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Understanding, Confronting and Resolving Anger 9. Alternatives to Anger
Meditation can help us embrace our worries,
our fear, our anger; and that is very healing.
We let our own natural capacity of healing do the work.
~Thich Nhat Hanh~
We have been looking closely at ways to handle anger on a variety of levels and in a variety of situations. It’s not always easy. It might be more accurate to say that it is almost never easy. Nobody likes dealing with anger, even if it appears justified by the circumstances in which it arises. Is it be possible to avoid anger altogether rather than ignoring it? Yes it is. I discovered two approaches to avoiding anger, one in the Western tradition as explained by the psychologist Albert Ellis and the other in the Eastern tradition as presented in the writing of the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh. Let’s take a look at both understandings and approaches.
Beliefs which fuel and cool anger
The psychologist Jeffrey Bernstein talks about both types of belief. He discusses them in the context of avoiding anger with your child, but they apply to adult relationships as well:
- “I’m unimportant if I don’t get my way.” You might not have ever said this out loud. Yet you might have thought it to yourself. When you see it in writing does it make any sense? Here is an alternative belief. “I’m disappointed but I still have value as a person even if I don’t get my way.” Does this seem more realistic and likely to keep your emotions under control? I thought so.
- “I must be stupid for letting them deceive me.” There is an old saying that you can fool all of the people some of the time. On occasion you will doubtless find yourself on the receiving end of a lie and believe it for a time until you discover the truth. The alternative belief is: “Swallowing his dishonesty does not make me stupid.” You are entitled to make mistakes from time to time. Just stay alert to the proof or lack thereof for what you are told. Ask for the evidence regarding any questionable opinion.
- “He shows me no respect at all; he’s a loser, anyway.” This is an extreme position to take about someone who does not agree with you and it will do nothing to help you gain respect for your opinions. Consider this alternative belief: “He is likely struggling and fighting his own battles. It helps to remember not to take him so personally.” This kinder approach helps you keep your differences in perspective. If you had that person’s set of experiences instead of your own, how would you feel?
- “I must have her respect and be taken seriously.” You will shortly learn about “musturbation” and how it leads you to see yourself as the big cheese and others who disagree with you as lesser beings. Consider this alternate belief: “I will be disappointed in not having her respect but I can still respect and feel good about myself.” Remember that your worth and self respect do not depend on whether others agree with you or on how they feel about you.
- “I must have her respect and be taken seriously.” Do you have any control over how others react to you? Probably not. Remember that you have no absolute right to be held in high regard by anyone else. Instead, consider this belief: “I will be disappointed in not having her respect but I can still respect and feel good about myself.” That seems more realistic to me. How about you?
Hopefully you can see the differences between these alternate sets of beliefs. Are you wondering how to get from the first set to the second? If so, you are in luck. In the next section you will see how to do it.
Rational Emotive Therapy (RET)
This is the approach the psychologist Albert Ellis developed to use in working with people, their thoughts, and emotions. He has published many articles and books over the years explaining how the process works.
Ellis starts by presenting myths about dealing with anger:
- Actively expressing your anger reduces it. This myth is based on the premise that holding anger in is harmful. We talked earlier about the effect anger has on your body, mind, emotions and relationships. Yet the answer is not just letting your anger fly where it will. Here we will explore how not to get angry in the first place.
- Take time out when you feel angry. This might be a good temporary approach while you are working on ways to manage anger but not a good permanent solution. Avoiding the problem just lets it fester and creates problems on a number of levels which we discussed earlier.
- Anger pushes you to get what you want. It might push you in that direction but it does not usually provide an effective way of getting what you want. Even if you do, you might well alienate others in the process and cause them to avoid you and not discuss with you what irritates them. You might feel you have won but might have succeeded only in isolating yourself.
- Insight into your past decreases your anger. Maybe you will come to understand your anger better but insight does not change your behavior. Instead you need to find a better way to handle your thoughts and emotions.
- Outside events make you angry. It is not what happens that makes you angry. It is what you tell yourself about what happened, what conclusions you draw, and how you react that result in your anger.
Myths aside, how do your thoughts and emotions create or dissipate anger? Ellis wrote extensively about his Rational Emotive Therapy treatment which originally consisted of a three step process which he called the ABC approach. These three steps describe the process and the fourth suggests what to do about it:
- Activating event or experience–In other words something happens which triggers a response in you. In the case of anger, this could be something someone says or does which becomes an occasion for you to react angrily.
- Beliefs–This is what you tell yourself about what happened. Your beliefs might be constructive and rational. On the other had, your beliefs might be destructive and irrational. We talked before about where your beliefs come from. They might arise from family traditions and practices. You might interpret how others react to circumstances in which they find themselves. You might also come to your own conclusions about a new situation in which you have never been before. Your beliefs could be in keeping with the seriousness of the event. You could also under-react or grossly over-react to the situation.
- Consequences–What you believe or tell yourself leads to how you feel about any given event. For example, you might tell yourself that someone should treat you a certain way and that it is terrible when that person does not act the way you think he or she should. In response you might become highly incensed and find yourself in a rage when others do not act the way you think they should.
- Disputing–This step was not part of Ellis’s original formulation of his theory but was added later as a key to resolving irrational beliefs and subsequent behavior. It refers to the process of evaluating how rational your beliefs are and changing irrational to rational beliefs.
The consequences of your beliefs depend on how rational they are. Nobody is perfect. If you do something you wish you had not done, it might be unfortunate, disappointing or regretful. You might also have the same appropriate emotional reactions to things others do that do not set well with you.
If you start “awfulizing” and overreacting to your own or others’ behavior, you will likely end up feeling that what you or they did was awful or terrible. As a result you will find yourself highly agitated, perhaps to the extent of rage which is not a productive reaction in any situation. Other destructive emotional states which might result are depression, panic, self pity and low frustration tolerance.
So how do you keep yourself from getting carried away with anger? Ellis suggests a number of approaches to consider:
- Progressive muscle relaxation–This is a technique developed by Edmund Jacobson in the 1920’s. It has since been incorporated into yoga approaches and other ways of calming your body. The technique consists of isolating groups of muscles throughout your body one at a time, tightening the muscles for a few seconds and then relaxing them and noticing the difference between tension and relaxation.
- Rational coping statements–Practice telling yourself less dramatic and upsetting statements about the experiences you allow to upset you. Reinterpret how you see these events.
- Disputing irrational beliefs–When you start telling yourself things which don’t make sense, challenge your thinking. Step back to see how you might be overreacting.
- Highlighting the cost in your life of irrational beliefs–Take a look at how such beliefs unnecessarily upset you, the inner turmoil they cause you and the effect they have on your relationships.
- Using paradoxical intent to reduce irrational beliefs to absurdity–This is an alternative developed by the psychiatrist Victor Frankel. With this approach you practice imagining your belief in the extreme in order to see how ridiculous it is.
- Using humor to laugh at your anger–We looked at this earlier. Once you can see that you are being ridiculous, it is a short step to seeing how funny you look when you are highly upset and viewing something as a disaster when it is merely unfortunate.
Handling anger in close relationships
Ellis suggests some ways of dealing with anger coming from those who are close to you. His suggestions include:
- Acknowledge your anger to yourself. Admit that the anger you feel is your anger and that it takes place within you. As I said before, your anger is about you, not someone else.
- Assume full responsibility for your anger. Again, your feelings are your own and not caused by anyone else. No one can make you feel anything.
- Accept yourself with your anger. You are not a bad person because you are angry. Even if you are angry, you have a choice of how you deal with it.
- Stop making yourself anxious or depressed and stop blaming yourself for being a fallible human being. Despite your best intentions, you are not perfect and might occasionally give in to anger and where it takes you. Learn to forgive yourself when necessary. Life is a series of learning steps.
- Look for the assumptions behind your rage. These usually have to do with what you think you deserve even when you have no inherent right to be treated the way you might like.
- Distinguish wishes from musts. There are ways you might wish to have things in your life but that does not mean they must be that way for you to survive. You can always find a way to cope with whatever is going on around you even though it might be a challenge at times.
- Dispute and debate musts. Ellis used the graphic word “musturbation” to describe how people get caught up in what they MUST have and how they and others MUST act. It’s not up to you to decide how the world must or should be. You have your preferences but they are not written into a law for everyone else to follow.
It would be great if we got along well with everybody all the time. I suppose this might be possible if everyone had the same thoughts, feelings, beliefs and patterns of behavior. But we don’t. Anyway, that might make for a rather boring world. It would be good to have ready ways to handle our differences with others. Sarah Cunningham has some suggestions you might consider to ease the process suggested by Ellis:
- Talk out the situation as soon as is sensible. Letting a conflict sit unresolved for too long gives both sides time to bolster arguments for their side and to build resentment. Without dialogue, neither side gains any understanding of each other or possible paths toward resolution. Yet trying to talk right away before either has had any time to think might also be a recipe for disaster. The key is to talk when both sides have settled down enough to listen respectfully and start working toward a solution to the standoff.
