Anger is a very often misunderstood feeling. Anger itself is a very healthy and necessary part of becoming an individualized human being with reasonably healthy self-esteem. Anger at its core is assertiveness. Assertiveness is the act of saying ‘I am this’ and ‘I am not that’. ‘I want this and I do not want that’. Anger itself is a very healthy, self-defining emotion and therefore very important in ongoing healthy living. However, anger can be easily and is frequently twisted and abused into a destructive form. When anger is used in an aggressive or dominating, intimidating, threatening manner, this is when healthy anger becomes unhealthy anger. The results of unhealthy anger litter our culture and social milieu. Anger turned into aggression reveals itself in violence, spousal abuse, child abuse, threatening- demeaning critical language. In its abusive state anger can become a force that tears down relationships. Therefore, it is critically important that people not be afraid of anger but understand the healthy component that anger can provide and where the line is where healthy anger turns into abusive and therefore destructive anger.
Two Sides of the Anger Coin
Have you ever been told to “Put on a happy face!” when something irked you? Often in society anger is associated with violence and one way we have dealt with avoiding violence is ignoring, suppressing or minimizing feelings of anger. The truth of the matter is anger is a natural capacity by all humans that is built into our bodies. Anger like all emotions is a signal, often the signal that we are feeling threatened or fearful. Anger can be helpful to resist numbing of feelings or feeling despair. Anger is also part of the grieving process. What makes anger helpful or harmful is what action we take when we have those angry feelings. See, we don’t have a choice about feeling angry but we do have a choice of what action we take to deal with the anger. Often the more awareness we have of our angry thoughts and feelings, the more likely we are to choose healthier thoughts and meaningful expressions of that anger.
So what does healthy anger look like? First off, healthy anger includes the understanding that we ourselves are responsible for feeling anger and then for doing something safe and helpful with the anger. “But that other person made me mad?” Not exactly! For example, one person might be angry if a friend picked them up later than the time agreed upon while another person in the same situation might feel relief as they too were running late.
Noticing that we are having feelings of anger and owning them is often a first sign of expressing anger in a healthy way. Then to notice any other emotions that might be hiding behind the anger allows us to take the appropriate action. Often fear and sadness are feelings underneath the anger and if we don’t recognize them we might go for a jog when what we really needed to do to feel better was to visit a loved one’s burial site or say “no” to someone who is overstepping our boundaries. When we own our anger, we stop giving others control over how we feel and take back what is ours to feel. When we own our emotions, we give ourselves the opportunity to re-examine our perceptions and beliefs about the causes of our anger in order to decide if we will let them go or hold on to them and do something proactive about it. Some causes of anger at times won’t be controllable such as a traffic jam and so it’s in those moments that a healthy expression of anger may be naming out loud, “I am irritated with this traffic jam” and thinking, ‘I can’t do much about it so I will listen to my favorite tunes or practice deep breathing or take public transit the next time.’
We can tell we are expressing healthy anger because we most likely will feel good afterwards. Also healthy expression of anger often stimulates productive action such as fighting for justice for oneself and others in a similar situation. As well, healthy expressions of anger can lead to reconciliation and authenticity in a relationship.
When is anger not healthy? Anger becomes a problem when it occurs too often or when it results in us or someone else getting hurt or hit. Some irrational thought habits that intensify feelings of anger include, Should statements (“I should have…, You should have…”), Mind Reading (concluding that you know what someone else is thinking or “up to”), Fortune-telling (predicting that things will turn out badly) Overgeneralizing (assuming one incident happens “all the time”, “always”, “never”), and Antagonizing Rhetoric (“What’s wrong with you?”). If we find ourselves jumping onto these trains of thought we can ask ourselves “Is this thought true? How do I know that it is true?” Likely if we continue using the above thinking habits we can be certain that the intensity of anger will escalate which means our ability to make a thoughtful decision as to how to handle our anger decreases significantly. As well, attitudes can also feed the ‘anger monster’ such as the attitude that one needs to seek victory and win the conversation. Another attitude that contributes to anger is being set in our ways that we are unwilling to consider or even listen to other options. Beliefs that create unhealthy expression of anger include the belief that we must deny, repress and bottle up anger as a way of protecting ourselves, others, and our relationships from harm. Often out of these thoughts, attitudes and beliefs, unhealthy expressions of anger look like criticism, blame, sarcasm, shouting, stomping, banging, swearing and violence. Often the risk of danger increases drastically when we combine alcohol or certain drugs with anger. Please see the diagram titled “the Anger and Violence Ladder” that lists harmful expressions of anger from less harmful ones at the bottom of the ladder to extremely harmful expressions at the top.
