There’s nothing wrong with anger. In fact, it’s a natural emotion that can be healthy when it alerts us that something is “off,” and needs to be tended to. To deny your emotions can only cause more distress – both physically and mentally. How you express your anger, however, is another story. You can’t head-butt every person who makes you mad. So what are appropriate ways to simultaneously honor yourself and deal with your anger?
First off, you have to acknowledge it if you have anger issues. Many angry people have a tendency to blame others. “If only that driver hadn’t cut me off, I wouldn’t have punched him in the nose… if only he hadn’t called me a jerk . . .” Don’t rationalize your actions in this way. Instead of seeing yourself as a victim, own it! It’s not what happens to you, but what you do with it that counts. Once you take responsibility, you can move on and understand your anger and yourself on a deeper level.
There are two psychological needs that fuel anger, according to Robert Allan, Ph.D., author of Getting Control of Your Anger. “Beyond the basic needs for food, clothing, and shelter, the needs most frequently embedded in anger-provoking situations can be broadly grouped into two categories: 1) respect or a desire to be understood, and 2) territory – either physical or psychological.” Anger is triggered when we feel that we are not being respected, or when our turf is being encroached upon. People also use anger – probably unconsciously – to cover up and deal with sadness and hurt.
Grasping this can help clarify precisely which needs of yours must be fulfilled. Allan offers some questions to ask yourself to better home in on your needs:
In what way do I feel violated right now?
Is it a lack of respect or a violation of territory that’s making me angry?
How would I change the situation if I could?
What is my need at this moment?
What would have to happen to make me feel that my needs for respect or territory are once more intact?
What is my goal – not just for the moment, but in future interactions with this person or future occurrences of this situation?
Do I feel hurt right now? Am I using anger to disguise my true feelings?
You must figure out what your hook is. Do you lose it when you’re sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic, or while facing delays on public transportation? Or when you find out that your HMO won’t cover your condition? Injustices such as these will trigger anger as well.
Then there’s incompetence: Aye, aye, that’s a biggie! For instance, you wait 30 minutes to get routed to the computer tech-support person, and then after all of that the technician “accidentally” hangs up on you instead of placing you on hold. Or you order a decaf latte and the barista brews you a caffeinated drink, but you only realize this later when you’re climbing up the walls and unable to sleep. Oh, the list can go on and on.
“We have a tendency to bite, or get angry, whenever we encounter a circumstance that we perceive as unfair, or a situation that puts us at the mercy of someone who is inept,” explains Allan. We can express our anger in a more subtle, mature way once we know what hooks (or triggers) set us off.
The idea is to ask yourself the questions before you get hooked, or as soon as possible thereafter.
Have I encountered this particular hook before?
When, with whom, and under what conditions?
If this feels like a familiar hook, what happened when I encountered it in the past? Did I get really angry? Did any damaging or enduring consequences occur?
The key is to respond – not react. “There is no passion that so shakes the clarity of our judgment as anger” – so the saying goes. Ideally, you should allow your anger to wash over you like a passing storm. Unfortunately, many people blow their tops instead.
“It’s far better to think things through before blasting someone – to be certain that you understand the circumstances not only from your perspective, but from the other person’s as well. Directly expressed anger is the emotion that generally makes a bad situation worse,” adds Allan.
So, breathe deep and manage your anger, rather than directly expressing it while your judgment is clouded. Take a bath, go for a walk, see a movie – in short, do whatever it takes to remove yourself from the anger-provoking scenario, advises Allan. Here’s another suggestion- if the circumstances allow, try writing a letter in the heat of the moment, and then tearing it up. “The technique is designed to help you collect your thoughts, sharpen your focus, and hopefully express your rage in a harmless way.” And, by the way, emails are a no-no. Before you know it, you’ll press “send,” only to regret it later.
In his book Anger, the Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh suggests regarding your anger as your baby. Treat your anger with the sensitivity and gentleness you would an infant. Easier said than done, right?
“Thinking of your anger as a baby can be an extremely helpful thought when you are about to blast someone, thereby throwing the baby out with the bathwater,” suggests Allan. If you don’t, the other person will likely respond to your anger, rather than the issue that’s at hand. After all, anger is contagious – just like a virus.
Think of the project of expressing your anger in an appropriate manner as the hard work it is. “You are trying to adopt a new way of responding, and retool the habits you’ve developed over a lifetime,” says Allan. So go easy on yourself. Undoubtedly, there will be times when you will lose it. Take a step back, and have a laugh. Then try again!
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