How to Better Manage Your Anger
By Sean Grover
Everyone gets angry. But how we manage our anger is different for everyone. Some of us store up frustration, hold grudges, nurse hurt feelings, or isolate ourselves; others rage and blame the world and everyone in it for their problems and their feelings. These behaviors will only hurt us and damage our relationships. What’s worse, they give birth to a multitude of troublesome psychosomatic symptoms such as headaches, backaches, stomach problems and so on.
The bottom line is this: human beings are just dreadful at managing their aggression. Pick up a newspaper, watch the evening news, or just do a little people watching in your neighborhood. You’ll see signs of it everywhere. You’ll read and hear about people committing violent crimes out of anger or you’ll hear people, in public, at war with with their partners. Because of anger, friends turn into enemies, loving marriages morph into hostile divorces, and family members plot against one another and hold on to grudges for years.
The reason we make such poor choices when we’re angry is because anger often wipes out reason. We lose ourselves in it and drown in our own frustration. We may comfort ourselves by seeking a villain, someone we can blame for our own shortcomings. In the end, we become the true victims. Without self-reflection and mindfulness, human beings are no more than animals.
Anger is not the enemy; it’s how we deal with it that makes all the difference.
Before there is anger, there is frustration, a pulsing force that seeks relief. Maybe we want something that we’ve been denied. Maybe we feel hurt or misunderstood by someone. Maybe we’re fearful of our future. These perplexing situations can produce unbearable psychic tension. Here’s where things get problematical. In an effort to relieve this tension, the two common misguided paths that people choose are:
If you’re an imploder, you internalize, suppress, or deny your anger. You avoid addressing or finding the source of your frustration. Anger turned inward leads to self-injurious and self-destructive tendencies. This unrelieved emotional stress often converts into depression, extreme anxiety, or fearfulness. You may feel you’re protecting others from your wrath or shielding yourself from the negative consequences, however, swallowing anger will literally make you sick.
If you’re an exploder, you tend to fly off the handle and blame others. You tend to find fault with almost everything; you are quick to point the finger; and verbally attack those in your path. This unloading may bring you some relief, but it has a short shelf life. Exploders often suffer from low self-esteem, and struggle with guilt and shame. Their relationships tend to remain unsettled. When it comes to adult temper tantrums, there are no winners.
Converting Anger to Assertion
Anger mismanagement is at the core of many forms of mental illness. Until you learn to work through and process your anger effectively, you’re doomed to unsatisfying relationships and ongoing mood problems. When you learn to express frustration in ways that enhance communication and deepen intimacy, you’ll be on the path to a far healthier life. Until you do, you’re destined to live with regret.
For example, a patient recently shared with me that she felt hurt and enraged by a callous remark made by a co-worker. “What did you do?” I asked. “I went right home, made a dozen brownies and ate half of them. Then I hated myself,” she replied. “Well done,” I joked.
You can see how her inability to express her anger fueled her self-destructive behaviors. As a result, she has experienced on-going weight problems and struggles with anxiety and depression. If she had addressed her feelings to that co-worker effectively, those brownies would have never made it into the oven.
Another patient who externalizes his anger recently exploded at his kids during a family dinner in a restaurant. It was a humiliating experience for everyone. No matter how good it may feel to discharge his anger in this fashion, it comes at too high a price. The father suffers from stomach ulcers, high blood pressure, and acid reflux; he also traumatizes his children and alienates himself in his own family.
As you’ve probably guessed, internalizing or externalizing anger resolves nothing. The solution lies in working through and expressing frustration without damaging yourself or others. Anger expressed in productive and non-destructive ways results in a surge of emotional maturity and greater piece of mind. Here’s how to start:
Take a Moment: I ask patients who mismanage their anger to take a moment when they’re frustrated and investigate the intense feelings they’re experiencing. For example, it they’re suddenly feeling frustrated, anxious or depressed, they need to ask themselves, “Where’s this feeling coming from?” “Is this familiar? Am I replaying a part of my history?” These questions disrupt the internalized/externalized anger matrix by directing the attention toward the true cause of the anger.
Consider Your Options: Before saying or doing anything, consider an array of possible responses. Take your time and weigh your options. Consider the consequences of what you say, knowing they will affect both you and others. This reflective moment prevents impulsivity, and strengthens your emotional boundaries. It also empowers you with mindfulness and better judgment.
Make a New Choice: Avoid the same old responses when you’re frustrated and head in a new direction. If you’re an internalizer, speak-up, express what you’re feeling thoughtfully. If you’re an exploder, pipe down, take a walk, and bring your frustration level down so you can think clearly. New choices in managing frustration open up fresh pathways in relationships and trigger an exhilarating sense of personal growth.
From Conflict to Co-existence
There’s no denying it; relationships can be frustrating, even grueling at times. But true and lasting emotional progress only happens in the space between people. Blaming yourself or others is a waste of time. Be more assertive, less attacking, and learn to express your frustration positively, avoiding explosions or rancorous silences. In the end, you’ll be rewarded with more intimate and gratifying relationships. The care and patience you nurture for others, you also nurture for yourself. And that is a win-win for everyone. www.seangrover.com