For more specific details and tips on anger and anger management please visit the links below.
- Have you ever harmed anyone because of anger? Yes ___ No ___
- Have you ever harmed a loved one when angry?* Yes ___ No ___
- Have you ever harmed yourself when angry?* Yes ___ No ___
- Have you ever lost a job because of anger?* Yes ___ No ___
- Have you often felt guilt or remorse after getting angry? Yes ___ No ___
- Has a significant other ever threatened to leave because of your anger?* Yes ___ No___
- Were you ever arrested where anger was a factor?* Yes ___ No ___
- Have you often felt unable to control your anger? Yes ___ No ___
- Has a friend or loved on said you have a problem with anger? Yes ___ No ___
- Has a counselor or therapist said you have a problem with anger? Yes ___ No ___
How to score the test
A “yes” answer to just one of the ten questions shows a problem with anger. A “yes” answer to any of the questions marked with an asterisk (*) shows a serious problem with anger.
Have you been honest with yourself? Did the test show you have an anger problem? If yes, consider making an agreement with yourself to begin a change process. Consider calling a social service agency in your area and attending an anger management program.
CLICK ON THE LADDER TO MAKE IT LARGER
The Nature of Anger
Anger is “an emotional state that varies in intensity from mild irritation to intense fury and rage,”.
Like other emotions, it is accompanied by physiological and biological changes; when you get angry, your heart rate and blood pressure go up, as do the levels of your energy hormones, adrenaline, and noradrenaline.
Anger can be caused by both external and internal events. You could be angry at a specific person (Such as a co-worker or supervisor) or event (a traffic jam, a canceled flight), or your anger could be caused by worrying or brooding about your personal problems. Memories of traumatic or enraging events can also trigger angry feelings.
The instinctive, natural way to express anger is to respond aggressively. Anger is a natural, adaptive response to threats; it inspires powerful, often aggressive, feelings and behaviors, which allow us to fight and to defend ourselves when we are attacked. A certain amount of anger, therefore, is necessary to our survival.
On the other hand, we can’t physically lash out at every person or object that irritates or annoys us; laws, social norms, and common sense place limits on how far our anger can take us.
People use a variety of both conscious and unconscious processes to deal with their angry feelings. The three main approaches are expressing, suppressing, and calming.
Expressing your angry feelings in an assertive—not aggressive—manner is the healthiest way to express anger. To do this, you have to learn how to make clear what your needs are, and how to get them met, without hurting others. Being assertive doesn’t mean being pushy or demanding; it means being respectful of yourself and others.
Anger can be suppressed, and then converted or redirected. This happens when you hold in your anger, stop thinking about it, and focus on something positive. The aim is to inhibit or suppress your anger and convert it into more constructive behavior. The danger in this type of response is that if it isn’t allowed outward expression, your anger can turn inward—on yourself. Anger turned inward may cause hypertension, high blood pressure, or depression.
Unexpressed anger can create other problems. It can lead to pathological expressions of anger, such as passive-aggressive behavior (getting back at people indirectly, without telling them why, rather than confronting them head-on) or a personality that seems perpetually cynical and hostile. People who are constantly putting others down, criticizing everything, and making cynical comments haven’t learned how to constructively express their anger. Not surprisingly, they aren’t likely to have many successful relationships.
Finally, you can calm down inside. This means not just controlling your outward behavior, but also controlling your internal responses, taking steps to lower your heart rate, calm yourself down, and let the feelings subside.
“When none of these three techniques work, that’s when someone—or something—is going to get hurt.”
The goal of anger management is to reduce both your emotional feelings and the physiological arousal that anger causes. You can’t get rid of, or avoid, the things or the people that enrage you, nor can you change them, but you can learn to control your reactions.
Are You Too Angry?
If you find yourself acting in ways that seem out of control and frightening, you might need help finding better ways to deal with this emotion.
Why Are Some People More Angry Than Others?
Some people really are more “hotheaded” than others are; they get angry more easily and more intensely than the average person does. There are also those who don’t show their anger in loud spectacular ways but are chronically irritable and grumpy. Easily angered people don’t always curse and throw things; sometimes they withdraw socially, sulk, or get physically ill.
People who are easily angered generally have what some psychologists call a low tolerance for frustration, meaning simply that they feel that they should not have to be subjected to frustration, inconvenience, or annoyance. They can’t take things in stride, and they’re particularly infuriated if the situation seems somehow unjust: for example, being corrected for a minor mistake.
