Understanding Anger

angerFor most of us, anger can be an intimidating subject. On one level or another, anger causes everyone a certain amount of fear. We’re afraid of someone getting angry at us and we’re afraid when we feel angry at someone else. We are even troubled when we aren’t directly involved and are just observing two people getting angry at each other. No matter what the circumstances, anger is an unpleasant emotion and most of us would just as soon avoid it.

But we can’t, because anger is one of our most inherent human emotions. According to the American Psychological Association, “Anger is a completely normal, usually healthy, human emotion. But when it gets out of control and turns destructive, it can lead to problems—problems at work, in your personal relationships, and in the overall quality of your life.” Every one of us feels a certain amount of anger. It is a natural response to frustration, threat, violation or loss. It helps us protect ourselves, and those we love. It lets us know what matters to us. We need to be able to accept the anger we feel. People often get into trouble with themselves because they confuse their feelings with their actions. They condemn themselves for feeling angry. While it is not acceptable to act out anger, it is completely acceptable to feel it and to have angry thoughts.

No matter what, when you’re angry, recognize it. The physiological signs of anger are clenched fists, tightened muscles and being in a fight or flight mode. Accept that you are angry and be curious about it. When you experience an angry thought or feeling, don’t label it as bad or try to deny the inevitable emotion behind it. By suppressing our anger, we can increase our risks of stress and depression along with other mental and physical health concerns. Depression is often anger turned inward; we take anger that we don’t want to feel toward someone else and turn it on ourselves. By accepting our anger, we can learn to monitor our emotions, control our reactions and ultimately make a rational decision about how we want to act.

When we acknowledge our anger, we can begin the journey to understanding its genuine source. If your anger is intense, find a healthy way to release your anger so it doesn’t fester or control your thoughts and behavior. Then, ask yourself why am I reacting to this situation so strongly? Focus on yourself. In many cases, when you experience an emotion of great intensity, its sole source is rarely the single person or event that presently seems to be causing you to suffer. In fact, whenever you have an overly strong reaction, it most likely has to do with the past. Our past influences how we perceive things. Therefore, part of our current anger is at a real situation and part is about something from a long time ago, as present circumstances can trigger emotions from our history.

As children, we were in a position of vulnerability and dependency, entirely relying on our parents or caretakers for our survival. Even the most perfect parents can’t get it right all the time and be attuned to our every need at every moment. In extreme cases where there is physical or verbal abuse, children are traumatized. But they also suffer from distress in more subtle-seeming moments of misattunement when parents’ responses are off and children’s emotions are misread or overlooked. These early experiences can leave unresolved emotions that remain embedded deep within us as adults. They are then triggered by later experiences.

When you feel rage building up in you, think about the ways you were treated as a kid. How could what you are feeling at the moment be a reflection of or reaction to something from your childhood?  Does a parental boss trigger old feelings of being reprimanded or punished?  Does a rejecting partner remind you of early negligence from a parent? Think about how you react to your kids when they misbehave. Do you find yourself saying the same words that you hated your parents saying to you when they were angry?

When we feel angry, we need to find a way to cope with the strong emotion without acting in destructive ways, allowing it to overwhelm us or hating ourselves for it. When acted on impulsively, anger can lead to major negatives: arguments with partners, outbursts at your children and countless self-destructive behaviors, all of which result in miserable outcomes and guilt. For these reasons, when you sense your rage starting to bubble up, it is advisable to take a step back and remove yourself from the aggravating situation. Feel your anger fully, then think about how you should act in terms of your best interest and the interest of those involved, and finally, make a rational decision about how you want to deal with it.

When you’re in this process of acknowledging your anger, don’t get sidetracked by building a case against anyone. This is especially harmful to romantic relationships, where people can get into trouble calculating by stockpiling mistreatments from grievances toward their partner, rather than living in the moment and dealing with the issues at hand. This will be help you maintain a more balanced, realistic point of view.

Parenting techniques are also sensitive when it comes to anger. When you feel infuriated at your child, do not allow your anger to take over. Take the time to calm down and deal rationally and compassionately with the situation. Tell the child, in a strong and straightforward manner, that you don’t like how they behaved. Refrain from being overly nasty or critical. If you do end up losing your temper or saying something you regret, apologize and explain that you lost your temper and do not like how you acted. Being aware of over-reactions that have to do with your past will enable you to respond appropriately when you are disciplining your children.

Above all, never attack yourself for getting angry. Even if you “lose it” have compassion for yourself. Anger is a messy emotion that everyone struggles with. Having this attitude will allow you to experience compassion toward others when they are grappling with their anger. Whether a partner, spouse, child or boss, the best solution is to have empathy for them and compassion for yourself as you deal with this powerful and challenging emotion.

To learn more about anger, anger management and controlling your anger visit http://www.apa.org/topics/controlanger.html.

If you or someone know is at risk for becoming violent, don’t hesitate to seek help. Here are some violence prevention resources:

National Crime Prevention Center
National Youth Violence Prevention Resource Center
Stop Bullying Now Campaign
Eyes on Bullying
Boys Town Hotline – 1-800-448-3000 (24/7)
Covenant House Nineline – 1-800-999-9999 (24/7)
National Center for Victims of Crimes 1-800-394-2255
National Domestic Violence Hotline 1-800-799-SAFE

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