In our society, we are repeatedly given the message that emotions are good or bad. We are told that it is virtuous to feel happy or grateful or in love all the time. We are told that these are "positive emotions." In fact, we now know that emotions are neither good nor bad in of themselves. Emotions are simply information meant to guide us. We should not be criticizing or qualifying them as positive or negative. We should however try to understand, from a curious, non-judgmental perspective, how our emotions are informing us. This does not mean wallowing in our emotions but coming to a deeper understanding. If we reflect on our emotions with curiosity, we can understand ways to improve our lives or to avoid bad situations. We can gain wisdom, and make choices that are more authentic, beneficial and meaningful to us.
The last thing we should do is ignore or dismiss some of our emotions, even those like sadness, anger, jealousy, etc. Imagine that you value spending time with friends but work so many hours that you don't have time to see them. Your sadness can inform you of the importance of your support system, which can allow you to create change in your life.
But shouldn't I just be "rational?" Shouldn't I trust my thoughts? In fact, our thoughts may be less trustworthy than our emotions. Research shows that humans can be quite counterintuitive when it comes to making decisions based on their thoughts. Thoughts may be irrational, self-critical, critical of others, or maladaptive. The emotions behind them may be real, but the thoughts themselves may be unhelpful. For example, you may feel very sad because your best friend hasn't answered your text message in days. The sadness is real. Your belief regarding the unanswered text may or may not be true, helpful or adaptive. You may come up with a theory, such as "my friend is angry with me" which may be false. Perhaps your friend is not angry, but busy, lost their phone, or too depressed to answer the message. We don't know which theory is true. But your emotion is still real. And you can use it to propel an action tendency that is healthy. So, then how do I move forward when I feel sad that my friend did not text me back? Well, first honor the sadness. Of course it's sad. You value this friendship. Allow yourself to feel this sadness. And what would be a healthy action tendency? What would help soothe this emotion? You can text your friend to make sure everything is ok, you can hold on to your beliefs (theories) lightly in regard to why she is not texting back, and you can be compassionate with yourself. You can remind yourself that just because you think it, it doesn't mean that it's a fact. Our thoughts are just theories, which may or may not be correct.
But shouldn't I just dismiss my sadness? Shouldn't I just distract myself? Put it out of my mind? Well, by doing this, you risk holding on to this emotion longer. And it may transform into other emotions. After all, if you believe your friend is angry with you, perhaps you may also believe she doesn't value your friendship, and you may start to feel deeply hurt and angry. And this may translate into unhealthy behaviors. Instead of checking in with your friend, you may irrationally decide she was never your friend and ignore her when you see her at school or work. Or you may be terse with her when she finally texts back. She may then react to this negatively and stop talking with you as well. One simple misunderstanding can cause a downward spiral, which can hurt your relationship. And you may never learn the real reason your friend didn't return your message.
So don't dismiss your emotions! They are just messengers meant to be understood--and honored. And instead, learn to be gentle with your thoughts and not judge your own emotions. Be curious and open to understanding why you are experiencing an emotion. Make peace with the ambiguity of not knowing why people do the things they do. Heck...it's even hard for us to understand our own emotions.
And finally, let me answer the title of article, "When is it ok to be angry?" The answer is: anytime. Anger is just information. It's what we do with it that matters. There is such a thing as good anger. Think Rosa Parks' anger. She was not tired when she sat down in the front of the bus and refused to get up. She was rightly angry and used this anger to inspire change. She inspired change not by beating people up, but by resisting laws that were unjust. Her anger was appropriate and adaptive. And her behavior was brave and inspirational.
But shouldn't we just strive for being happy all the time? Well, not if it means suppressing how we feel. If we did that, we would live some pretty unhealthy lives. It would mean constantly dismissing information that was necessary for our happiness. We would stay in that terrible job too long, we would never strive for more; we wouldn't get the information we need to help ourselves or understand our situations. "Happy" is not always the right emotion. If you saw someone acting happy at a family member's funeral, would that be adaptive? You may rightly wonder what this meant.
So, if it's called for: be angry. But learn to do what's right with it. Be sad: and find the beauty or the wisdom in it. And by allowing yourself to authentically feel, you will live a more meaningful, and ultimately happier life.