What makes these people this way? A number of things. One cause may be genetic or physiological: There is evidence that some children are born irritable, touchy, and easily angered, and that these signs are present from a very early age. Another may be sociocultural. Anger is often regarded as negative; we’re taught that it’s all right to express anxiety, depression, or other emotions but not to express anger. As a result, we don’t learn how to handle it or channel it constructively.
Research has also found that family background plays a role. Typically, people who are easily angered come from families that are disruptive, chaotic, and not skilled at emotional communications.
Is It Good To “Let it All Hang Out?”
Psychologists now say that this is a dangerous myth. Some people use this theory as a license to hurt others. Research has found that “letting it rip” with anger actually escalates anger and aggression and does nothing to help you (or the person you’re angry with) resolve the situation.
It’s best to find out what it is that triggers your anger, and then to develop strategies to keep those triggers from tipping you over the edge.
Strategies to Keep Anger at Bay
Simple relaxation tools, such as deep breathing and relaxing imagery, can help calm down angry feelings. There are books and courses that can teach you relaxation techniques, and once you learn the techniques, you can call upon them in any situation. If you are involved in a relationship where both partners are hot-tempered, it might be a good idea for both of you to learn these techniques.
Some simple steps you can try:
- Breathe deeply, from your diaphragm; breathing from your chest won’t relax you. Picture your breath coming up from your “gut.”
- Slowly repeat a calm word or phrase such as “relax,” “take it easy.” Repeat it to yourself while breathing deeply.
- Use imagery; visualize a relaxing experience, from either your memory or your imagination.
- Non-strenuous, slow yoga-like exercises can relax your muscles and make you feel much calmer.
Practice these techniques daily. Learn to use them automatically when you’re in a tense situation.
Simply put, this means changing the way you think. Angry people tend to curse, swear, or speak in highly colorful terms that reflect their inner thoughts. When you’re angry, your thinking can get very exaggerated and overly dramatic. Try replacing these thoughts with more rational ones. For instance, instead of telling yourself, “oh, it’s awful, it’s terrible, everything’s ruined,” tell yourself, “it’s frustrating, and it’s understandable that I’m upset about it, but it’s not the end of the world and getting angry is not going to fix it anyhow.”
Be careful of words like “never” or “always” when talking about yourself or someone else. “This !&*%@ machine never works,” or “you’re always forgetting things” are not just inaccurate, they also serve to make you feel that your anger is justified and that there’s no way to solve the problem. They also alienate and humiliate people who might otherwise be willing to work with you on a solution.
Remind yourself that getting angry is not going to fix anything, that it won’t make you feel better (and may actually make you feel worse).
Logic defeats anger, because anger, even when it’s justified, can quickly become irrational. So use cold hard logic on yourself. Remind yourself that the world is “not out to get you,” you’re just experiencing some of the rough spots of daily life. Do this each time you feel anger getting the best of you, and it’ll help you get a more balanced perspective. Angry people tend to demand things: fairness, appreciation, agreement, willingness to do things their way. Everyone wants these things, and we are all hurt and disappointed when we don’t get them, but angry people demand them, and when their demands aren’t met, their disappointment becomes anger. As part of their cognitive restructuring, angry people need to become aware of their demanding nature and translate their expectations into desires. In other words, saying, “I would like” something is healthier than saying, “I demand” or “I must have” something. When you’re unable to get what you want, you will experience the normal reactions—frustration, disappointment, hurt—but not anger. Some angry people use this anger as a way to avoid feeling hurt, but that doesn’t mean the hurt goes away.
Sometimes, our anger and frustration are caused by very real and inescapable problems in our lives. Not all anger is misplaced, and often it’s a healthy, natural response to these difficulties. There is also a cultural belief that every problem has a solution, and it adds to our frustration to find out that this isn’t always the case. The best attitude to bring to such a situation, then, is not to focus on finding the solution, but rather on how you handle and face the problem.
Make a plan, and check your progress along the way. Resolve to give it your best, but also not to punish yourself if an answer doesn’t come right away. If you can approach it with your best intentions and efforts and make a serious attempt to face it head-on, you will be less likely to lose patience and fall into all-or-nothing thinking, even if the problem does not get solved right away.
Angry people tend to jump to—and act on—conclusions, and some of those conclusions can be very inaccurate. The first thing to do if you’re in a heated discussion is slow down and think through your responses. Don’t say the first thing that comes into your head, but slow down and think carefully about what you want to say. At the same time, listen carefully to what the other person is saying and take your time before answering.