- Keep it light. Before jumping into the heart of the disagreement, it would be helpful to say that you don’t like feeling in conflict. If you went overboard in stating your case or expressing your anger, it would be helpful to apologize.
- Empathize with all feelings. You don’t need to agree with someone else’s opinions and feelings in order to acknowledge them. Listening to their opinions should help others realize that you are taking them seriously. Then you are in a better position to have a discussion rather than an argument.
- Make a point to listen well. This means not replying immediately to what the other person says with your own point of view. A good listener hears the other person out and tries to clarify anything he or she does not understand. Once the other person feels heard, you can proceed with your position and a mutually courteous discussion.
- Speak clearly and keep it brief. When you have heard and understood what the other person has to say, offer your opinion succinctly. Rather than badgering the other person to accept your point of view, give a brief synopsis of your position and invite a response. Now you have a dialogue.
- Try to accept different points of view. You may have good reasons for holding your point of view based on your life experience. Again, understand that not everyone has had the same set of experiences you have. Their lives might have led them to different ideas, emotions and viewpoints. Listening can help you accept the differences between their experiences and yours.
These approaches are likely to give you the best chance of reaching a compromise. They might also help both sides to accept and respect each other. Although you differ, you are both making your best effort to make sense of life as you see it. You can agree to disagree and look for areas of agreement on which to base your future interactions.
An Eastern tradition approach to anger
So far we have concentrated on approaches to understanding, dealing with, and avoiding anger. I have touched on practices such as yoga, and more specifically mindful breathing. This last one originally came from the Eastern tradition. We will now look a little closer at this tradition and what it has to offer you regarding anger.
Thich Nhat Hanh is a Buddhist monk originally from Vietnam but currently living in France. He has written extensively on Buddhist practices and how they affect your relationship with yourself, with each other and with Earth. Among his many writings is his book, Anger: Wisdom for Cooling the Flames.
Tools for building anger
Hanh starts by listing a number of contributions to your anger which you might not have considered:
- Your food may contain anger. Unless you take steps to carefully select your food, you are probably eating foods from the assembly line where vegetables, meat and eggs are seen as commodities to be produced in the most efficient manner. Little if any thought is given to the welfare of the plants or animals which provide the food. All you see are the cans, jars and packages in the grocery store with no knowledge of how these foods got to the grocery shelf. More of our food now comes from factory farms than the traditional family farms which once nourished us. Imagine what would it like to be one of the plants or animals which feed you?
- What we read or see on TV can be toxic. Also conversations. It is easy to get into the habit of passively consuming whatever comes over the airwaves or through your cable, Internet connection or cell phone. Interactions with others can also be toxic. You do have a choice. You can limit yourself to information which nourishes your spirit rather than poisoning it. You also have a choice of whether or not to remain present in toxic conversations which also detract from your state of wellbeing.
- Overeating creates difficulty for the body. I mentioned emotional suffering earlier, but poor eating habits create turmoil in your body which creates emotional upset and may make you more prone to becoming angry.
- Alcohol creates suffering, causing disease to the body and death on the road. Maybe you don’t take drinking to the point where it contributes to illness or anyone’s death from drunk driving. But if you are not careful, you can use it as a way to avoid dealing with the reality around you and the emotions swirling within you. We talked earlier about the dangers of stifling your emotions. Alcohol and other drugs can be chemical means of avoiding thoughts and emotions which may well need your attention.
- Revenge escalates suffering for both people. You might think getting revenge for feeling wronged would satisfy you and help you let go of your anger. It doesn’t. Not only do you create more pain for another person, you also harm yourself by letting your anger lead you to actions you would not ordinarily consider part of your makeup.
Cooling the flames
Next, Hanh presents a number of ways to cool down your anger so it does not consume you or cause harm to others. He refers to these as mindful activities. He does not view them as being exclusively associated with any religious tradition. They work regardless of what you believe or don’t believe in a religious sense. Here they are:
- On a physical level you can breathe mindfully. Be aware of your breath entering and leaving your body. Feel and hear it.
- Mindful walking gets you in motion. You can concentrate on the feeling of your feet on your path, sounds of nature if you are in the woods. You can resonate with the rhythm of the waves at the seashore. You can pay attention to the air you breathe as you walk.
- Look at yourself in the mirror. See how your unpleasant emotions tighten your muscles and contort your face, making you look ugly.
- Use these activities to find calm inside you. Keep at it until you can think calmly. Then you can address distressing thoughts more rationally.
- Take care of your anger. At first this sounded strange to me. As I thought and read about it, I realized that what Hanh means is to take care of you even when you are tempted to become angry. He refers to the Buddha’s teaching that anger represents feeling hurt. Sound familiar? We talked about this earlier. Therefore you must take care of the part of you that feels hurt.
You can care for your anger by telling a person who is the butt of your anger that you are angry, are suffering, and doing your best. Then you can ask for their help. If another person is angry with you, you can acknowledge that you see his or her hurt and try to understand it.
If one of you is not ready to talk about these sensitive matters right away, make an appointment to discuss them. While you are waiting for the appointment time, consider your part in the conflict and acknowledge it when you finally talk. “Understanding leads to relief from suffering–others’ difficulties and their deepest aspirations in addition to your own.”
Understanding, Confronting and Resolving Anger Part 8. Your Response to Anger
People who are prone to anxiety are nearly always people-pleasers who fear conflict and negative feelings like anger. When you feel upset, you sweep your problems under the rug because you don’t want to upset anyone. You do this so quickly and automatically that you’re not even aware you’re doing it.
David D. Burns, author of Feeling Good~
Anger as a psychological problem
We have seen that anger is not a simple concept but one with a complex history and having implications for your own wellbeing as well as for your relationships on a personal, social and global level. Wiley Anger Management defines some terms it would be helpful to understand as we proceed.
One diagnosis we have not discussed is intermittent explosive disorder included in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual or DSM5 (5th edition). This is a pattern of exploding emotionally on occasion but not continually. Everyone gets upset at times but not everyone explodes, causing a major scene.
Another diagnosis is post-traumatic stress disorder. This is also a diagnosis from the DSM5 which involves sometimes severe emotional reaction to triggers bringing back memories of past traumatic events. Not only do memories arise but the feelings associated with the trauma return as if it were being re-experienced in the present. Along with the memories and emotions a number of untoward actions may arise as well. Among them are explosive and aggressive outbursts, hostility and making judgmental statements about others.
A third is antisocial personality disorder. Its symptoms include looking angry, lack of cooperation, hostility in group efforts, being disrespectful to authorities and using abusive language to intimidate people. Many of these may be related to feeling under threat as we discussed earlier. Yet people with these disorders look more angry than hurt and often give little clue as to what lies beneath the surface.
Many of the DSM5 diagnoses involve anger, but we are not doing a diagnostic exam or psychotherapy here. The article we are discussing is geared toward therapists, but the goals of therapy can also be adapted for personal consideration of ways to manage your anger. Let’s look at some of the treatment goals and how you might adapt them toward work on your own anger:
- Identify what triggers your anger whether it involves situations in which you find yourself or inner thoughts which bring your anger to the fore. This is what we talked about in Chapter 2. If you want to control your anger, it is a good start to figure out what triggers it and learn to make an appropriate connection to what happened before.
- Find out whether any medical conditions might be contributing to your anger such as neurological problems like seizures, tumors or hormone irregularities. Unless you are a physician, this is a hard one to figure out on your own. You can research physical conditions related to anger and then discuss it with your doctor. If research is not your thing, you can start by talking with your doctor about the possibilities.
- Consider evaluation for the appropriateness and usefulness of psychiatric medications. Again this is not an approach to try on your own. Your doctor will work with you to find appropriate medication when indicated or refer you to a specialist.
- Learn appropriate ways to think about your anger and how to manage it through experimentation, self examination and sharing what you learn with people you trust to help you with the process. Your family and friends might know you as well as you know yourself, perhaps even better. They can be helpful with their observations of what makes life difficult for you and also help you see patterns of your behavior of which you might not be aware.
- Keep track of anger triggers, how they make you feel and how you react to them. You can do this in a journal as I mentioned earlier. Once you know what triggers your anger, write down the feelings which emerge and the ways you react to your anger being summoned.
- Talk with others who might help you identify patterns of anger, how they affect your inner life and your relationships with others. Those close to you can be helpful in your search for ways you can change your response to anger. After all they most likely bear the brunt of your anger and are likely to want to help you become an easier person to live with.
