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Letter from the Co-CEO, Lynette Lim: 5 things about Anger that will surprise you

Dear Friends,

Do you have a sense that the world is getting angrier? The horrific massacre of 50 people at Christchurch, New Zealand is a painful heart-wrenching reminder of how much damage unresolved anger in a single individual can cause.

I used to think it was just Chicago, where the history of the city’s mob, violence, and segregation is still steeped in the memories of its citizens. Anger also is evident in the Futures industry, where the shift from pit trading to electronic trading has left many behind struggling to make the transition, and where great wealth is gained and lost in seconds; where the truism of winner takes it all is relived repeatedly.

In our recent trip back to Silicon Valley (where we used to live a decade ago), I saw the shift quite dramatically. Strangers were flipping us off in traffic just like in Chicago, and there was a suppressed anger in people’s eyes I have not seen. Yes, the sun was still shining, but people were not smiling.

 

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Why are people seemingly angrier? Is it the current political climate? Is it global warming? Is it the intrusion of smartphones taking over our waking hours? Is it the pressure of FOLO? Are we reaching the peak of the Age of Overwhelm? Are we continually being manipulated by “fake news”? Are our jobs in jeopardy because they’ll soon be taken over by robots and AI? Or the realization that the urbanization of societies has pushed us to greater alienation from our families and friends?

That’s why recently, I’ve been obsessed with the search to really “Know Thyself”. This is in response to what Yuval Noah Harari has said about the future. Essentially, to survive this world of platforms (e.g., Google, Amazon, Facebook) that know increasing more about—and often manipulate—you, it’s more important than ever to truly know yourself. While searching, I noticed my unconscious choice of reading selections included many involved the brain and how humans think. One of the most interesting searches I did was about anger: What is anger? How does anger work?

 

“When angry, count to ten before you speak; if very angry, a hundred.” — Thomas Jefferson

 

And here are the 5 surprising things I learned about anger:

 

  1. Anger happens in the primitive part of your brain to protect you from danger

Within the lower-middle part of the brain, there is a region called the Amygdala. This region processes fear, triggers anger and motivates us to act. The amygdala is an older part of the brain when compared to the prefrontal cortex, which controls reasoning, judgment and helps us to think logically before we act. The amygdala is the part of the brain that triggers the “fight or flight” response (essential for the survival of our hunter-gatherer days). A large amygdala is required to respond quickly when scanning the terrain for potential danger. What is that thing in the distance? Is it a lion or a deer? If the information is registered as a lion running towards you, the amygdala broadcasts a distress signal to the entire brain, which in turn, triggers a cascade of physiological responses. A rapid heart rate helps result in jacked-up blood pressure, which leads to tense muscles and then a release of adrenaline. Within milliseconds, you explode with rage or freeze in fear. All of this response occurs well before the prefrontal cortex can even grasp what is happening. The caveman in you either runs away from the lion or prepares for a battle.

 

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Unfortunately, unless you belong to a nomadic tribe in Africa or work in the zoo, there is little chance for you to fight a lion. However, in our modern world, there are many occurrences that will trigger our amygdala to respond first and not our frontal cortex. This could be a certain crisis at work that happened suddenly, or some bad news that occurred that takes hold of us.

 

  1. Anger is not good or bad. It just is.

For many of us, there is a cultural belief to assume anger is the bad guy. We tend to suppress it, but it still shows up in different ways, often more detrimental than the first bout of anger would be.

I remember one of our ex-colleagues used to call out my anger and use it as a tactic to shame me when I was approaching him over a difficult issue that he wasn’t addressing. My anger became the talking point rather than the issue itself.

I read an excellent book called the “Dance of Anger” and was reminded again that anger itself should not be deemed as “good” or “bad”, it just is. However, it is often what we do with anger, the EXPRESSION of it that can be detrimental and destroy whatever’s insight.

A nice quote by a Buddhist teacher says “Move the energy of anger. It Is not good or bad, it’s just what wants to happen. When you make space for that energy, and allow it to move through you, it transforms you. Just don’t get caught up in the story.”

It is good to feel the energy of the anger and just let it happen and acknowledge that we are angry as the first step. If I had known more than about anger, I would have acknowledged my anger to my ex-colleague and then move on to address the issue that was causing the distress.

 

  1. Anger is a secondary emotion, don’t let it distract you.

Anger is considered by psychologists as a secondary emotion or a reaction to other emotions we are feeling. Anger is often used as a big protector against the more vulnerable feelings that we have, such as fear or sadness. Fear includes things like anxiety and worry; and sadness roots from experiences of loss. We tend to avoid these feelings and thus use anger to protect us from them. So, when you are feeling angry, stop for a moment and ask yourself why you are angry and what is behind that anger. Stay curious!

 

  1. Anger is a better tool than sadness to increase your social status

In an interesting study by Larissa Tiedens at Stanford University, she was able to show that people assigned a higher status position and a higher salary to someone who described themselves as angry vs. sad. Anger expressions created the impression that an individual was competent and in control of both political and business contexts. Perhaps that is why anger seems the main emotion expressed in the media these days. It is proven to make you appear to people as more powerful.

 

  1. If you have an anger problem, look at your liver

In the practice of Chinese medicine, there is a concept that your mind, emotions, and body are all interconnected. Anger as an emotion is connected to one’s liver health and an imbalance of this emotion can affect your organ’s function. At the same time, a liver imbalance can produce anger, often creating a self-perpetuating cycle. Perhaps that is why people who have a drinking problem that negatively affects the health of their liver, often have problems with anger too.

It is also interesting to note that the liver meridian is connected to the eyes. So, if your vision is clear and your eyes are moist, you probably have a happy liver. But if your eyes are blood shot, you may likely have a liver problem. So, what is the lesson here? If you are already feeling angry, don’t fuel the anger by intoxicating yourself. Be good to your liver!

 

  1. Anger can be the fuel you need to change for Good.

Anger, as you now know is neither good or bad, it is. The feelings of anger, when we really seek deep within us can lead to a deep transformation for the better. Anger can help get us to the root of the issues that are troubling us. Anger can give us the power to not resign to the status quo. Anger can give us the courage to say, “hey this is not ok.”, and do something about it.

 

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In 1955, By refusing to give up her seat on a bus, Rosa Parks helped strengthen the civil rights movement. Parks had not planned the protest, but in her own words “had been pushed as far as I could stand to be pushed.” and “couldn’t take it anymore… It is such a long and lonely feeling”. Parks felt she was being asked to consent to her own humiliation, “I felt that, if I did stand up, it meant that I approved of the way I was being treated, and I did not approve”. She was “tired of giving in” and Mrs. Parks had reached her stopping point.

So perhaps when you feel this strong surge of anger, ask yourself: “why?” first. Instead of swearing back at the driver who flipped you off or plotting revenge to the boss that acted unfairly, take a pause. Use that pause to see how you can channel that anger for good. Let that extra energy boost that you get from anger motivate you to take action for good, not for evil.

I write these lessons not for you but also for myself as a solemn reminder of the destructive nature of anger if we let it take control of our lives. Often, as leaders with numerous responsibilities and expectations, we are akin to be living inside a pressure cooker and if one turns the heat high enough, something will explode. I highly suspect there is a direct correlation where people with higher expectations for us and others also tend to get angrier. Ironically, we are also often put in that position of leadership because we do have that “fire” in us. Just like all dichotomies in life, we have to make sure this anger doesn’t turn rampant into a forest fire, but yet not extinguish the fire completely, then we lose our spirit.

Once again, I am happy to hear your stories about how you handle your “fire”.