in and of themselves. They are signals.
Take anger. We all get angry.
I've gotten angry when other drivers drive poorly; when someone I'm talking with fails to listen; when someone calls me a name; when others attempt to impose themselves on me without my permission, or threaten me. I got angry when a neighbor's large dog came into my yard and attacked one of my cats. I got more angry when I asked the owner of the dog to keep him restricted and he failed to do so, leading to another attack on my cat. I could go on and on.
Angry feelings signal that someone, self or others, is doing something that affects us, which we don't like. Which hurts or bothers us. Which pisses us off. Which crosses a line of acceptable behavior towards us.
As such, the stimulant for anger is a behavior or decision which contradicts our criteria for acceptable behavior, behavior which constitutes respect, trust, or good treatment of some sort.
Just because we feel anger doesn't mean we have to act in an angry manner, or engage in blaming self or others, being abusive, or being violent. Anger is a feeling. Acting out of that feeling with blaming can be abusive or violent towards others or one's self. That kind of response to anger, interpreting the feeling as labeling the person who triggered it a
But by recognizing that anger is a signal rather than a problem of some kind, or a call for blaming, threats or violence, we can find its positive intention—an unfulfilled part of a plan to be treated well. And by finding that positive intention in a situation, we can learn to act on that intention to prevent it from reoccurring, and prevent the kinds of behavior which escalate a conflict by causing the other person to become angry. Anger calls for negotiating with whomever triggered it to operate within the bounds of your criteria for being treated well. Or adjusting those criteria as the situation calls for as you interpret it. That creates a positive, healthy feedback loop in a process of circularity in which you are an integral cause of what happens, what you'll feel in the future, and what others feel as well.
The thinking that recognizes anger and other emotions as signals came about rather recently. One way to describe this thinking is "circular causality" and was championed by those who created the field of cybernetics. To explore the history of this field, look here.
The book "The Cybernetics Group" by Steve Joshua Heims documents the interdisciplinary discussions called the Macy Conferences during which the field of cybernetics was invented. Taking place between 1946 and 1953, the participants represented some of the most influential thinkers of the 20th century. They included anthropologist Margaret Mead; inventor of the central processing unit (CPU) still used today, John von Neuman; multi-discliplinary thinker Gregory Bateson who developed the double-bind theory of schizophrenia; and the founder of the field of cybernetics, Norbert Weiner, and many more.
It is Norbert Weiner in his book "The Human Use of Human Beings" he popularized the word "feed-back" which referred to a loop of circular causality in communication between two people; a person and a machine, between machines or parts of machines; or, as I am describing in this article, between parts within a person. In the years after he wrote his book, we used the term "feedback" so often we dropped the hyphen.
Understand your anger and other painful emotions. As signals, not problems
Anger is one of a class of emotions-as-signals which indicates that something is wrong, that there is a problem that needs attention, that action or a decision is required to satisfy the underlying intention and to make the signal subside, as unnecessary.
The entire list of emotions thought of as painful constitute signals, that if identified for the intentions of the part responsible for them, can be muted and replaced by positive emotions by satisfying the intentions the signal identifies.
In this article I've described the emotion of anger as a signal.
Like an oil light in a car, it signals that something is amiss, and needs correction.
Anyone who has an oil light come on, only to cover it with a piece a tape and keep on driving, risks, of course, the vehicle grinding to a halt because of a lack of lubrication in the motor.
So it is with all of our painful emotions. They are painful for the same reason an oil light is red—to get our attention so we may attend to the underlying good intention.
How can you use the idea of circular causality by interpreting feelings of anger as a signal to be understood and respected, the same way you respect your oil light or gas gauge, or the pain of a crying child?
Understanding such signals within us is a crucial aspect of mental health, and physical health. And a healthy society.
I use this idea with my coaching clients constantly, as well as for myself, in my personal life. The result is more mindful negotiating, less mindless reacting. More fun. Less pain. More harmony. Less conflict.
In future articles in my series on dealing with emotions, I will describe the positive intentions of other painful emotions, including anxiety, depression, sadness, shame, guilt, rage and many more.