- Learn ways to calm your emotions through approaches such as focused breathing, meditation, and yoga. There are many videos, books and classes on how to use these calming techniques. We will discuss these more in Chapter 7.
- Learn to replace inappropriate ways of thinking about your anger and react to it with healthier approaches. You can experiment with viewing a situation and your consequent anger in a different light. Those close to you or a therapist can also help you expand your view of a situation beyond what you see with your own eyes and mind.
- Learn to stop the process of upsetting thoughts. You first need to listen to your thoughts leading to anger. Then you need to see whether they make any sense. You can simply tell yourself not to attend to them or find something more constructive to think about. More about this in the next chapter.
- Learn assertive and healthy ways of expressing your anger and ways to solve problems rather than allowing them to continue upsetting you. Stopping your anger by not expressing it or by blasting someone will not do you or anyone else much good. There are alternatives as we shall soon see.
- Look in the psychological mirror. Learn to recognize what you look and sound like to others. Again, what you show might not be immediately obvious to you. Listen to what others say about how they see you.
These are healthier approaches to try in approaching your anger than you might have tried in the past. Let’s look more closely at how you react to others’ anger. A.M. Tadas suggests that the best way to deal with other people’s anger is to work on your own anger. Tadas decided to try this approach for himself when he realized that he was allowing others to upset him and in that way controlling him.
With this realization, he began to examine the root causes of his anger and then took responsibility for it. He found that this put him in a better position to manage his reaction to others’ anger. Tadas offers some deceptively simple techniques to help you stay in control of your own emotions while dealing with others’ anger:
- Breathe deeply. As your muscles contract when you experience difficult emotions, your breathing also becomes strained. Maybe you feel you have lost your breath for a moment. You can reverse this by concentrating on deep breathing, feeling, and listening to your breath go out of you and return with fresh air. We will look at this closer in the next chapter under the topic of meditation.
- You don’t need to stay paralyzed after an upsetting incident. You can put the anger process on hold by taking time to yourself before reacting at all. This way you will save yourself from actions you will later regret.
- Explore your state of mind. In a difficult situation, identify your feelings by name and consider your feelings without passing judgment on them or on yourself. Consider what caused you to be angry, where you feel anger in your body, and, if you lost control of your anger, what prompted this.
- Consider what prompts the behavior of the people who occasioned your anger? What did they do and what is behind their actions. Are they struggling with their own emotions? Are they troubled about something you said or did? What might be going on in their lives which caused their outburst? Maybe their anger has nothing to do with you and you have no practical reason to respond to it other than with kindness.
- Engage your sense of humor. It’s easy to respond to another’s anger by retaliating with your own anger. It’s hard to imagine how this response might be helpful. If you think back to situations when you did react this way, how often did the interaction end well? The most likely result is escalation of the conflict between you and another person. Seeing humor in this situation is not easy and takes practice. Sharing what you see as funny does not always go over well either. If you can just smile inside, it might be worth learning the skill.
- Give yourself credit. If any of these approaches helps you de-escalate an angry and tense situation, congratulate yourself on your power to follow through. Keep refining your skills.
The techniques suggested by Tadas are good initial ways of dealing with anger directly but none of them help you heal from the hurt you experience when caught in the tangle of angry emotions. He suggests some deeper techniques to help you recover from feeling hurt by another’s anger. These are approaches for you to try changing your reaction in the face of anger and not ways to change the other person. Let’s look at them next:
- Face your demons. List times you experienced a considerable disruption in your life. Think of times when your health, relationships or possibly professional standing took a hit because of anger. How would your life have been different then without that disruption? How would it be different now? Be honest with yourself. Resolve to develop new habits so these events do not keep happening and disrupting your life.
- Identify situations that create your stress. You have your own particular triggers for stress which can easily lead you to a feeling of anger. You can make plans to avoid or manage these situations in a way which does not inevitably lead you to anger.
- Make an inventory of your weaknesses. Pay attention to what propels your anger to spin out of control. Maybe it’s your tendency to judge other people, insisting that others do things the way you think they should, or taking what others say or do personally. They might have their own motivations which have nothing to do with you. If you start to see a pattern which gets you into trouble, make a point of trying to changing it.
- Do whatever it takes to soften your heart. Many people find that they feel chronically depressed or resentful toward others for some reason. Anger is more likely to boil over with these mental and emotional states in the background. One way to work your way out from under these dark clouds is to do some nice things for yourself and for others. Kindness toward others helps you redirect your thoughts and feelings in a more peaceful and positive direction.
- Practice giving people the benefit of the doubt. Ruiz suggests in one of his four agreements with yourself to always do you best. Another way to decrease your anger toward others is to assume that they are doing their best as well. Their best might look better or worse than you would like and might also vary from day to day. If you follow your own efforts to do your best, you will notice that your best varies with your mood, what is going on around you, and your physical condition. Be accepting of your own varying success as well as that of others.
- Learn to quiet your mind. Many spiritual traditions including Christianity suggest reducing the noise in your head and giving your mind a chance to be at peace for a while. Constant TV, radio, cell phones ringing or other noise can fill you with distraction and prevent you from communing with nature and listening to your own inner dialogue. Earlier, I mentioned concentrating on your breathing. This is a good start. You can also pay attention to feelings in various parts of your body or perhaps to the sounds of nature such as a breeze, the trickle of a brook, or passing clouds. You don’t have to do anything about these things but just enjoy and commune with them.
- Contemplate impermanence. Reflect on the delicate balance of your life as well as of all other life. You won’t be here on earth forever. Although it might not feel like it, your days are numbered and one day you won’t be here any longer. Remember that all things pass. The joy you find in life will pass but so will your trials and tribulations. Keeping your life in perspective makes it easier to deal with passing upsets like anger.
- Practice gratitude. This is another way to keep things in perspective. I start every day writing down five things for which I am grateful that day before writing the rest of my journal. Focusing on the good things makes the difficult things easier to bear. Others who have encouraged this practice include Oprah Winfrey and Henry David Thoreau.
- Watch what you eat. Everybody deals with food a little differently. Allergies to food can put you in a foul mood when you eat them. Some foods can be harder to digest than others. If you think about what you eat and how you feel later, you will have a better understanding of how your body works and how your eating affects your mind and emotions. Drugs, legal and illegal, can upset your nervous system and keep your emotions off kilter. Pay attention to how they affect you if you use them.
- Establish your why. If you are reading this because you want to make some positive changes in your life, think about what prompted you to consider making these changes. You might want to write down what you would like to change in your life and the reasons why. Then post them were you can see them on a regular basis.
- Start a diary to track your progress. If you wanted to lose weight but never wrote down your starting weight or kept track of your progress over time, how would you know how well you are doing with your goal? In my diary, I keep track of my gratitudes but also my challenges, questions about life and little accomplishments. When I look back over my diary from past years, I can see the progress I have made with my life goals as well as places where I need to improve. It might work for you as well.
Anger at Bay
The American Psychological Association suggests some ways to limit the effect of anger on you. These are mostly ways of changing how you approach situations which might otherwise lead to anger. These are ways you can head off becoming angry.
- Relaxation–I mentioned paying attention to your breathing as one way of clearing your mind of concentration on emotions such as anger. Shallow breathing from your chest won’t do the trick. The way to do deep breathing is called diaphragmatic breathing. Your diaphragm separates your heart and lungs from the rest of your organs. Think of yourself as breathing with your belly. You can watch your belly rise and fall as you practice this approach.
A related way to relax is to repeat a word or syllable while breathing deeply. Oriental traditions use a syllable such as “om” repeated continuously as you breathe and clear your mind. Imagining yourself in a relaxing setting or practicing gentle yoga are other variations.
- Cognitive restructuring–This is a fancy psychological term which means changing the pattern of your thinking. Think of how you sound when you are angry. You use dramatic, forceful words and often include swear words which might not be part of your ordinary vocabulary. What you think might be worse than what you actually say. In the next chapter we will look at “awfulizing” or telling yourself that things are much worse than they really are. Work on getting your emotions, thoughts and speech to a more realistic level. Events which produced your anger might be unfortunate but are not always terrible. The psychologist Albert Ellis has quite a bit to say about this. We will hear more of his ideas later.
- Problem solving–Anger represents a feeling of being stuck in a bad situation. Sometimes there is no easy solution to a vexing problem. Sometimes there is a solution but you are too upset to see it clearly. While you might not have an immediate solution at hand, you can start working on an approach to resolving the situation. You can learn how to cope with it even if you can’t make it go away. Finding a constructive path is often the best way out of feeling lost in your anger.
