Monthly Archives: December 2021

Understanding, Confronting and Resolving Anger: A Series 4. Where does anger come from?

My take on anger

I wrote the following in my book Release Your Stress and Reclaim Your Life. I think it applies here as well.

On one recent morning in the gym locker room, I encountered a raging debate about guns. Well, not really a debate. The participants all agreed with each other. I did not hear anything rational being spoken.

Instead, a diatribe about gun possession ensued with each participant trying to top the others with their outrage over a recent New York State gun control law meant to address violent crime. Everyone sounded angry, but I wondered if it was just blustering or a flexing of testosterone-fueled emotions.

Anger does not come directly from experiencing or learning about a particular event. The anger comes from a combination of thoughts about a situation and feelings of great displeasure. When someone shows extreme anger, you might be tempted to tell him or her not to have a stroke. That’s not bad advice since blood pressure and heart rate usually rise to match the degree of anger felt and expressed.

So why do you get angry? The closest I could come to a satisfactory answer is that anger is an emotional response to a feeling of being wronged, denied or offended. In other words, you are not treated the way you feel entitled to be treated. People, the weather or God may disappoint you or offend you. It does not matter whether you are entitled to what you want. You have a sense in your mind of what is right and how you should be treated. Let’s look at a few examples.

Someone punches you for no good reason, at least none which makes sense to you. You have boundaries and you expect them to be respected. Being bumped crosses that boundary, punching is worse. You tell yourself this is not right and respond emotionally with a feeling of anger. The amount of anger you feel depends on the degree of intrusion into your life as you see it.

If someone brushes against you, it is likely that you will feel a much milder emotion which you could call annoyance. If you are physically harmed, you are more likely to feel angry. This feeling could escalate to outrage. What if, after such an incident, you noticed that the person who bumped you was blind? Would you still be angry? We don’t always consider the circumstances of what our experiences.

You also become angry when you are denied something to which you feel entitled. Lack of respect is a good example. You feel entitled to respect and become angry when denied that respect through what you view as prejudice.

Think about being made to sit in the back of the bus, using a separate water fountain or being barred from accommodations at a hotel because your skin is not the right color. With some historical perspective, most people learn to see such rules, formed from prejudice, as hateful. Yet prejudice and insensitivity have not vanished from our society.

Racial slurs, denigration of sexual orientation or disparaging your national identity can send you into a tizzy. Sometimes it happens so often that you become numb and smolder inside rather than erupting in an angry outburst.

You can also become angry when people attack your religious, political or social values. Their attacks might or might not be directed personally toward you, but you could still consider them as a provocation and react as though a personal attack was intended.

Possible Sources of Unexplained Anger

Sometimes anger seems to appear mysteriously in you or in others who also occupy your world. Where did the anger come from? A clear answer doesn’t always appear evident. Its origin might not be obvious but may arise from the inner workings of your mind or someone else’s. Let’s look at a few possible sources of anger. Margarita Tartakovsky offers some possible explanations. Let’s consider them.

  • You have weak boundaries. Perhaps you have difficulty saying no. You may try to deliver whatever others want from you. Perhaps you don’t stop to think whether you have anything useful to contribute, whether this is a good use of your time, whether the matter is important to you or whether you have other priorities which take precedence. Such people are often considered martyrs. They wear themselves out doing what everyone else wants them to do and then complain that people take advantage of them. Such people could use some help learning the appropriate use of the word no. It does not mean that you need to be mean about it, but there are plenty of polite ways to refuse a request or set limits on how much you are willing to do.
  • Maybe you aren’t getting enough sleep or you’re drowning in to-do lists. You might not be taking care of yourself or allowing others to demand more of your time than is reasonable. In the movie Dirty Harry, the main character makes the observation, “A man’s got to know his limitations.” That goes for women too. In order to be able to do anything well, you need to take care of yourself with good restful sleep, good nutrition and a balance of restful and enjoyable activities. Just above, we talked about trying to do everything that others expect you to do. Your to-do list might demand more of you than is reasonable.
  • Maybe it’s depression. You could be depressed and not realize it. Your relatives might see your depression before you see it or before you are willing to admit that it might be a possibility. Depression is a mental, emotional and physical condition which saps your strength and sometimes even your will to live. Being irritable is a common result of depression, and you might find others’ even reasonable expectations of you as well as the demands of your daily life draining and leaving you in a chronic state of irritability.
  • Maybe it’s anxiety. Anxiety is a state of feeling worried and on edge. After a while you may tend to second guess everything you do, fearing that you are not good enough. You might also fear that others will not be satisfied with what you do and will not appreciate your efforts. Anxiety causes stress, which drains your body and emotions leaving you to drag yourself through life in a chronic state of irritability. This in turn easily leads to anger and the unfortunate ways you might react to it.
  • Maybe it stems from wanting to control what is outside of you. You might become irritated by watching people act in ways you don’t think they should. In this case, you put yourself in the position of judge for other people and set yourself up for frustration and anger when your expectations are not considered. If you expressed them out loud, you might realize that you are expecting too much of others since God did not die and leave you in charge.

