In Praise of Empathetic Anger; Or, Toward Healthy Anger Understandings

In Praise of Empathetic Anger; Or, Toward Healthy Anger Understandings

Like many of you, I was raised to be terrified of conflict and the anger that came with it. As I’ve described before, I was taught the devil term to-be-fought-at-all-costs definition of anger, one that lumped the emotion in with the most extreme forms of those emotions and also with the negative outcomes of people acting out on their anger in what I’ve been previously calling a horns effect. In the present article, I plan to praise a very different kind of anger that doesn’t fit in at all with this unhealthy formula—a profoundly warranted and healthy anger I’m calling empathetic anger.

A Little Background

As I’ve described before, the toxic forms of “Christian nice” often tell people to suppress their “negative emotions” by promoting a form of “toxic positivity.” The same forms of Christian Nice often end up unwittingly supporting oppressors and abusers at the expense of victims by too-quickly calling for the kind of “cheap forgiveness” from abuse survivors and oppressed peoples.

As I discussed last time, it’s really common for those socialized into Christian Nice to actually see assertively speaking truth to power as a faintly immoral practice that itself needs to be seemingly repented of. Those who have been following along should know by now that I’m highly disturbed about this practice, both from my vantage point as someone who studies this conflict stuff and as a pastor’s kid who identifies as a progressive Christian.

Not to Put Too Fine a Point on It

So yes, it’s high time that we stop buying these unhealthy conflations between anger and immorality. Especially for those that claim Scriptures that are filled with prophets and messiahs and apostles alike speaking truth to power and getting all sorts of crap thrown at them for this, and fiery Psalms expressing every emotion under the sun as part of the song book (because music is like that), I’ve come to find such emotion- and conflict-suppressing views frankly wrong and unhealthy and heretical.

These conflations are also incredibly inconsistent with stress and conflict research and best practices associated with that. (And let’s be clear–these issues aren’t just in the Christian world–our whole society tends to conflate anger with aggression and vindictiveness, etc.–especially when it’s the less-powerful people who have grounds for their anger.)

It’s Not that I Don’t Understand Christian Nice (Which, Incidentally, Is the Point of Empathetic Anger)

None of this is to say that I don’t understand where the fear of anger comes from. As I’ve discussed before, anger is not only an emotion, but one that’s aligned with the fight stress response, which is a very visceral way for our bodies to respond to felt threat. It’s only natural that those who are sensitized to danger would come to fear the fight response and the potential aggression that emerges from it.

Why Anger and Fight Responses Aren’t Necessarily Dangerous

And yet, the fight response itself is not on its own automatically a danger. It’s a charge of reactive energy, sure, that gets someone to respond to a threat, but there are a thousand factors in whether that response is actually a danger to others or not.

I don’t have time to go over all of them in this article (check out our free Guide to Trolls for some more pointers for argumentation situations!—I’ll include instructions to get the guide in the end of the article), but my basic point here is that some anger is extremely reactive and ends up at these extremes, but much does not.  

Empathetic Anger Is NOT the Same as the Horns Effect View of Anger

And for the types that are not reactive, that are grounded in love and empathy and clearly grounded in clear evidence, that empathetic anger is the polar opposite of unhealthy aggression and needs to be treated very differently.

Some Biblical Examples of Empathetic Anger

Empathetic anger is the type I see Jesus practicing when he overturns the tables in the temple because the money-changing was exploiting the poor.

Empathetic anger is the type I see Jesus practicing when woeing the unjust religious leaders for unhealthy spiritualities that were causing injustice and spiritual trauma alike.

Empathetic anger is the type I see the prophets practicing when they call kings and judges alike to repent and start treating people better.

Defining Empathetic Anger

But we haven’t really defined this term fully yet, so let me quickly do so:

As I’m using the term, I think empathetic anger is a kind that considers the situation and the evidence carefully, albeit sometimes quickly, before taking action. Empathetic anger looks for ways in which needs are not being met by existing situations, and seeks to fix them. This type of fight response stops and considers why things are the way they are, and empathizes, but does not find that an excuse for poor accountability.

In short, empathetic anger seeks the good of all parties through seeking to make things right.

Empathetic Anger Afflicts the Comfortable and Comforts the Afflicted

That doesn’t mean that those who practice this seek the comfort of all involved, mind you. It’s often uncomfortable, the processes that are involved in imperfect and often-highly unpleasant situations. This assertiveness practice pulls no punches about those discomforts, and understands them, but refuses to accept them as excuses.