- Better Communication–If you have examined your own anger and how it affects you, it is likely that you have discovered how hard it is to resolve anything while you stay focused on your anger. If your anger centers on a conflict with someone, try to slow down and listen to what he or she has to say. It may be that you have a misunderstanding rather than a real difference. It may also be that the other person’s reason for being upset has nothing to do with you and there is no reason for you to become upset in return. Listening carefully will help you choose appropriate responses.
- Using humor–We talked a little about this earlier. What if you imagine the person who is angry at you as a raging bull and what he or she would look like in his or her daily life as a bull pawing the ground? Can you imagine yourself as literally tied up in knots and then trying to go about the rest of your day carrying the ropes which bind you? If you can bring yourself to share the humor you see in a tense situation with the other person, all the better.
- Changing your environment–I once worked with a fellow psychologist who on occasion wrote in his appointment book, “John alone.” When I asked him about this, he told me that he needs his own help to keep his life in perspective as much as his clients did. Often, changing the circumstances which lead you to anger can help you reframe the situation into one which does not invoke your anger and is more manageable.
What to do when you are the target of anger
So far in this chapter we have been looking at your anger directed at yourself or at someone else. In addition, you will probably find occasion to face someone else’s anger toward you. Now what do you do? Gary Vassar suggests some possibilities. He concentrates on the choices available to you:
- Do you have an exit strategy? You might not know the other person well. The first decision to make is how to get away from this situation should it become necessary. You don’t want to wait until you are under threat of being harmed. This is not something to be taken lightly or to be dismissed easily. Anger can quickly escalate. The circumstances change as another’s anger increases. Keep in mind that it might become necessary to escape at any moment.
- Are you in imminent danger? You should be able to tell this by the intensity of the anger you face. If the other person is becoming out of control, you have several options. Remove yourself from the situation if possible before you get hurt. If escaping is not possible you have several other choices. Do whatever you can to prevent the situation from becoming more intense. You might even agree with the other person’s point of view at least on the surface until you have a chance to escape. It’s hard for people to argue with you when you agree with them.
- Use statements that de-escalate the tension. If you are not in danger, look for things in the other person’s line of thinking with which you might agree and turn the conversation to those. Apologize for anything you think might have been interpreted by the other person as provoking their anger. Try to let the other person know that you understand how he or she feels and try to turn the conversation toward what you can do together to resolve the issue rather than continuing under a cloud of angry emotions.
Understanding someone else’s anger
We have been talking about things you can do to settle down someone else’s anger. Tadas suggests that understanding what is behind another’s anger might help resolve it and head you both in a more positive direction.
If you are both angry, it might be hard to make much progress. Understanding your own anger as we discussed previously should be helpful in settling down your emotions. Then you might consider what is going on inside another’s mind. Tadas sees angry people as full of resentment and discontent which they tend to take out on others. He sees such people as “driven by a sense of shame and inferiority.” He also sees them as possibly overwhelmed by the demands of their life and becoming lost in the associated feelings.
You might find it helpful to put yourself in the other person’s position to the extent that it is possible. If you listen carefully you might begin to hear what is behind the other person’s anger. If not, perhaps you can give the other person the benefit of the doubt and consider the possibility that he or she is overwhelmed by things to which you are not privy. We will look more closely at understanding what lies beneath anger in the next chapter.
More ways to keep cool under the stress of anger
Nina Sidell suggests more strategies to keep you from becoming embroiled in others’ turmoil:
- Do what you can to stay calm, centered, and at peace. Just because another person is raging does not mean you have respond in kind. This might not always be easy but it is not impossible. Even if it is hard at first, you will improve with practice.
- Utilize healthy outlets when you feel stressed. The more your stress is under control, the easier it will be to control your emotions in the face of someone who is out of control with anger. Healthy eating, exercise and periods of relaxation can all help you prepare to deal with stress and minimize its effect on you as we have seen.
- Surround yourself with healthy people who can manage their emotions and impulses. Related to this is avoiding the company of people who are likely to blow their tops frequently. If you are with a group of more even tempered friends, you will not need to face an angry person alone.
- Set limits or walk away as soon as someone unloads on you inappropriately. You don’t have to stand there and take it. You might not be able to get in a word of reason. In this case why stay there and put up with abuse?
- Get support from your loved ones, close friends, and helping professionals if necessary. They can be more detached and unemotional in talking with you about how to react in an angry situation that does not directly affect them. You never know who might have a great idea for you.
- Sit in the position of observer. Try pretending that you are just watching what happens between you and the angry person rather than being in the middle of it. That might help you see what you both contribute to the problem. This would probably work better if you do it after rather than during an argument.
Do what keeps you balanced. Make sure you meet your own needs and do not find yourself in a position of vulnerability. Taking care of yourself is the best way to prepare for any challenge. Anger can be very challenging to you even over minor issues. Make sure you are always functioning at your best level possible.
Understanding, Confronting and Resolving Anger 7- Ignoring Anger
Let us not look back in anger nor forward in fear,
but around in awareness.
So far we have considered the nature of anger, where it comes from, types of anger and targets of anger and narcissistic anger. Now it is time to address what to do about your anger no matter where it comes from or where you direct it. Here we will address the possibility of ignoring your anger rather than expressing it.
Getting to know your temper
Before we get to that, let’s look at the nature of your anger. Psychologist Andrea Brandt presents seven things you need to learn about your temper. She points out that your childhood wounds guide you toward how you deal with anger. When you become angry, these wounds may return to your awareness and you again react to them while also juggling new causes of anger. It is also possible that you might not remember trauma from long in the past until you have had some help uncovering it.
Brandt also notes that anger triggers the release of stress hormones that tend to make you react on the basis of your past traumatic experiences rather than in any rational manner.
Here are the things you should know:
- Suppressed anger is like a volcano. When you try to stuff down your anger, it does not disappear. It just accumulates inside you and acts somewhat like a balloon you overfill. Sooner or later it will pop. Your anger will eventually erupt to the detriment of both you and others around you, whether or not it has anything to do with how you got angry in the first place.
- Your anger is trying to talk to you. Troublesome emotions are a signal to you that there is something that needs your attention. Something in your life is not the way it should be or at least not the way you think it should be. You will feel unsettled and off balance. If you try to ignore it, you will continue to keep feeling out of sorts. If you make a habit of ignoring troublesome feelings such as anger, you will soon find yourself in constant turmoil.
- Your body tells you when you are angry. Even though you push your anger from your awareness, it still lives somewhere inside you as a form of stress. Stress hormones affect your concentration, your respiration, blood pressure and digestion as well as your immune system. As you might imagine, being off balance physically takes a toll on your mental and emotional well-being.
- Reactions can be controlled. You have alternatives available other than ignoring feelings such as anger. This does not mean that you can necessarily prevent yourself from feeling anger. It does mean that you can find healthy ways to address your anger. We will consider these a little later.
- Your childhood is still making you angry. Events that trigger your anger now might be similar to what angered you as a child. Childhood emotions can be rekindled by your current experiences. In that sense, what happens now can be of more consequence to your emotions and thinking than it would be if you had not had those childhood experiences.
- Reactivity can quietly destroy relationships. Reactivity means jumping to how you feel and acting on that basis alone rather than taking time to understand what is going on in the person who you see as making you angry. Angering you might not be this person’s intention at all. Skipping over the other person’s perceptions and motivations will only compound the difficulties you have with this person.
- Mindfulness is the opposite of reactivity. Reactivity is a thoughtless reaction with no considered justification. Mindfulness is the process of paying attention to what is going on in the moment both from the other’s perspective as well as from your own. We will consider mindfulness further a little later.
Let’s look a little closer at what your feelings have to tell you. Emotions are not as simple as you might think. It seems that something happens in your life and then you have feelings about it. But plenty of things happen around you every day. Many of them you ignore. You hardly notice them, and they have little meaning in your life. You don’t have any feelings at all about them.
Things that happen in your life may also result in positive or negative emotions. You might see someone wearing a dress that reminds you of one your mother wore when you were a child. Are your emotions positive or negative? It depends on what kind of relationship you had with your mother. The better relationship you had with her, the more positive your emotional reaction is likely to be. If you had a particularly bad relationship with her, your emotions might be negative.
If you had unresolved conflict with your mother, you might well find yourself feeling angry when you see a familiar dress. Perhaps you were able to find a way to resolve your conflict. In this case, your emotions might well be neutral or even positive.
Rita Kaushal writes about messages that your feelings have for you. She points out that there are no negative emotions. Nor are there emotions that are always positive although most people think of them as good or bad. She reminds us that anger helps us protect our personal boundaries and fear tells us that something is wrong. Although our response to these emotions can be destructive, the emotions themselves are not good or bad.
She agrees with Andrea Brandt that not finding a good way to deal with powerful emotions can rebound on you and complicate your life. Her conclusion is that all emotions have a purpose. Accepting that is the first step in dealing with your emotions.