Tartakovsky refers to Julie de Azevedo Hanks’ observation that sometimes people are not aware of their anger because they do not pay attention to it and instead make snide comments designed to hurt others in a subtle way. Becoming aware of your anger is the first step toward making sense of it and learning to manage it.

More Thoughts on the Cause of Anger

Tristan Loo offers another definition of anger. He sees it as “a strong emotion of displeasure caused by some type of grievance that is either real or perceived to be real by a person.” He notes that you can become just as angry about an imagined slight or offense as you might with real words or actions intended to harm you in some way. Loo points out that anger is not a bad thing at times, such as when you are under attack. Yet if you grab onto it mentally and won’t let it go, it becomes part of your personality, and becomes destructive to you and to those around you.

Here we begin to understand that it is not what someone else says or does which creates your anger. It is how you interpret what happened and what significance you give it in your own life. You might be unaware of this process within you and might blame someone else for making you angry. In reality, you make yourself angry by what you tell yourself about incidents you see as responsible for your anger. We will look at this process in more depth a little later.

Internal Sources of Anger

As we have seen, the things we become angry about might begin with what happens within us or outside us. Let’s consider Loo’s lists of provocations to anger. First is a series of internal provocations:

  • Emotional reasoning–Most people think of reason as an intellectual process, using logic to seek understanding and reach rational conclusions. Rather than seeking an understanding based on facts, emotional reasoning is the process of viewing events, statements and actions of others from the sole point of view of how they affect you and how you feel about them. This often leads to misunderstanding of situations by not taking into account the other person’s motives and any circumstances outside your immediate awareness.
  • Low frustration tolerance–You might be in a state of chronic anxiety, which keeps you tense and makes it more likely that you will react with annoyance to anything that does not go your way.
  • Unreasonable expectations–You might have strong feelings about how others should act toward you or speak to you. This involves ignoring circumstances in which others see themselves, seeing only your own viewpoint. All you care about is whether others live up to your expectations. You don’t consider circumstances which might influence a reasonable person to act in a way differing from your expectations.
  • People rating–This involves attaching negative labels to others, perhaps because of some slight or difference of views. When you view others through this lens, you are more likely to interpret anything they say or do in a negative light.

External Sources of Anger

Countless external events and circumstances can incline toward anger. Loo groups these possibilities into four categories:

  • The person makes personal attacks against you. No one likes to be attacked. We have looked at attacks which place you in danger. You will understandably react strongly while finding ways to avoid the attack or to combat it. Verbal or written attacks can also produce anger. Your reputation is at stake and someone is undermining it.
  • The person attacks your ideas. Someone disagreeing with you might be unpleasant but is to be expected at times in the course of daily life. Putting down your ideas as wrong or ridiculous is sure to offer you an opportunity to react with anger.
  • The person threatens your needs. This usually results from someone else being angry with you. Threatening to interfere with your survival or well-being is even more likely to invite your anger especially if you see the other person as capable of following through on the threat.
  • You get frustrated. Your ability to manage frustration in any particular circumstance is weakened by any number of factors. Loo lists four contributors:
  1. stress and anxiety
  2. pain
  3. drugs and alcohol
  4. recent irritations

All of these can lower your ability to deal successfully with the sources of frustrations. The more of these that apply to you, the harder the task will be.

In the next post, we will consider types of anger and targets of anger.

Understanding, Confronting and Resolving Anger: A Series 3. Anger in Perspective

I don’t think that anger is always a bad thing. It can be used in unhealthy ways or in healthy ways. Leon Seltzer suggests that two unhealthy ways of handling anger are “avoiding anger and conflict at all costs,” and “escalating into endless cycles of fighting, complaining and blaming.” Neither approach is constructive. In the first, you deny your own anger and let it build up inside as you fail to acknowledge it. In the second, you let your anger fly out of control to the point where few people will be able to tolerate your company for very long.

