Anger - What to Do With It
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You get angry. I get angry. Your boss … your mother … your best friend … everyone gets angry. Anger is a natural, emotional response to threat. Some situation or someone’s behavior simply triggers angry feelings in you.
Anger is just an emotion. It is neither good nor bad in itself. However, what you do with your anger makes a big difference. You can bring a satisfying resolution to a troubling situation or create mayhem and disaster. It’s all a matter of how you handle your angry feelings.
On the one hand, anger can motivate you to do something constructive. When you are angry, adrenaline flows and you have increased energy. For example, the founders of MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving) used their anger-energy to create a life-saving movement. Angry marriage partners may decide it’s time to use their best communication skills and resolve issues that they have avoided. Non-violent anger used to right wrongs and resolve problems is a good thing.
On the other hand, anger can destroy you or other people. If you “stuff” or suppress anger, you may become more vulnerable to anxiety, high blood pressure, heart disease, and other psychosomatic disorders; depression and guilt; excessively submissive, deferring behavior; passive-aggressive behavior (getting back at people indirectly rather than confronting them) and other unhappy outcomes.
If you explode and “dump” your anger aggressively, you may hurt other people with defiance, verbal abuse or physical assaults – possibly to the point of violent crime. Even malicious gossip, contemptuous comments and similar behavior can devastate people’s lives. You may have had the experience of dumping your anger and later apologizing for “overreacting.”
There is a genetic component to the intensity of angry feelings. Some people appear to be born more irritable, touchy and easily angered. Researchers speak of “hot reactors.” Some individuals are chronically irritable and have a low tolerance for frustration. On the other hand, many people just seem to naturally “go with the flow.”
Regardless of the genetic hand you have been dealt, how you handle angry feelings is learned. If you grew up in a family that was chaotic and not skilled at communicating and problem-solving, maybe even violent, you may have learned to deal with your anger in hurtful or unhealthy ways. Many people grow up in families that consider anger bad and forbid expression of anger. If you have suppressed anger for years, it is likely to show up in an unhealthy way.
You can learn to handle your anger in healthy and useful ways. Some techniques seem to help people who “stuff it” and other approaches appear more useful to those who “dump it.”
“Stuffers” may benefit from taking time to recognize suppressed anger in their lives. It may show up in passive-aggressive behavior, low self-esteem, anxiety, psychosomatic symptoms, etc. Venting their angry feelings (in a place where no one will be hurt) can be helpful if the person gains a renewed sense of control over their lives. Otherwise, some experts believe venting is just practice at being aggressive. Working on improving self-esteem and self-confidence may help.
The most useful skill for “stuffers” is assertiveness – speaking up for oneself. The most common tool is the “I message.” Instead of starting conversation about a conflict with an accusation (“You lazy, no good dirt bag …”), start by owning your angry feeling and asking for the other person’s help. Typically, the formula is: “I feel angry when you … . What I need is … .” Note that assertiveness is respectful of the other person. It is not done in an aggressive, hurtful way.
“Dumpers” frequently manage their anger better when they learn to challenge unrealistic thinking. The thinking behind aggressive behavior is often filled with unrealistic expectations: people must always treat me fairly; children must always obey their parents; I must have a new car every year; my spouse must pay attention to everything I say; etc. When those expectations are not met, the person goes off in a rage. The task is to replace those thoughts with more realistic ones: some people do not have the same standards that I have and will not treat me fairly – that’s just how the world is, etc.
Another helpful approach for “dumpers” is to reinterpret the situation. Instead of a “single-minded” view of things, look for other ways to understand the circumstance or the other person’s behavior. An offensive person may just be acting out his or her own problems and not intend anything personally about you at all.
Programs of relaxation and meditation can help calm a “dumper.” Self-instruction to “count to ten,” step back, and think with a clear head can stop knee-jerk overreactions.
Angry feelings and their unhealthy reactions can be pre-empted with some prevention. If there are particular people or situations that trigger a person’s angry feelings, the individual should plan to minimize encounters with those situations or people. If there are environments that foster anger and support unhealthy reactions (e.g. hanging out with quick-tempered friends), it makes sense to avoid those places and people.
All of us experience angry feelings. How you handle your anger is up to you. Even if you have learned unhealthy ways in your past, you can learn new ways to use your anger-energy constructively – for your sake and those around you. If changes are very difficult, be sure to seek the help of a psychotherapist or counselor who specializes in anger management. Create your own best future.
© Glen Rediehs, Ph.D.