Once you accept that emotions are okay to feel, the next step is to experience a given feeling and learn what it is about. You can learn to understand your feelings and the messages they carry and then move on to consider the best way to react to them. Many emotions can have nuances which might at first be difficult to understand. Be patient with yourself and your emotions.
Kaushal refers to Karla McLaren’s series of questions which anger poses. They are as follows:
- What must be protected? Remember when we talked about anger stemming from fear? Your anger may be a result of fear that something might happen to you or that something might be taken from you. What might it be that you fear losing and need to protect?
- What must be restored? Perhaps you have already lost something. Are you seeking to have it returned or replaced? It might be your self-respect or something more tangible.
- Have you contributed to your resentment? How did the situation which triggered your anger arise? Did you do something to incite or worsen what happened? Maybe it’s not all your fault, but you might share some of the blame if you are honest with yourself.
- How can enforcing limits make you feel protected? Sometimes you do things or give away things you wish you hadn’t. It’s easier to set your limits before you find yourself in a situation which adds to your resentment.
Asking these questions of yourself and answering them will help keep your anger from building and decrease the chances of an explosion when you feel overwhelmed. Answering these questions is a good beginning, but there remains the task of deciding how to react to your feelings, anger in this case.
Not knowing what to do about your anger leaves you tempted to try ignoring it. You might also fear the consequences of expressing your anger for yourself or for someone else. Maybe you are concerned that you might be hurt by expressing your anger or that you might hurt someone else.
Kaushal reports that she has been experimenting with finding safe ways to express her anger such as beating on a pillow. I have heard of others having a tree they use as an object for their rage. She uses this as a way to let off steam and uses her pent up anger in a physical way which does not hurt anyone. The tree can take it. She sees physical release as an important way to defuse feelings such as anger.
In contrast to this approach, some psychologists see physical expression of anger, even when it is not harmful to anyone, as a way of practicing violence and not something we should necessarily indulge in since it reinforces violent expression of anger. How would you like to be Kaushal’s tree?
Kaushal goes on to discuss Lerner’s opinion that venting anger often does not lead to its reduction. She also cautions her readers against feeling that agreement between you and others is imperative. This can lead you into the trap of feeling that you must bring others to agree with your opinions. Sometimes this just will not happen, and you leave yourself open to continuing frustration. You can also agree to disagree with others and let it go.
Ignoring another’s anger
Heated arguments do not often lead to anyone changing his or her mind. They usually end with both sides withdrawing, possibly even more convinced that he or she is right and the other person is wrong. On the other hand, not responding at all is also likely to increase the other person’s rage. Just look at what is happening around our country right now, So, how can you get the other person to tone down their anger?
Nadia Persun has some ideas. She quotes humorist Kin Hubbard as saying, “Nobody ever forgets where he buried a hatchet.” Unresolved conflicts might be buried, but seldom are they forgotten. Here are her suggestions for defusing another person’s anger:
- Disengage and don’t take it personally. I have written before about not taking things personally, as suggested in the second of the Four Agreements presented by Don Miguel Ruiz in his book with that title. Engagement and taking things personally are closely connected. If you take someone’s anger as a personal attack against you, it is only a short step to engaging them in a war of words or worse as you look for ways to protect yourself from assault. If you can look at another’s anger as his or her problem, there is no need to protect yourself or mount an offensive. We talked earlier about your anger being a product of your fear. The same goes for others. They may be motivated by their own fears.
- Avoid ego battles and rides to the past. Protecting your ego can lead you into significant conflict. Again, someone else’s anger is not about you. It is about them. Unless you allow yourself to be drawn into their emotional drama, it is not your issue even if it seems to be. Arguing about who did what, when, where and why only drags out the process. Also, remember that another person’s anger has connections to his or her past. You most likely had no part in the past misadventures which boil to the surface for him or her. Justifying yourself will not make things better for either of you.
- Choose calm and sanity. It’s hard not to engage with an angry person itching for a fight. Yet it doesn’t help to react to the surface anger you see before you. Remember that this is not your fight even though it might be tempting and provocative. It’s hard to fight by yourself. The other person might rage on for a while but eventually will see that you are not in a fighting mood and will realize that you would rather listen than fight. Then maybe you can talk about why he or she is angry and what to do about it.
- Give out an imaginary cupcake. This might seem like a silly suggestion. Remember that anger is an emotional response to loss or harm. This can be a very primitive feeling relating back to early childhood losses. Imagine being a four year old at a party where cupcakes are served. All the children including you get one. Then someone grabs yours and gobbles it down. How do you feel? That’s what I’m talking about. Someone might be trying to give you a message that he or she feels hurt or betrayed. Matching the other’s anger will not make him or her feel any better. What if you could control your own emotions and instead offer calmness as well as a kind and understanding response? It takes practice, but it is possible.
I think by now that you might realize that trying to ignore anger does not work very well. As we have seen, once you get to understand your own and another’s anger, trying to ignore either one is not very productive. It can have a negative effect on your health, physically and emotionally. It can encourage others to become more entrenched in their anger. It can worsen your relationships with others and prevent you from making any progress toward resolving your anger or that of others. If ignoring it doesn’t work, what does? That’s what’s next.
Understanding, Confronting and Resolving Anger: A Series 6. Narcissistic Rage
Photo by Andre Tan
Anger and intolerance are the enemies of correct understanding.
Being an activist is about getting things done.
It’s not about standing around shaking your fist in anger.
Now we will look at narcissistic rage, perhaps the most difficult type of anger you are likely encounter. It is no fun to deal with but it is best to be prepared,
What is narcissistic anger?
Mark Goulston, M.D. in his Psychology Today article, refers to narcissistic anger as “a chilling rage.” From the point of view of a narcissist, the world “looks like it should approve, adore, agree with and obey you. Anything less than that feels like an assault, leading a narcissist to feel justified in raging back at you.” You might imagine a person sitting on a throne expecting everyone else to bow to the ruler’s wishes and to anticipate his or her expectations.
Goulston lists characteristics of narcissists. These include:
- Control freaks–They try to exercise tight control over everything that happens around them and freak out when things do not go their way.
- Irritability–They are easily annoyed and anything unpleasant tends to grate on them.
- Short fuse–You have probably heard the saying, “Don’t sweat the small stuff.” They don’t see this as applying to them. Everything they don’t like is of major importance.
- Low frustration tolerance–Life around them is calm only when everything is as they want it and everyone agrees with them.
- Argumentative–They don’t believe in allowing others to have their own opinion and that it is possible to coexist peacefully with those who don’t agree with them. All differences must be attacked.
- Need to have the last word–They never let anything go unchallenged and fight to the bitter end to have their ways accepted as the right ones.
- Unable to lose–Their goal is to win at all costs regardless of the magnitude of the situation.
- Won’t take no for an answer–For them no is NOT a complete sentence. It is a challenge to keep arguing.
They have other unpleasant traits as well:
- Being quick to anger if you don’t accommodate them–They don’t discuss arrangements they don’t like. They are much more likely to attack you since they see you as being wrong or inconsiderate.
- Being quick to become aggressively defensive if you call them on any deficiency, fault or responsibility–Another way of saying this is that they have “thin skin.” Nothing is ever their fault and there is always something wrong with you for attacking them.
- Can’t apologize or, if they do, they can’t do it sincerely–Any apology tends to be hollow and not really meant. You will be left with the uneasy feeling that they think any fault lies with you.
- Rarely say thank you or congratulations–You are not important and anything you accomplish reduces their feeling of self importance.
- Don’t feel or demonstrate remorse–They don’t generally feel they have ever done anything wrong. Therefore they feel no need to feel sorry for anything they have done.
- Feel entitled to enthusiastic and appreciative approval, adoration, agreement, and obedience–They view themselves at the top of the heap in all matters and expect others to bow down to them constantly.
- Gloating in victory, sullen in defeat–Don’t expect any gracious gestures whether they get their way or not. It’s all about them.
- Quick to rage if you humiliate them–Humiliation can be as simple as viewing them on the same plane with ordinary mortals. They take offense very easily.
Maybe you are wondering how some people get to be raging narcissists. One theory is that by nature they have trouble feeling good about themselves and need constant reassurance of their value. They may well come from a childhood in which they are constantly told of their lack of worth as human beings. As adults they try to compensate for their inferior feelings by seeking constant adulation from others. When they don’t find what they are looking for they show the characteristics we have just discussed.
Another theory is that they need to feel better than everyone else in order to remain stable, at least to some degree, and feel in balance. When they do not get the praise they crave, they turn to rage in an attempt to bully others into revering them.