Seltzer suggests several steps toward handling more appropriately:

  • Speak up when an issue is important. It doesn’t help to hide your feelings when an issue is important to you. This does not mean that you should explode at others. It does mean that it is appropriate to state your position calmly. Before you do, make sure you understand the other person’s position the best you can.
  • Strike when the iron is cold. If you are too fired up, you might not react rationally and instead just blurt out your feelings. If you do, you can expect the other person to get angry too. Then where are you? It might be better to simmer down, think about why you were upset and discuss the issue with each other at a later time.
  • Ask yourself the hard questions. These are the questions which explain your anger based on your beliefs, your goals, what will allow your thoughts to be heard and how you can proceed calmly. Obviously, you can’t answer any of these questions in the heat of anger. You need to step back and consider your inner workings. This process is sometimes referred to as mindfulness, which we will discuss down the road.
  • Broaden your focus. What other issues are weighing on you at the moment? If you are about to explode in anger, it’s a safe bet that there might be more on your mind than the immediate situation. What else might be troubling you right now in addition to the main problem?
  • Identify and change your part in the dance. If you are engaged in a conflict or about to enter into one, what the other person plans to do is outside your control. But you can control your part in any conflict, including withdrawing from it when it serves no purpose other than both of you venting your spleen.
  • Move slowly and start small. Ease your way into a conversation which promises to become heated. Starting a conversation with an attack will not win you any points.

Seltzer recommends Harriet Lerner’s book, The Dance of Anger for further exploration of the issues related to conflict in relationships. He sums up her suggestions in one statement, “It all starts with the realization that beneath your vulnerability-protecting anger (as well as your partner’s) are such emotions as fear, sadness, helplessness and humiliation.”

He points out that although this is a good beginning, understanding what’s behind your anger is just a start. What you do about these findings, how you handle your feelings, and how you act are more important in the long run. This is not an easy process and will take quite a bit of patience with yourself as well as with whom you are in conflict. You can start by taking responsibility for any of your behavior which might have upset the other person. Here is a little story which shows what I mean.

A Story              

The day after the 2016 presidential election, I ventured out the door after a period of being stunned. I ran into a man I knew on a limited basis. As usual, he asked how I was doing that day. I told him I was not doing very well. His very upbeat demeanor suggested that we had voted for different candidates.

We tried having a conversation about politics and in particular the election, both voicing our reasons for voting the way we did. I don’t think the conversation resolved anything or led either of us to alter his views. I left his company resolving to be cordial in the future but avoiding political conversation, which only served to upset both of us.

This approach worked for several weeks. One morning when we met, he surprised me by apologizing for being overly strong in his statements in our last conversation. I tried to recall whether I had said anything which might have offended him and apologized just in case. He assured me that I had not said anything to offend him and again apologized for his tone in our last conversation.

We were able to agree that the campaign and election were upsetting for many people including both of us. We also agreed on being upset and worried about the great divide between the two halves of our fellow countrymen as a result of the election. We shared our fears about what this conflict would mean for the future of our country.

As I left our conversation, I felt the best I had since the election. Neither of us changed our minds and did not try to change each other’s. We were able to share our mutual fears and hopes for the future. I realized that I did not need to see an enemy in everyone with whom I disagree.

Most of us want the best for our country and for each other. We just have different ideas about how to get there. At one time our leaders with different positions were able to sit down to find compromises with which we could all live. This does not seem to be the case right now however.

Yet, if we who elected these leaders talk with each other in terms of our mutual interests, we might be able to set a good example for them. None of us can singlehandedly change the tensions, disagreements and hostilities evident among our country’s citizens or elected representatives. Yet we can begin by building bridges between ourselves and those with whom we come into contact on a daily basis. That is at least a start.

Anger and Aggression

We have been looking at where anger might lead us. As we just saw, anger is only a feeling and by itself causes no one any serious problems unless you let it fester without finding any good way to deal with it.

The psychologist Howard Kassinove shares a definition of anger which is a little different from the one we considered earlier when we were considering anger as just a feeling. “Anger is a negative feeling state that is typically associated with hostile thoughts, physiological arousal and maladaptive behaviors.” Here anger is still acknowledged as a feeling, but one which often evolves beyond feelings to negative thoughts and problematic behavior.

