Anger is the unannounced visitor that keeps dropping by, again and again.
Some of us hide, hoping this troublesome guest will go away. Others of us let it take over, turning our home into a nightly rage-fest, one that leaves us even angrier and friendless and full of self-loathing.
There is another way. We can greet our anger like a welcome guest and try to understand what makes it tick. In doing so, we can learn a lot about ourselves and make real, lasting changes in our relationships.
Anger is one of the most powerful emotions, and one of the most difficult to deal with. It’s also probably the least understood. We get angry at our partners, our children, the man at the dry cleaner’s, the woman cutting us off on the freeway, our boss who just doesn’t understand, our dogs for barking too much. We get angry, but we rarely understand why.
There’s widespread agreement that expressing anger is much healthier than suppressing it. However, giving free rein to anger has its dangers. Recent studies on anger indicate that venting our rage doesn’t bring resolution, but can just fuel the flames. Left unchecked and unconscious, anger can destroy everything we care about — our friendships, our intimate relationships, our children, our jobs and our health.
The idea of controlling our anger has lost favor in recent years, yet there’s much to be said for stopping, taking a deep breath and waiting before blasting the world with self-righteous indignation. Sometimes it can be as simple as Thomas Jefferson’s advice: “When angry, count to ten before you speak; if very angry, a hundred.”
The newest research on anger is turning the volatile emotion upside down. Anger just might not be real, the thinking goes, but a way to cover the real issue — our pain. We react in anger because we can’t bear the pain underneath. Byron Katie, author and popular motivational speaker, takes it one step further: underneath the pain is a thought or story that is causing us to lash out in rage and frustration. If we investigate the story, the anger often just dissolves.
Taking an everyday example, Sue is angry at her son, Nick, because he constantly drops his socks on the floor. She has nagged, threatened, yelled and even cried. She’s tried tamping down her anger and soliciting “agreements” from him that don’t stick. Her friends agree with her, which leaves her more convinced her anger is justified. But underneath, she feels miserable when she yells at her son, but she can’t break the pattern.
Alternate approaches to anger management
Using new techniques, Sue could try some of the following approaches to shift her anger:
- Look at the anger, not the issue. In Sue’s case, getting repeatedly angry over her son’s socks might be a distraction from looking at her inner dissatisfaction and negative belief about herself. Perhaps she’s ready for a change but afraid to take the first step. Or she could be upset that her son is growing up and away from her. “Follow the trail of anger inward, and there you find the small, still voice of pain,” writes psychologist Carol Travis in her book Anger: The Misunderstood Emotion.
- Look at the belief that triggers the anger. If Sue questions her belief that Nick should pick up his socks, she might find that really, Nick’s socks are his business. All she can control are her own socks! As author Byron Katie puts it, “When you’re in someone else’s business, you’re suffering.” Sue can make a choice without anger: pick up Nick’s socks because she wants his room to be clean or leave his socks and let him sort out his own laundry. She can also use this technique to investigate similar beliefs she might have: teens should be neat, moms should do the laundry, friends should always agree with us, my son doesn’t respect me, my life would be happier if the people I lived with weren’t so messy… It’s always a good idea to stop and ask ourselves if a thought is actually a belief that we can change.
- Transform the anger. Deep breathing, meditation, taking a long walk in nature, painting and writing are all ways to turn the anger into peace. Some suggest ways to transform anger into compassion, gratitude and love. Instead of focusing on Nick’s socks, Sue might think of the many ways her son is loving, responsible and helpful. The socks may stay on the floor but Sue will be free of her anger. (And Nick might be more likely to pick up his socks for a loving parent than an angry one.)
It’s been said that anger separates us from ourselves. It doesn’t have to be that way. Instead, anger can be the new friend we are curious to get to know better. And in understanding this new friend, we can come to understand ourselves even more deeply and make more lasting change in our lives.
Author’s content used with permission, © Claire Communications
I have found EMDR therapy to be particularly helpful in quickly identifying root causes of anger and helping my clients change.