Alexander Burgemeester reminds us that narcissistic personality disorder is a psychiatric diagnosis as we saw earlier. He describes people with this pattern as follows, “They have little to no empathy, cannot understand the problems of people around them and are not aware of other people’s feelings. Although they act superior and confident, this actually hides the fact that they have very fragile egos. The slightest disrespect or challenge can quickly lead to the development of a furious rage in them.”
He traces the term narcissistic rage to the psychiatrist Franz Kohut who described it as a response from a narcissistic person who feels under attack. Narcissistic rage differs from ordinary anger in that it is not based on reason and is an overblown reaction to a possibly unimportant remark.
Burgemeester cites three causes of narcissistic rage:
- Challenge to their confidence–This results when someone challenges or questions their actions or ideas as imperfect.
- Injury to self esteem–Rage seeks to discredit or punish others who challenge a narcissist.
- False sense of self–Their rage responds to someone questioning the worth of their ideas or actions.
In addition he lists seven stages of anger for most people. They are:
- Stress–You have learned that stress is a normal reaction to an actual or imagined threat.
- Anxiety–If you can’t find an immediate solution to your stress, you begin to worry about it.
- Agitation–When anxiety persists, it affects your concentration and focus, leaving you feeling on edge.
- Irritation–Little things which normally don’t upset you begin to grate on you as well as the original stress.
- Frustration–You feel at wit’s end and have trouble finding any reasonable options.
- Anger–You might be angry at your inability to solve the problem or at another person for creating it in your life.
- Rage–Most people don’t reach this stage, but frustration might build inside you to the point where you explode.
Narcissists tend to skip the first six stages and react immediately with rage. They use their rage to attack any perceived questioning of their fragile self-image and superior feelings.
Responding to Narcissistic Rage
Richard Goulston notes that engaging a person in the midst of narcissistic rage is not likely to be productive. If it is safe, you might just listen until they are finished ranting. You can later request that they talk to you in a calm and respectful manner. If that does not happen the next time, it might be best to just walk away if you can or avoid such people altogether.
Susan Whitbourne, Ph.D. suggests specific ways to handle narcissists in a work situation, although her suggestions may apply to other settings as well:
- Determine which type you’re dealing with. A grandiose narcissist might be a good ally if your goals exactly match theirs. Vulnerable narcissists are harder to deal with because they are constantly on the lookout for people who might further diminish their already poor concept of themselves.
- Acknowledge your annoyance. Learn to recognize where your annoyance lies, usually related to the person who constantly interrupts you when you are trying to accomplish something.
- Appreciate where the behavior comes from. Understand that vulnerable narcissists need to make themselves feel better. A modicum of reassurance is necessary for them to focus on a group task. Just don’t get carried away with praising them or they will take over a project.
- Evaluate the context. Some situations will worsen their tendencies toward being defensive, vindictive and spiteful. One example is a narcissist who was passed over for a job but still needs to work with the team they do not lead.
- Maintain a positive outlook. Some narcissists enjoy seeing others suffer. Letting them see your annoyance is likely to increase their efforts to make your life miserable.
- Don’t let yourself get derailed. Stay focused on your own goals despite a narcissist’s efforts to take center stage and monopolize the direction of your group.
- Keep your sense of humor. Try using humor to react to a narcissist’s attempt to monopolize group goals rather than using direct confrontation.
- Recognize that the person may need help. A narcissist whose low self esteem leads them to disruptive behavior may be in need of help to find better ways to improve how they see themselves.
These suggestions appear to be good ones when you are the one in charge. If the narcissist is the one in charge, your chances of using any of them will be quite diminished. Using these approaches when you are in a vulnerable or one-down position is likely to be seen as undermining the power of the narcissist in charge. In such a situation, your options for improving the situation do not look good. Your best bet may be to find a way to remove yourself from the situation.
Maybe you are not ready to flee or are not in a position of being able to afford to do so. Now what? Susan Price has some ideas. Here is one possible scenario: “Your boss is a complete narcissist: he expects you to be at his whim all day, he blames everyone for mistakes except himself, argues and contradicts employees with every small detail, even with things he said himself.” If this sounds familiar, read on. Here are her suggestions for handling the situation:
- Forget being friends. You will have to sell your soul to be considered a friend by such a person. Remember that narcissists are not capable of making friends in the sense of having mutual respect and caring for each other. Your interests are never a priority.
- Don’t criticize. Your criticism will never be taken at face value. Anger and rage are to be expected when you criticize a narcissist.
- Focus on analyzing problems. Sharing your feelings is not likely to get you anywhere. Narcissists are interested only in their own feelings. Instead, concentrate on problems and potential solutions. Then, don’t count on receiving credit for a good idea.
- Let him or her make decisions. Presenting options works better than suggesting the best option. Then allow him or her to take credit for the plan.
- Make him or her look and feel good. His or her importance and having it recognized are uppermost in such a person’s mind. Don’t be stingy with praise.
- Absorb the blame. Narcissists never see themselves at fault. Someone else is always the blame for whatever goes wrong.
- Set boundaries and keep them. Focus on solutions and temper criticism with praise.
- Don’t compete. Don’t expect praise for yourself or thanks for doing a good job. A narcissist will always take credit for teaching you to do a good job.
To survive, you need to set aside your own needs and become a cog in the machine operated by a narcissistic boss. Staying afloat is a tricky business and has few rewards. You might be better off finding a more rational and rewarding position. If you decide to stay, don’t expect much for yourself.
You might be wondering whether dealing with a narcissist with power is a lost cause. It is difficult but not impossible. In a social group, you can work with others to reconstitute the group without the offending narcissist. In a corporation, the board of directors, informed by shareholders and workers, has power over any given boss. In government, citizens have the power to elect representatives who have the power to contain if not remove narcissists not in touch with public needs. In all these cases, your job is to start working with others and find a mutual path toward resolving the impasse.
Getting back to you
Anger can be scary or at least uncomfortable to deal with, especially the extreme of narcissistic anger. One good thing is that you do not have to deal with it by yourself and there are always others who can help you manage to deal with it. Going it alone can be very trying. The next post will suggest some ways to keep you from being overcome by your own or others’ anger.
Understanding, Confronting and Resolving Anger: A Series 5. The Targets of Anger
Photo by Andre Tan
Anybody can become angry–that is easy, but to be angry with the right person and to the right degree and at the right time and for the right purpose, and in the right way–that is not within everybody’s power and is not easy.
Anger at yourself
You are the one closest to the anger that takes place within you that you might direct back toward yourself. But why would you be angry at yourself?
One reason is that you might have learned how to do this while growing up. Your parents might have often expressed anger toward you as you grew up. It might seem that whatever you did was wrong, and you always heard about it in an angry way. This might be an issue in your family which your parents inherited from their parents and which might date back for generations.
Your older brothers and sisters might have learned their angry manner from your parents. Then they treated you they way they were treated. You might carry on the family tradition in the way you treat your younger siblings and the way you treat yourself for that matter.
Your parents might have experienced traumatic events which they were not able to handle constructively. Perhaps the only way they knew to express their feelings about what happened was through their anger. In this case, your parents were not angry at you but rather at what happened to them. You just happened to be in the way.
Traumatic events might have befallen you as well. An accident, disease or loss of someone close to you might leave you injured physically or emotionally and possibly traumatized. If you have no good ways of handling such events, you might also be stuck with anger as your only outlet.
You may also blame yourself for what happened to you or to someone you loved in the past. Perhaps you could not find a way to protect yourself or a loved one from disaster. Yet you see it as your fault and turn your anger inward.
You might make major blunders and then wish you hadn’t. On a less serious level, you might handle a situation clumsily or react negatively to a minor incident even though you know better.
What happens when you start directing your anger toward yourself and make a habit of it? Gina Simmons lists some possibilities:
- Difficulty giving and receiving love from others–You might be so busy directing anger at yourself that you don’t notice the needs of those around you. You might also ignore your own needs and push away people who are trying to be kind to you.
- Lack of motivation to achieve–You might lose faith in yourself and your abilities. If you see yourself as such an awful person, how can you expect to achieve anything of significance?
- Inability to enjoy normal pleasures of life–Your anger toward yourself may prevent you from enjoying good things in your life. First, you might not notice good things happening around you. Second, you might convince yourself that you don’t deserve to enjoy any pleasure.
- Self destructive behavior–You might turn to physical harm as a way of punishing yourself, such as mutilating your body. The ultimate self-punishment is suicide. Of course, punishing yourself is not the only motivation for suicide. Some people turn in this direction as a last resort when they can find no other acceptable options to deal with physical or emotional pain. You might also wish to relieve others from having to put up with your worthless self.
Theodore Isaac Rubin, in his book Compassion and Self Hate, has this to say, “Self-hatred, the most damaging form of self-anger, occurs when we feel it’s impossible to act ideally, and we give up on the value of our real self.” This is in contrast with healthy self-esteem where you can still find value in yourself despite your faults. He suggests a number of techniques to start changing your totally negative view of you.