As we saw, anger is not good or bad in itself but a feeling that, in some situations, can be useful in protecting ourselves. Alerting yourself is also useful in the face of real danger, preparing you for “fight or flight.” When you become preoccupied with feelings of anger and the changes in your body and mind linger beyond a useful time limit, anger can become destructive.

Your heart rate and blood pressure can rise and become problematic if anger becomes a chronic feeling. In addition, your immune system is compromised, your digestion is affected, your nervous system becomes fatigued, your body heals more slowly and you are at higher risk of ulcers, heart difficulty and possibly increased risk of developing cancer.

We talked about ways to avoid going overboard in your reaction. If you don’t have the skills to deal with your anger constructively, you might be tend to become stuck with thoughts of attacking the person who provoked or possibly plan revenge. We looked at the possibility of interpreting others actions as demeaning, disrespecting or attacking your sense of yourself.  Continuing to dwell on such thoughts can easily lead you to lashing out in response to the person you feel attacked you.

You might react by screaming at the other person, demeaning him or her in an attempt to defend yourself. You might also feel provoked to physical aggression in an effort to protect yourself and your reputation. However, these responses are not likely to result in others learning to respect you. At the extreme, you may well find yourself facing criminal charges depending on the level of your angry response to what you see as an attack.

Kassinove refers to research suggesting that most aggressive incidents are preceded by angry feelings. Yet relatively few incidents end up with physically aggressive behavior. Most people learn ways to stop short of becoming physically aggressive when experience anger.

Kassinove agrees with Seltzer that anger is not always a bad thing. Sometimes it is an “appropriate response to injustice” and plays an important role in social justice movements designed to defend groups such as the disabled, as well as those suffering from racial, gender and other forms of discrimination.

He holds that anger can play a part in letting others know we have an important issue on the table. Yet in my experience, people are more likely to step back or confront you rather than listen to what you have to say especially if your anger turns quickly to hostility. Anger can contribute to your statements but needs to be couched in terms which are acceptable to others if you want to be taken seriously and expect to resolve anything.

He cites the positive feelings which accompany being able to express your feelings. True progress toward a mutually satisfying agreement occurs when both sides are able to move past the expression of anger. Then they can seek to understand the other person’s feelings of being hurt or belittled, which we discussed earlier.

One question which lingers is why some people are more prone to become angry and express themselves in aggressive ways. Some people seem more sensitive to annoyance and react sooner and more sharply than others. Some people learn aggressive ways of reacting to anger as children by watching how parents, older siblings and other relatives react to their anger. It is possible that others might be born that way.

Children see aggressive responses to anger by other children in school, in their neighborhood or in adults with whom they interact. There are also some indications that violent video games, movies and music might contribute to aggressive responses to anger although there are no definitive studies of this issue, at least not yet.

Controlling Aggression

As we have seen, anger is a normal emotion and can be helpful in some situations, such as those related to survival and self-protection. We have also seen that resorting to aggression is often a strong temptation when you feel angry. Aggression might be appropriate to ensure your safety but in most situations is not necessary and just inflames the situation.

Steven Laurent presents a series of tips on reducing anger and therefore limiting the possibility of reacting to anger with unneeded aggression. I will list a few of his suggestions and my comments about them:

  • Understand that anger is a problem. Maybe it would be more accurate to say that anger is sometimes a problem. We have seen that anger is a normal human emotion. As long as it is limited to a brief emotional response, does not take over your life and does not remain for a long time, it is nothing to worry about. If your anger quickly escalates into rage, it may well be a problem for you. If you continue to brood about what angers you, it can affect your body as we have seen and also create lack of emotional balance in your life.
  • Monitor your anger. It is useful to be mindful of many things in your life including your emotions. The more aware you are, the better chance you have of changing patterns which make life more difficult for you and for those around you. You might have a feeling that your anger is a problem, or you might hear this from others who are affected by your anger. Laurent suggests keeping a log of upsetting events, the anger they cause and how you react. It sounds a bit tedious but might be a good way to track how well you manage your anger if you think it might be a problem. It is easier to see patterns when you write them down in an anger journal. Writing also gives you a chance to think about what you are doing rather than reacting automatically.
  • Feel the anger and don’t do it anyway. Laurent suggests here that you be aware of your anger but don’t rush into a response. He prefers that you think about how you feel and why that feeling arose. Waiting to react until after you have had a chance to consider the situation also helps you see what alternatives you have available. Writing down what you think in your anger journal would also help keep you stay aware of the process of your thinking.
  • Look after yourself. Several things can make it more difficult for you to manage your anger constructively. One is your health. When you feel run down physically, you will have less ability to think clearly about how to react. The same is true if you are in a bad emotional state or under the influence of alcohol or other drugs.
  • Understand the ultimate source of your anger: “shoulding.” Here you tell yourself how things should be, especially other people and how they interact with you. Most people have fairly clear expectations of how they would like others to treat them, which is fine. When you set yourself up as the judge of how people should react, you are more prone to react with anger and see it as your job to correct or even punish them. Along with that goes the suggestion to be less judgmental of others. We will see more about “shoulding” in a latersection.
  • You most likely have a good idea of how you would like to react in any given situation, at least one you have faced before. Yet surprises wait along the way to throw you off balance. If someone asked you why you reacted a certain way, you could probably tell them why. Instead of judging people who act in a different way from you, consider that they might view things differently from you. You would find it easier to be less judgmental if you took the time to understand why others feel and act the way they do.
  • Get your facts straight. One of the main contributors to anger at others is faulty assumptions you make about them. You might assume that others have hostile intentions toward you, are aware of what your needs and desires are, or know what is likely to arouse your anger. In reality, none of these assumptions may be true.

