Almost all of us have experienced a situation in which we were hurt, betrayed, rejected, mistreated, or taken for granted. Maybe our heart was broken. Perhaps someone lied to us, stole from us, got us in trouble, destroyed our property, manipulated us, or abused us; physically, emotionally or sexually. We are justified in our pain, and even our anger, right? It's healthy to feel empowered and to fight back, right?
There are all kinds of injustices in the world. There are good ways to fight and bad ways to fight.
We receive mixed messages from society today about anger. On the one hand, people who stand up for their rights are considered champions of their cause. People rally around individuals who fight against injustice, often even when their methods are radical or violent.
On the other hand, we see cultural indicators that people prefer individuals who are calm, levelheaded, and peaceful. Thus, popular signs such as, "keep calm and carry-on" are frequently spotted on Facebook newsfeeds and bumper stickers.
It is true that people need to be proactive in fighting against injustice. We want to emerge from difficult circumstances feeling stronger, more confident, and empowered. But intense, prolonged anger often does not lead to many positive thoughts or emotions. On the contrary, it leads to discouragement, mistrust, and withdrawal from relationships. The not-so-good fighting strategies result in bitterness, cynicism, emotional distance, and social isolation.
So, is anger necessary and good to possess? Or, is it something to be avoided, downplayed, or suppressed?
THE TRUTH ABOUT ANGER
My guess is that fire-breathing dragons, if they existed, would not have many friends. Nobody wants to run the risk of getting burned.
Anger is an emotion that our brain is capable of experiencing, which means that in some situations, it is both necessary and useful. I like to think of it as our brain's way of letting us know when we need to be alert and aware of people or situations that are wrong or harmful to us. Anger can be a helpful alert button that gets pressed when we are treated poorly or unjustly. Thus, anger has a purpose that we don’t want to suppress or ignore.
Unfortunately, when not processed in healthy ways, anger turns into violence, depression, bitterness, estrangement in relationships, and alienation from society at large. Prolonged anger can lead to a sense of entitlement, self-righteousness, and self-focus. While the common denominator in many of these words is “self,” the truth is, when we do not respond well to anger, internalizing it or using it as a weapon, we gain nothing positive for ourselves. We may believe that we are helping or advocating for ourselves, free to express thoughts and feelings, but when others get caught in the crossfire, the end result is that we lose more than we gain from breathing fire or bludgeoning people (physically or verbally) with our anger.
I have never understood the phrase “fight fire with fire,” because we all know that adding fire to fire fuels a fire.
The good news is that if we can recognize the underlying reasons we are angry, we can use the energy that anger often produces, such as adrenaline, to advocate for ourselves in emotionally healthy and stable ways, letting others know how we feel and reminding ourselves that we can be strong and feel empowered – all without fire breathing and alienating tactics!
RESPONDING, NOT REACTING TO ANGER
Step One: Write it Down
The first step in successfully responding to anger is to identify the reason that you are angry. Even if you think it seems obvious, write down your initial, automatic thoughts. Seeing your thoughts in writing can lend a different perspective. Not only do you need to know what you are angry about, you need to know why it made you angry. For instance, if someone interrupted you during a conversation, did you become angry because you didn't get to finish what you were saying? Or, is the real source of your anger that you didn't feel heard or understood, or that you felt ignored? While this is a fairly simple example, the reason that you become angry can greatly influence how you respond. It also can help you understand to what extent the reasons for anger are internally driven, as opposed to driven by the behavior of others.
Step Two: Rate it 1-10
The next step is to identify how angry you feel, for example rating the intensity of your anger on a scale of 1-10. It is important to know how intense your anger is, because if you are extremely angry, you may want to wait before responding to your anger or to others involved. People are more likely to respond positively to you if you communicate calmly and rationally, rather than directly out of your anger. So, if your anger level is tipping the scale, go take some slow, deep breaths, go for a walk, or do something else to relax before responding.
Step Three: Gain Perspective
The next step may not be something you have heard before. I would encourage you to think about the other person's perspective. In many situations, it may be that their perspective is not rational. And if you are really angry, you may not care about their perspective. However, I would encourage you to think about it anyway and here's why. We all want very badly to feel understood and heard. For instance, going back to the example of the person who interrupted you – why do you think they interrupted you? If I venture to guess, I would say they felt they had something very important to say and they did not want to wait. Perhaps they were concerned that they would forget their thoughts before they had a chance to share. No, it doesn't excuse their rude behavior. On the other hand, if you communicate to them that you understood what they were saying was important, they may respond to your disappointment at being interrupted much differently than if you simply accuse them of not listening.
Break the Habit
The more comfortable you become with responding angrily, the easier it becomes to do and the harder it becomes to respond calmly and with empathy. Pretty soon, you are reaching all sorts of conclusions: “The guy who cut you off in traffic was a jerk.” “That woman talking on her cell phone in the grocery store was an idiot.” Then the conclusions become broader: people are not worth knowing…you can't trust anyone…if you want something done right you have to do it yourself. As you can see, the self-talk and the conclusions become more negative and more convincing to you.
I hope that I have offered here some tips for breaking the habit of responding to anger in unhealthy ways, so that you can handle at least the minor situations that provoke anger in emotionally healthy, stable ways. If you struggle with ongoing anger regularly, and it has begun to affect your relationships and your quality-of-life, I would encourage you to talk to a mental health professional or seek out a helpful anger management group or workshop.
Poor anger management is a serious problem that affects thousands of people. Learn how to let go of anger so that it does not hold its grip on you.