- If you have been ruminating on how awful a person you are, or what you have done, take a break from that kind of thinking. It might be difficult and need conscious effort, but you are worth it.
- Start looking at your life as it exists in the present. Regardless of what has happened in the past or what might happen in the future, consider what you can do right now to change the direction of your life.
- Set a goal. It will be easier to accomplish something if you can decide on how you would like to see yourself and your life in the future.
- Think of ways you can act differently to start moving toward the goal you have set. One exercise I have found helpful is to imagine I am now in the future, and I have accomplished my goal. Write a letter from your future self to your present self. Write about what steps you took to reach your goal and what the journey was like.
- All the planning and wishing in the world will not accomplish anything as long as it remains in your imagination and nowhere else. You can spend the rest of your life revising your plan without taking the first step toward it. Get going!
Stop punishing yourself
In her book, How to Stop Punishing Yourself, Danielle Grossman shares her thoughts on how to accomplish it. The first step is to realize that you are not getting anywhere while you are stuck in a pattern of punishing yourself. Perhaps you are not the only one with a negative view of yourself. As we have discussed, your family may have shared this view of you as you grew up. Other people you have encountered might have reinforced this opinion. You might also agree that you are the problem.
Beating up on yourself will not change anything that has happened to you in the past or anything you did in the past. Even if you have reason to berate yourself for what happened, dwelling on it will only make you feel worse.
Grossman suggests starting with understanding of self-punishment as “so deeply entrenched that no amount of telling ourselves to be nice to ourselves is going to make much difference.” It’s not simply a matter of letting go of self-punishment and suddenly liking yourself again, if you ever did.
The second step is to move beyond self-esteem. It would seem that having better self-esteem would cancel out self-blame, but there is more to it than that. She suggests that the key is to step outside yourself and your own resources. To get your life into a positive perspective, it is important to find others who see your positive side and rely on them to guide you toward better feelings about yourself.
The problem with this approach is that the worse you feel about yourself, the more you are likely to isolate yourself from others or find others who constantly put you down. As a result, it will be difficult to find anyone in your circle to rely on to help you move in the right direction. If this is the case, it might be wise to seek professional help from a person who might not know you intimately but is familiar with the process of isolation and how to develop friends who can help you find your emotional balance.
Anger in relationships
You might think that expressing anger in relationships might be less likely than being angry with strangers. Yet the opposite is true. People supposedly close to you tend to be to the focus of your anger more than those you see less often and care less about.
How does this happen? No one plans for it. Part of the marriage ceremony includes taking each other for better or worse. I would dare say that the same goes for the beginning of any other type of relationship as well. If you thought the relationship was doomed from the start, you would be unlikely to even begin it. You might jump into a destructive reationship if you feel desperate to have another person in your life regardless of the trouble it might cause you.
Although you might have good intentions at the beginning of a relationship, you are very likely to annoy the other person sooner or later. You might not do it on purpose, but everyone likes to have things go their way. When they don’t go that way, it is annoying.
A pattern of unwanted behavior might develop. You and the other person in your relationship might find it hard to change your ways. You might insist on doing things your own way rather than the way the other person wants them done. Annoyance can escalate to anger and perhaps even to rage if the underlying conflicts remain unresolved.
Steven Stosny sees lack of compassion as the main contributor to anger in marriages and, by extension, other close relationships. He describes compassion in this way, “Compassion is sympathy for the hurt or distress of another. At heart, it is a simple appreciation of the basic human frailty we all share, which is why the experience of compassion makes you feel more humane and less isolated.” In his view, compassion is the basis on which we form our relationships and emotional bonds.
Through compassion with another, you come to appreciate the other person’s struggles, challenges, frustration and resulting anger. Compassion actually goes beyond this. Empathy is a broader term which includes understanding the desires, wishes and delights of the other person as well as his or her challenges and frustrations.
What distances you from each other is the sense one or both of you have that your feelings, joys and concerns are not understood or respected by the other. This perceived lack of caring can begin to feel like emotional abuse. Without sensing an emotional bond, you don’t have much incentive to share your feelings with each other. You tend to gradually draw away from the relationship and increase your resentment about not being cared for in what used to be a caring relationship. This trend helps us understand the great number of marriages that end in divorce when people stop listening to each other.
***Stosny sees this strain as ultimately reaching the point of contempt for each other, a sense of betrayal of the bond you once had. It becomes easy to blame your partner for the distance and lack of caring. Blame may be directed toward you by your partner as well. He also mentions that compassion and contempt are both contagious. The more you feel and express either of these feelings, the more likely they are to be seen in your partner as well. Compassion or contempt is also likely to fuel your own feelings and actions for better or worse.
The more you focus on your partner’s betrayal of you, the more your partner will also feel betrayed by you. Without some change in this process, the days of your relationship are numbered. It won’t be long until one or both of you conclude that the relationship is no longer viable and decide to separate or divorce if your are married. In other relationships you might drift away from each other, or one of you might call an end to what you had together. As you might suspect, such a conclusion almost invariably raises the level of anger and resentment toward each other in the process.
Returning to a sense of compassion for each other’s feelings seems to be the only viable solution. Yet in the throes of anger and resentment, it will be difficult for either of you to let down your guard and work toward resolution of your conflict. Sometimes a dramatic life event can bring one or both of you to your senses. A woman close to me told me of the strain between her and her stepmother, which reached a breaking point when her father died. Years later, her stepmother’s son died.
The woman realized that she did not want to go through the rest of her life with this resentment between them. She arranged a lunch and the two of were able to put their differences aside and resume a healthy relationship. Helpful friends can assist both of you in being more objective about each other. Yet friends also have their biased perceptions and might take one side or the other. At the extreme, professional counseling might the best way to try unraveling the web in which both of you are caught.
Anger with Friends
Just as differences can arise among relationship partners, friends can and usually do have disagreements from time to time. You might be a very patient person who tolerates a fair amount of conflict and tend not to become overly upset about it. You might be tightly wound and have what others see as thin skin although you might not agree with either of these ways of seeing you.
In any case, you are likely to feel anger directed toward your friends for any number of reasons ranging from slightly to severely aggravating actions toward you or for their actions which you assume they do to upset you. There are constructive options for responding to anger directed at friends, which we have discussed before.
Cherie Burbach suggests being aware of your reactions to your anger. She also lists things not to do when you are angry at a friend. Let’s consider them:
- Pretend that you are not angry. If you could let go of the anger immediately or fairly soon, this might be a possibility. If you hang onto the anger and pretend you don’t, you set up false expectations for yourself and for your friend as well as leading you toward further conflict. If you stay angry, the incident which led to your anger was obviously important to you and might sit on the back burner waiting for you to add other dissatisfactions to the simmering pot. At some point the pot is likely to overflow, and you explode in rage. In addition, if you don’t express your anger to your friends, they will continue acting as though nothing is wrong, which there isn’t in their minds.
- Blurt out exactly what you feel. We talked earlier about reacting immediately without thinking. In this case, you are liable to blast your friends out of proportion to anything they said or did. In this case you are likely blaming your friends rather than attempting to convey your feelings in a way which might allow you to arrive at a mutually acceptable understanding and solution.
- Start “unfriending.” This approach might be familiar to you from social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter. It means your posts will no longer be automatically sent to them and theirs will not appear on your site.Although you might not blast your friends, you are unilaterally severing at least part of your relationship. They may well react with anger or hurt feelings. In any case, without an explanation, they have no way of knowing about your feelings, what is behind your actions or how they might be able to resolve the issue with you.
- Call up every other friend you have just to vent. If you are still in junior high school, this might seem like a valid response to anger although it will not get you anywhere, no matter how old you. In this case too, you leave little chance of resolving anything. You also run the risk of your other friends seeing you as a hothead. They might keep their distance from you so they can avoid becoming the object of your scorn as well.
- Post about your fight even if you think you’re being sly. This is going beyond unfriending and takes your conflict into public view so the whole world can see your troubles. Once your conflict is a public matter, what do you suppose the chance is of repairing your relationship? Also, consider the possible effect on your reputation and other relationships.
- Live your anger. This is about your worst possible choice for you and for your friendships in general. We talked about the negative effects of letting your anger take over your life. How many of your friends will look forward to being with you under these circumstances? How many new friends do you think you will make if you constantly present yourself as an angry person? You might attract other angry people. How satisfying do you think that will be in the long run?
You are probably aware of the saying that you choose your friends but not your family. There is a little more to it than that. Although you have some choice about your friends, how you act has an effect on whether others want to be friends with you, as we have just seen.