The better you are able to use suggestions such as these, the less likely you are to let your anger get the best of you. In addition, your chances of moving toward aggressive behavior are also lessened.

Anger and culture

Most of the studies done on anger, including Art Markham’s, have focused on Americans and Europeans. Markham observes that people who most often express their anger with little restraint also show a high degree of stress. A study in 2015 determined that the Japanese show a relationship between stress and degree of expressed anger despite the many differences between cultures. One Japanese pattern is the cultural expectation that people of lower status will not openly express their anger in the presence of higher status individuals. One finding of his study was that higher status Japanese people who expressed their anger had fewer indications of poor health. In that sense, it appears healthier to express anger rather than hold it in.

The rationality of anger

Gary Warmerdam agrees that anger and fear are natural reactions to believing you are in the presence of physical or emotional threat to you. He sees fear as more closely related to the flight response and anger related to emotional energy designed to fight against a threat.

He also reminds us that threats can be real or imagined. There might be a real danger facing you, or you might just think there is. Real threats usually arise and subside quickly. Imagined threats are created by ruminating on the possibility of harm, sometimes long after a real threat is gone. Yet the sense of fear and anger can be the same whether you are responding to a real or imagined threat.

The degree of fear and anger that results from either type of threat is tied to the activity of your imagination and the beliefs which you hold about being harmed. Anger is a natural response to threat in the animal world as well as in the human one. In this sense, anger is a rational response to threat. Yet anger often arises before you have a chance to do any thinking about the situation you face.

Once you have a chance to process what is happening, you can use your thought processes to decide whether there is a need to respond with fear and anger. Still the beliefs, assumptions and interpretations of events you have learned from past experience have a considerable effect on how you react to a perceived threat, whether real or imagined.

Emotional pain can arise whether or not there is any real physical threat facing you. This pain arises through your imagination, and you can find yourself consumed with anger even when everything around you is calm. You can even become angry about emotional pain you fear will take place in the future.

Warmerdam also points out that you can misinterpret events and arrive at feelings of hurt and anger as a result. This most often happens when you see a person act in a certain way and assume that his or her motive is to harm you in some way. Don Miguel Ruiz, in his book, The Four Agreements, warns us of the dangers of making assumptions that lead to troubling emotions we could otherwise avoid.

So far we have had a chance to examine some definitions of anger, what it consists of and where it might take us. Next, let’s take a closer look at where anger comes from.


Understanding, Confronting and Resolving Anger: A Series 2. The Nature of Anger

Anger is an acid that can do more harm to the vessel

in which it is stored

than to anything on which it is poured.

~ Mark Twain~

Anger surrounds us these days. I started with that observation in the last post. It has not changed since you were here last. It shows up on the nightly news, on talk shows and the newspapers as well as on the Internet. It shows up in interactions on the street even to the extent of extreme violence. Unplanned events in our daily lives invite us to summon and express our anger. It is as if we have become an angry culture. How do we make sense of anger? How do we find alternative ways of dealing with our own and others’ misfortunes besides giving vent to our anger in destructive ways? That is the challenge I pose for you and invite you to explore with me in this series.