Listen, too, to what is underlying the anger. For instance, you like a certain amount of freedom and personal space, and your “significant other” wants more connection and closeness. If he or she starts complaining about your activities, don’t retaliate by painting your partner as a jailer, a warden, or an albatross around your neck.
It’s natural to get defensive when you’re criticized, but don’t fight back. Instead, listen to what’s underlying the words: the message that this person might feel neglected and unloved. It may take a lot of patient questioning on your part, and it may require some breathing space, but don’t let your anger—or a partner’s—let a discussion spin out of control. Keeping your cool can keep the situation from becoming a disastrous one.
“Silly humor” can help defuse rage in a number of ways. For one thing, it can help you get a more balanced perspective. When you get angry and call someone a name or refer to them in some imaginative phrase, stop and picture what that word would literally look like. If you’re at work and you think of a coworker as a “dirtbag” or a “single-cell life form,” for example, picture a large bag full of dirt (or an amoeba) sitting at your colleague’s desk, talking on the phone, going to meetings. Do this whenever a name comes into your head about another person. If you can, draw a picture of what the actual thing might look like. This will take a lot of the edge off your fury; and humor can always be relied on to help unknot a tense situation.
The underlying message of highly angry people, is “things oughta go my way!” Angry people tend to feel that they are morally right, that any blocking or changing of their plans is an unbearable indignity and that they should NOT have to suffer this way. Maybe other people do, but not them!
When you feel that urge, he suggests, picture yourself as a god or goddess, a supreme ruler, who owns the streets and stores and office space, striding alone and having your way in all situations while others defer to you. The more detail you can get into your imaginary scenes, the more chances you have to realize that maybe you are being unreasonable; you’ll also realize how unimportant the things you’re angry about really are. There are two cautions in using humor. First, don’t try to just “laugh off” your problems; rather, use humor to help yourself face them more constructively. Second, don’t give in to harsh, sarcastic humor; that’s just another form of unhealthy anger expression.
What these techniques have in common is a refusal to take yourself too seriously. Anger is a serious emotion, but it’s often accompanied by ideas that, if examined, can make you laugh.
Changing Your Environment
Sometimes it’s our immediate surroundings that give us cause for irritation and fury. Problems and responsibilities can weigh on you and make you feel angry at the “trap” you seem to have fallen into and all the people and things that form that trap.
Give yourself a break. Make sure you have some “personal time” scheduled for times of the day that you know are particularly stressful. One example is the working mother who has a standing rule that when she comes home from work, for the first 15 minutes “nobody talks to Mom unless the house is on fire.” After this brief quiet time, she feels better prepared to handle demands from her kids without blowing up at them.
Some Other Tips for Easing Up on Yourself
Timing: If you and your spouse tend to fight when you discuss things at night—perhaps you’re tired, or distracted, or maybe it’s just habit—try changing the times when you talk about important matters so these talks don’t turn into arguments.
Avoidance: If your child’s chaotic room makes you furious every time you walk by it, shut the door. Don’t make yourself look at what infuriates you. Don’t say, “well, my child should clean up the room so I won’t have to be angry!” That’s not the point. The point is to keep yourself calm.
Finding alternatives: If your daily commute through traffic leaves you in a state of rage and frustration, give yourself a project—learn or map out a different route, one that’s less congested or more scenic. Or find another alternative, such as a bus or commuter train.
Do you need counselling
If you feel that your anger is really out of control, if it is having an impact on your relationships and on important parts of your life, you might consider counselling to learn how to handle it better. A Registered Social Worker can work with you in developing a range of techniques for changing your thinking and your behaviour.
When you talk to one of our therapists, tell her or him that you have problems with anger that you want to work on, and ask about his or her approach to anger management. Make sure this isn’t only a course of action designed to “put you in touch with your feelings and express them”—that may be precisely what your problem is. With counselling, we believe that a highly angry person can move closer to a middle range of anger in about 8 to 10 weeks, depending on the circumstances and the techniques used.
What About Assertiveness Training?
It’s true that angry people need to learn to become assertive (rather than aggressive), but most books and courses on developing assertiveness are aimed at people who don’t feel enough anger. These people are more passive and acquiescent than the average person; they tend to let others walk all over them. That isn’t something that most angry people do. Still, these books can contain some useful tactics to use in frustrating situations.
Remember, you can’t eliminate anger—and it wouldn’t be a good idea if you could. In spite of all your efforts, things will happen that will cause you anger; and sometimes it will be justifiable anger. Life will be filled with frustration, pain, loss, and the unpredictable actions of others. You can’t change that; but you can change the way you let such events affect you. Controlling your angry responses can keep them from making you even more unhappy in the long run.
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