Friendly and not so friendly neighbors
What about neighbors? You don’t have control of who your neighbors are unless you own all the houses and apartments in your neighborhood. But that’s not likely. You do have a choice of which neighbors you would like to have as friends. Some people prefer to live in isolation from neighbors and limit their interactions to a wave or brief hello or just ignore their neighbors. You can’t make neighbors want to be your friends, but how you treat them certainly affects your chances one way or another.
How good a neighbor are you? That might be the best place to start. Think of what qualities you imagine others would like to see in you as a neighbor. Is your house quiet and peaceful without excessive noise to perturb neighbors? Do you treat your property with respect and make it a credit to your neighborhood? If you walk your pet, do you clean up after its business on others’ lawns? Do you act as a law-abiding citizen? Are you helpful in the face of a neighbor’s crisis?
If you want good neighbors, it might be best to make sure you are one and are seen that way by others who live near you. Your neighborliness will attract like-minded people in the neighborhood and give you the potential for worthwhile and mutually satisfying relationships with your neighbors.
We have established that you most likely have little control of who your neighbors are once you move in. There are some things you can do before this time. You can walk or drive around the neighborhood you are considering and try to meet some of the local residents. You can introduce yourself and tell people you are considering living in the neighborhood. Ask them what it is like to live there and what they think of their neighbors.
You can also see for yourself how people treat their property. This might be an indicator of how they might react to you as a neighbor. Some people like to be close to their neighbors while others are more comfortable with less interaction. If you meet some people who live there and share what living in that neighborhood is like for them, you are likely to get some sense of the neighborhood structure, which may or may not meet your needs and wishes.
Some issues you might with wish to address with potential neighbors are noisy people, especially late at night, very fussy people, slobs, people who don’t pick up after their pets and people involved in drugs or are generally antisocial. Informal conversations with people who already live in the neighborhood might give you some clues. If you have a particular house in mind, you might introduce yourself to the nearby neighbors and try to get a sense of what it would be like to live near or next to them.
Sometimes unsavory neighbors might move in after you are already established in your house. You might find them annoying at first and find yourself moving toward increasing levels of anger. In the mean time, they go on as if they are acting normally. In fact, they might think they are normal.
The problem might be with your level of tolerance. If they don’t know about your feelings, they are not likely to change anything. If you get angry without seeking a tactful solution, things can only get worse.
You have options. You can try to ignore it. This is at best a temporary solution. You can try talking with them in a reasonable way. If you don’t get anywhere with that approach, you can involve the police or community government, depending on the type of annoyance. You can also move to a different home. These are all courses you can take short of reaching a violent outcome. We will look at these in more detail in the chapters on responding to anger.
Anger at work
Three aspects of work might annoy you, even to the point of anger and the consequences following its expression. Avery Augustine describes three areas of conflict at work. These include problems with your coworkers, with your boss and with your work assignments.
The only sure way to avoid these problems entirely is to work alone and not have coworkers or a boss. It is up to you to decide your own type of work and how to approach it. Although you avoid the traditional work conflicts, you still might need to handle conflicts with suppliers, subcontractors and customers.
You have several options for handling work difficulties. The first is to ignore them. This is easier said than done. We will look at this approach in depth in the next chapter. For most people, ignoring conflicts and dissatisfactions often build and lead to an escalation of anger and the likelihood or at least the possibility of outbursts.
Unless your coworkers can read your mind, they may not know of your annoyance until you say something unless it becomes obvious by your actions. Before driving yourself crazy, gently let your coworkers know what they are doing that bothers you and why their behavior upsets you. It would also help to make a suggestion about how the situation could be better.
Bosses can be just as annoying. Confronting them might be more delicate. After all, the boss has the upper hand. The best way is to own the problem by saying you have a hard time completing or concentrating on your work when your boss acts in certain ways. As with coworkers, making a suggestion for how things could be better is usually acceptable. I have found from my experience that bosses don’t like to have problems dumped in their laps. Including a solution with your view of the problem is more likely to be heard and accepted than a mere statement of the problem.
Sometimes the annoyance is related to your work and not the people with whom you interact. Your work duties might be conflicting or unclear. If you are the only one doing this job, don’t expect anyone else to understand your difficulty or to even notice it. As with the other annoyances just mentioned, relating your confusion or feeling of conflicting expectations is not likely to be seen from your point of view unless you are clear about your confusion. You can suggest changes which will help you do a better job to the benefit of the company as well as to your peace of mind.
Making fun of the government is a well-established American pastime, unless you happen to be a government worker and are the object of the anger. There have always been people angry at government. With so many different viewpoints, political persuasions, religious convictions and personal priorities, anger is not surprising.
More recently, anger has become almost a universal reaction, no matter which side of any particular issue appeals to you. We seem to have forgotten how to compromise. Not only do we all want things our way, we want to win and perhaps destroy or discredit those who do not agree with us. Many have come to see America as “my country” rather than “our country.”
The purpose of a democracy is to provide all of our citizens a chance to live a fulfilling life, have a chance at opportunities which our country holds out and live together in harmony. At times we have come closer to these ideals than at others. Even at the beginning of our country, liberty and justice for all included all white males but not necessarily women or people of different racial or cultural backgrounds.
Certainly we have made progress toward including everyone over the years. Women have earned the right to vote and hold office as well as achieving prominence in the worlds of government and business. We have passed laws to protect the rights of all citizens, at least on paper.
Despite this, animosity on the part of groups with relatively greater power, economic resources, and social standing has remained as part of the social fabric of our nation. People with less power, economic resources and social standing have felt angry about being left behind and not being taken seriously.
I have been thinking lately about why there is so much dissatisfaction these days. In my opinion, many people have developed an exaggerated sense of entitlement. They feel that they deserve to be well off and to have everything then want. This sense is fueled by the advertising industry, especially in TV ads.
The message is that you deserve everything you want, and it is someone’s fault if you don’t get it. If you don’t have what you deserve, becoming angry has come to seem appropriate. In the 2016 election cycle, anger and rage have been fueled by the inflammatory statements of Donald Trump as well as other candidates and their supporters. While he was wily in tapping into potential voter anger, time will tell whether he has an interest in actually addressing the needs of those he whipped into a frenzy.
So what is citizen and voter anger about? The BBC journalist Vanessa Barford, in her article, Why are Americans So Angry?, suggested five reasons she sees for American voter anger. Let’s take a look at them.
- The first reason she lists is the economy. She quotes William Galston as saying, “The failure of the economy to deliver real progress to middle-class and working-class Americans over the past 15 years is the most fundamental source of public anger and disaffection in the US.” Some workers are frustrated because there has been little growth in average household income. Other workers are angry because jobs have dwindled or disappeared, There also does not seem to be the opportunity to find better paying jobs than in the past.
- The second reason is immigration. The demographics of immigrants have changed. In the past, most of the immigrants were white. Recently, a greater percentage of immigrants were not white and the trend is toward a larger percentage of Hispanics than before. The fact that many of these immigrants are undocumented has also increased the fury.
- The third reason has to do with Washington and the federal bureaucracy. Many Democrat and Republican citizens have little trust in the federal government, which they feel is the top problem in the United States because of representatives’ power. They tend to see elected congressmen and congresswomen as ineffective and unresponsive to the needs of their constituents and merely focused on their own power.
- The fourth reason is America’s place in the world. The United States is seen as losing international respect compared to the way it was viewed in the past. We are not seen as being very effective in combating or negotiating with forces opposed to our view of how the world should be.
- The fifth reason is that we are a divided, polarized nation. The two major parties in the United States are more polarized than they have ever been in the past. Republicans are becoming more conservative and Democrats more liberal. Finding common ground has become rarer and more difficult. Both parties have come to view each other with more suspicion and the likelihood of their compromising has decreased.
In my mind, this does not necessarily mean that we are all at each other’s throats all the time. Many people have tired of the stand-off and have disaffiliated with both major parties, labeling themselves as independents. Sadly, more people stayed away from the polls in 2016 than in other recent elections. The election was decided by less than half the eligible voters and even then several million more people voted against the president-elect than for him.
Many of the people who did not vote saw neither major candidate as qualified to lead our country and saw both major parties as incapable of finding a suitable candidate. Others viewed the whole political process as flawed and not serving the interests of our citizens.
Instead of a democracy, we now seem to be leaning toward an oligarchy in which a few wealthy individuals determine the course of our country’s future. It seems a sad state of affairs when the chief accomplishments of a president are his apparent fortune and his ability to conduct a successful presidential campaign as a television “reality show” star.
It seems we have allowed ourselves to become enthralled with television shows rather than the reality facing us on a daily basis. The environment, the plight of immigrants, the rage of our citizens and the pattern of violence televised on a daily basis all remind us that we have a job to do focusing on rediscovering how to listen to each other and once again work together for the common good.