Let’s start with the nature of anger. The psychologist Charles Spielberger sees it as “an emotional state that varies in intensity from mild irritation to intense fury and rage.” We see immediately that anger is an emotion. It is something we feel. Where it comes from is a more complicated issue which we will address a little later.

Like other emotions, anger exists at a variety of intensities. In response to irritation, you might roll your eyes and let it go. At the other extreme, in response to a strong irritant, you might explode in a screaming outburst or a physical attack on another person.

Yet anger in itself is still only a feeling. Just because you feel angry does not mean you will express it in ways that others can even notice. Your body will know you are angry and respond with its own physical reactions as we shall see. But that does not mean others will necessarily know you are angry. It is possible to be quite angry without making it obvious to others. However, the stronger your angry feeling, the harder it will be for you to hide it from others.

You might not want to show your anger. It could embarrass you. You might be afraid it will hurt someone else’s feelings or cause emotional or physical damage. You could also fear someone else’s response to your anger. Some people learn to control their anger while, for others. Hiding their anger as well other feelings becomes quite a challenge.

Your body’s reaction to anger

Let’s look at what happens in your body when you become angry. Without anything to upset the balance, also know as homeostasis, most people exist in what psychologists call a state of equilibrium, a normal state of being at peace where nothing is happening in your life to disturb you. When something unusual or unexpected takes place, your body goes on alert to handle the new situation.

Your inner balance can be upset by a thought you have, such as a memory or some change in your body like a headache or sudden pain. Something might also happen outside your body such as when another person attacks you verbally or physically, or perhaps when an accident happens for which no one is at fault.

You might not even understand with is happening at first, and you aren’t aware whether it is something inside or outside the confines of your skin. Your body’s first task is to react to what has happened. In order to do this, your senses go on high alert, your heart rate and blood pressure increase and your body releases hormones to help you respond to a possible crisis. Your body often reacts before you have a chance to assess the situation in your mind.

You might discover that what happened is no big deal and not worth responding to. Then your body returns to equilibrium. Or you might discover that there is a real threat. Your body and mind will then switch immediately into high gear to either fight off the attack or avoid being harmed.

The Process of Becoming Angry

Anger is most likely not your first response to an attack. Your first instinct will be to protect yourself by escaping or fighting the intruder suddenly appearing in your space. This might take place instinctively as it does with other animals. As you begin to face what is happening to you, your first reaction after self protection is usually one of fear, especially before you fully understand what is happening to you.

Once you start to understand the situation, your mind tries to decide where the danger lies. Fear and anger both result in physical responses followed by emotions. Fear directs you toward the possibility of being harmed in some way and you start reacting to the threat before you fully understand it. Anger often follows fear, especially once you identify what or who is threatening you and whether the threat is real or a figment of your imagination.

So far we have considered immediate threats that come to your attention. This is the simple case. You identify a threat and react to it by avoiding or repelling it. Once the immediate sense of threat is resolved, your body returns to its normal state of equilibrium.

Some threats are not so simple. The threat may not be an immediate one. You might experience something reminding you of a past situation in which you became angry or otherwise off balance. What you feel now may have nothing to do with direct harm to you in the present. Yet the memory might bring back the feelings of fear you had at an earlier time. Suddenly these feelings are back, uninvited.

Another possibility is that you might have experienced a traumatic event or series of them in the past. Memories of these experiences can be triggered by only marginally related current events which in turn trigger the troublesome emotions associated with those earlier memories.  If this happens often enough, you might find yourself in a constant state of worry or anger, which bubbles to the surface at the slightest provocation.

As we saw before, your anger can result from something happening in your immediate environment which troubles you. Anger can also result from your imagination, how you interpret others’ actions. You may or may not be accurate in your understanding of what happened during past incidents in your life as threatening life. Regardless of the origin of your anger, there are various ways to handle it.

Expressing your anger (or not)

I just mentioned ways in which your body might respond to threats. I also mentioned the close relationship between feelings of fear and anger. Some people don’t want to show their anger and take great pains to conceal it. This might be because they are embarrassed to show their anger or perhaps they were punished as children for displaying it. Others are quick to show their anger and don’t care much who sees it or takes the brunt of it.

As part of a response to threats, anger is a perfectly natural response. I am talking now about the feeling of anger. What about how you react to your anger? One possibility is to express it. You might express your anger by lashing out at others. With this approach, others will certainly know you are angry but might have no clue as to why you are angry or what they might have done to provoke your outburst.

