In storytelling, both protagonists and antagonists are essential in plot development. The protagonist works toward the story’s goals, while the antagonist functions as an opposing force. In emotion, things can be similar; in any given personal storyline, emotion can work either in support of, or against the goals of the person telling the story. Anger is a misunderstood emotion and tends to be uncomfortable because it is seen as negative and something to be avoided; however, anger is quite useful and when used in a healthy way it can be a protagonist instead of an antagonist. In other words, it can foster healthy connection instead of causing shutdown and disconnectedness.
We can experience anger for a variety of reasons including an unwelcome change such as getting laid off from a job, a misunderstanding with a family member, or disappointment at ourselves for not accomplishing a task that was important to us. We can also respond to anger in equally various ways, some of which are healthy while others are not so much. For instance, when we allow our anger to build up over time, the reaction that may occur is an explosion of negative emotion which generally make all those involved feel overwhelmed, emotionally exhausted, and irritated. This is an example of antagonism, but it doesn’t have to be this way.
Generally speaking, we can usually identify when anger is building and we can head it off at the pass, forcing anger into a protagonist role. In this situation, anger can be manipulated and intentionally placed into an arena where it can be dealt with in a more organized and productive manner. By acknowledging what is happening and then communicating that the emotion is present, we can then determine what the underlying issue is and begin to get curious about why it has appeared in this particular situation in the first place.
Just as in storytelling, there is always a cause for everything we experience. If we know, for example, that a friend always rolls her eyes whenever I start talking about dogs, this is a reason for me to get curious about why this is. Did this friend have a bad experience with dogs in the past? Does he or she just not like them? Or, is the issue simply that I talk about dogs every time we get together and completely ignore the fact that he or she has an interest in old historical buildings and would like to explore this interest with me? By getting to the root of any negative feeling we can often avoid escalation.
The issue generally comes in when we become aware that there is an issue but we do not address it. This can happen by letting things build up to the point that implosion is imminent, or it can be in refusing to feel, thereby rendering anger irrelevant. This can be unhealthy for the person on the receiving end of anger, but it is also unhealthy for the person experiencing the feeling. Connection happens when we communicate fully with others. Sometimes we do need to step back temporarily when we are at an impasse, but re-engaging after taking a pause is important.
Communication should be an interaction of give and take, and because we are all unique individuals, it stands to reason that we will not always agree on everything. This is okay. What we want to do is to make sure we are not only interacting with purpose, but also that we are doing it in a respectful manner. If we do not, then we risk having the other person emotionally shut down, and nothing gets accomplished when this happens. Sure, we can be satisfied that we won the argument, but what did we win, really? There is no resolution in shut down mode – the only thing that exists there is disconnection.
Through positive, meaningful interactions, we can relate to the world and those around us in very satisfying ways. Through positive communication we can begin to explore differences and understand each other in ways we had never even considered if we had not taken the time to express our true feelings. Through healthier expressions, we can allow emotions like anger to become the protagonist in our emotion story, instead of the antagonist.