Empathetic Anger and True Civility

In fact, as I discussed back when I was talking about True Civility, empathetic anger recognizes that there are often needs to be prioritized in urgent situations and moderates its level of intensity depending on those factors. People who practice this are ideally self-aware and also have a good trustworthy support system to check in with about whether their practice is going over the line from assertiveness to aggression.

Why Empathetic Anger is Seen as a Threat by Christian Nice

But yeah, from the no-conflict-is-good-conflict vantage point of Christian Nice, the kind of urgency practiced by practitioners of this kind of healthy fight response may well look aggressive and over-the-top, in much the same way that someone who isn’t aware of a fire in a building may start to complain if they see someone scoop someone up and carry them to safety.

Context is everything, and from the viewpoint of Christian Nice, empathetic anger often gets confused with the devil term version.

Why People Try to Suppress Those Enacting Empathetic Anger

In short, too many carry a kind of prejudice against anger because they fear the challenges to the status quo that arise with those who are seeking to practice the kind of assertive empathetic anger that I am talking about here. Because empathetic anger often is the type that advocates for the needs of those who are being ignored, and that’s uncomfortable for many.

Let’s Not Let that Stop Us!

But I say, let’s bring on the empathetic anger, friends! The current religio-political landscape is burning, and it’s high time we stop spending so much time self-censoring and apologizing to the Christian Nice folk about raising our voices.

I’m giving it to you now: permission to be empathetically angry. Empathetic anger IS healthy anger, friends! I’m telling you that it is actually the most moral and biblical response to the garbage that’s now going on.

Be angry, friends—and use that healthy anger from stress energy for the good of all. Find your support system, and take your moments to check yourselves, sure. But don’t let anyone gaslight you into thinking there aren’t problems worthy of us raising our voices to address. Don’t let anyone tell you that you’re wrong to put that stress energy into trying to fix them. (And that means not putting yourself down in the process.)

Need More Resources Toward Speaking Truth to Power and Dealing with the Conflict?

If you need a little more help toward dealing with conflict online or off, sign up for our email newsletter—either in the top bar or by commenting on this article and checking the box. Once you’ve confirmed your email address, you’ll get the free “Assertive Spirituality Guide to Online Trolls” in the final welcome email. After that you’ll get weekly notices with news and updates on this Assertive Spirituality project. You can unsubscribe at any time, but I hope you stick around. I’m always working toward helping equip you with the tools you need to be assertive in the face of some really difficult stuff.

A Final Charge

Go team #AssertiveSpirituality! Let’s use those fight responses for the good of all. We can do this thing.  

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6 thoughts on “In Praise of Empathetic Anger; Or, Toward Healthy Anger Understandings

  1. Nice explanation and I am all over that, sometimes I feel too complacent because I try to handle conflict in a more gentle way but the world is turning into such an unkind and uncompassionate place, gentle isnt doing the job so we need to start using a more authorative tone to get our point across. Peace & harmony to all.

  2. I love your stuff and I find it helpful.

    One thing I would say about empathetic anger is that there is sometimes a danger of our anger on behalf of another becoming harmful to ourselves and others because of our sense that it is protecting/helping another and somehow we give ourselves greater license to be more disruptive. Anger on behalf of ourselves is sometimes restrained by our guarding against self-centeredness. Empathetic anger does not always have the same boundaries.

    An example: Long ago I heard a gentile say that they would never go to Germany or buy German products because of what the Germans did to the Jews. Sounds like anger kept as a kind of moral icon. Not healthy.

    1. Thanks so much for the compliments and especially the thoughtful reflection. I really like the term moral icon–though I don’t think keeping something as a moral icon has to be a negative thing, despite my heavily Protestant background. 😉 I think it is the negative valence you describe when it becomes a shield from connection when there genuinely is repentance, as Germany has shown–but it feels like if it becomes what you describe, it’s like the empathy gets so frozen that it becomes joined with a hatred in stasis, which sort of becomes a different category in my eyes, since it may have lost the focus of fixing ongoing problems a little bit. You make a great point, though–the danger is that active and useful empathetic anger may go down that road if left for too long.

      1. Well put!

        Actually, now that I think about it, we could distinguish between “moral icon” (good) and “moral idol” (bad).
        Pardon my dualism.

  3. Thank you for sharing more about yourself. Your descriptions speak to my heart and I am definitely on your team. Stay in touch.

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In Praise of Empathe…

by DS Leiter Time to read: 6 min