You can also express your anger in a calmer way. You can talk calmly about what annoys you, whether it is triggered by someone else’s actions or by your own thoughts. With this approach you stand a much better chance of coming to an understanding of your anger as well as of having others understand why you are upset. Perhaps understanding why you are upset may allow them to help you deal constructively with your anger.

Another option is to suppress your anger. There may be times when this is a healthy approach. Expressing your anger is not appropriate in every situation. You might be able to control your anger and discuss it later when the opportunity arises when your feelings can be better understood and addressed by you and others. However, constantly suppressing your anger and never acknowledging or dealing with it creates a state of chronic stress which has negative effects on your body as well as on your emotional state.

Constantly suppressing your anger also can lead you to have outbursts in response to all the anger you have built up inside over time which may go well beyond the current situation when you explode with pent-up rage. You might also be inclined to express your anger subtly through what psychologists call passive-aggressive behavior. This means finding sneaky ways to get back at people for what you think they have done to you. Unfortunately such an approach keeps you and the other person from fully understanding why you became upset and what might prevent this from happening again.

With practice, you can learn to delay expressing your anger, think about what bothers you and what could be different next time the situation arises. Then, when you talk about what made you angry, you will be more likely to have a productive conversation rather than a shouting match. This is also a healthier approach for your physical and mental health. We will look at possibilities for managing anger in later posts.

You learn many of your responses to anger during childhood. Leon Seltzer wrote about this in his article, “Anger: When Adults Act Like Children–and Why.” Seltzer relates how young children react to not getting what they want, whether it is a toy or a positive emotional response from their parents. A child’s impulse is “either to dissolve into tears, and possibly retreat to his or her room, or stay engaged by puffing up with self-righteous anger.” No matter how young children react, they do not yet have the capacity to stop and think about their anger before reacting to it. Without being taught alternatives, children and teens, as well as adults continue to react in a way that might have seemed to work for them in the past or at least got them beyond a difficult situation.

Seltzer also points out that children’s angry outbursts are usually a response to feeling hurt physically or emotionally. Telling children that their behavior is bad or unacceptable does nothing to address their feelings of being hurt. Of course, children have no understanding of this process and might become more upset when their inner feelings are ignored even though they don’t understand what is happening. A better approach might be to help children understand their feelings of being hurt and to help them find healthier ways of handling it.

Adults are often similarly perplexed by their own outbursts. They may fail to see that their anger is related to feeling hurt for one reason or another. Without such understanding, there is little of a constructive nature an adult can do about feelings of being hurt or of being angry for that matter.

By adulthood, most people learn ways to express their feelings other than by having tantrums. Of course, not all people learn how to restrain themselves and as a consequence might tend to be avoided by others whenever possible when they are angry.

As an adult, you might be tempted to react as a child from time to time, and maybe you will lose control of your emotions on occasion. Seltzer points out that sometimes adults, like children, are inclined to strike back as a way of defending themselves. It might get others to back off, but it does nothing toward reaching an understanding about more appropriate ways for both of you to act in the future.

In the process of striking out verbally or physically, you might assume that the other person is deliberately trying to hurt you, and you see your outburst as a way to protect yourself. Yet you might be entirely wrong. The other person might have had no idea that you would feel attacked by what was said or done or may have had no intention of harming you. Another possibility is that the other person is acting in response to his or her inner feelings of being hurt or under attack rather than to what you did or said.

Even if you do explode, you will have time later to examine your own feelings, thoughts and conclusions. Once you have taken a look at your own motivations, you can spend some time trying to understand why others said what they said or did what they did. The best way to resolve such a situation is to discuss it calmly with the other person when you both settle down. Then you may be more ready to talk calmly about your own part in the outburst and listen to the other person’s side. You might find that the two of you are not so different after all and your words just got in the way.

The same is true of children, yet they have had less experience trying to understand their own inner workings, let alone what is going on in an adult or another child. Yet with the help of an understanding adult, children can come to make better sense of their own emotions as well as those of others. Many schools have already adopted such an approach by helping children listen to each other as well as approaching their feelings in a more constructive way.


In the next post we will find some perspective for anger.


Understanding, Confronting and Resolving Anger: A Series 1. Charting Our Course

Anger seems to surround us these days. Living in our country these days can mean risking your life just by stepping out in public. We hear daily reports of adults and even teens attacking and killing others, sometimes strangers and sometimes those well known to them. They seem to blame others for their lives not being the way they would like them to be. On the surface there is no simple explanation for this pattern and the attacks seem almost random. Anger consumes the lives of these destructive people. They are angry about having their lives disrupted and about the world not being the way they think it should be.

Have you heard or read of any relaxed, happy murderers? I didn’t think so. On the surface, anger as an explanation seems obvious. Yet truly understanding anger and knowing what to do about it are complex issues. In this series of posts, we will look at the nature of anger, sources of anger, types of anger, how you respond to anger, and alternatives to anger. We will also look at narcissistic rage and constructive anger on opposite poles of acceptability. You may wonder how it is that I have anything useful to say on the topic. First I will share a little of my family history. I will also share what I have been doing professionally as it relates to anger.

About family anger

I don’t see myself as an angry person nor does anyone else see me that way as far as I know. Most families have their own tone with regard to anger. My extended family showed two distinctly different tones. I grew up with both as models on which to base life.

My father’s family

My father’s family was quick to anger and liked to argue about everything. A normal conversation could escalate into a shouting match in a matter of seconds. I especially remember holiday gatherings. My grandfather, father, and uncles were embroiled in one argument or another in the living room. The kitchen was quiet for a while. Then emerged the sound of screams from the kitchen which turned out to be an argument about whether the turkey was done.

Despite the arguments, my father’s family was not uncaring. They were all generous with their money and time. They were available in a crisis and ready to jump in whenever an emergency arose. More often than not, my aunts were very nice to me but could easily be incited to angry outbursts toward each other. Most of my uncles were quick to anger toward their children and their nephews and nieces. My father’s oldest brother was a priest and was always the voice of reason in the midst of family arguments. He was also adept at diffusing arguments with his humor. His mother, my grandmother, was dour and in my opinion preoccupied with the trials of her diabetes. I don’t recall her being angry but remember her rigidity in enforcing her Germanic family rules.


My mother’s family

My mother’s family was the direct opposite of my father’s. I lived with my mother and grandparents for the first few years of my life while my father was away in the navy during World War II. I never remember hearing a harsh word being spoken among any of them. Humor and joy were the focus of all their interactions as they recounted stories of relatives from the past.

At a party after my grandfather’s funeral, the topic turned to whether he ever showed any anger. Someone recalled an occasion when two of my uncles as young boys chased each other through the house after my grandfather told them to stop. He got up to chase them and then realized he could never catch them and sat back down with a chuckle.

Life with my parents

I grew up in the midst of angry as well as harmonious ways to live as a family. My father brought with him to my immediate family his tendency toward anger, learned from his family. In contrast, my mother was the calmest and most reasonable and caring person I have ever known. Fortunately, my three brothers, my sister and I all followed the example of my mother and her family. I have always been grateful for this.

My father was not always angry. If he was, I don’t think my mother would have married him. I recall the early days of our family and don’t remember him as being an angry person when I was young. When I was eight, we moved to the suburbs. Around that time, I remember him becoming increasingly impatient and angry. I never did find out why and no one else in my family offered an explanation which made sense to me.

He stayed that way for most of his life. I don’t know what made my father’s family angry or what provoked my father to become an angrier person in mid-life after a relatively peaceful period. I have talked with relatives and friends of our family who did not see him as angry. Maybe he saved it for home. Shortly before he died, he developed Alzheimer’s disease and returned to the gentler person he must have once been. I was happy to have time with his quieter and more peaceful self in his final days and opportunity to cherish these last memories I have of him.

My psychology practice

I graduated from the University of Illinois with a Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology. During my career, I worked at a college counseling center, a school for delinquent boys, two mental health centers and in private practice. I was trained in Client Centered Therapy, approaching clients with empathy, respect and genuineness aimed at helping them understand their thoughts and feelings and work toward more positive interactions with others. I continued using this approach in general but added marriage counseling, cognitive behavioral approaches and hypnosis, mostly for work with sexually abused clients. I learned that Rational Emotive Therapy (RET), developed by Albert Ellis, Ph.D., was the most straightforward and effective approach to helping people deal with their anger. We will take a closer look at this method in a later post.

My goal for this series

I hope to gain further insight into anger, where it comes from and what it does to people as I walk with you through this book. I also hope to have a better personal insight into anger as we proceed. You are welcome to join me in this journey. Perhaps you will also gain a better understanding of how anger has affected your life and what you can do about it. Maybe you will also gain a better understanding of how you can help build a more peaceful and productive community and nation. Think about what you wish to gain.