In her best-selling book, “The Dance of Anger,” Dr. Harriet Lerner writes, “Anger is neither legitimate or illegitimate, meaningless or pointless. Anger simply is.” In fact, anger is a completely normal, healthy human emotion, an adaptive response to threatening stimuli, evoking powerful, often aggressive feelings or behaviors. These responses can enable us to defend ourselves when attacked, and may be necessary for our survival.
Some people find it very hard to express, or even to recognize their angry feelings. They may have internalized standards which assume that anger is a “bad” emotion which should not be experienced, and never expressed. This may be especially true for women who were raised with notions of femininity, based on the myth of “sugar and spice, and everything nice.” When women are angry, they may be seen as shrews, witches, unattractive and a “turn-off” to others.
However, many men have been trained as children to suppress their anger, as well.
Internalized suppressed anger may lead to health problems, such as high blood pressure and heart disease, as well as chronic feelings of helplessness and depression.
Those who are at the more passive end of the anger spectrum may need help to examine their underlying assumptions about anger, and learn to become more assertive about expressing their needs to others.
However, the more common issue for many people is difficulty controlling expressions of anger. They may find themselves explosively saying and doing things which are ultimately destructive to their personal relationships, their professional status, and their own physical and psychological well-being.
Contrary to the commonly held belief that ranting and “venting” is therapeutic for the enraged person, research has shown that “letting it rip” actually escalates anger and aggression, and does not lead to resolution of the situation. Although it may feel satisfying to release the angry feelings at the moment, verbal or physical outbursts usually have regrettable consequences, sometimes in irrevocable ways.
In our current self-help lexicon, the term “anger management” is frequently used to describe a step-by-step cognitive remedy for people whose angry impulses get expressed too aggressively or inappropriately.
The steps involve learning how to think differently about the situation evoking their rage, as well as controlling the biophysical changes which accompany and escalate their aggression.
If you are among those who find that your anger controls you, rather than the other way around, the following are some suggestions to help you to “get a grip” on those impulses which take over when your anger is aroused.
Simple deep breathing, from your diaphragm, rather than from your chest, may help.
First, it will make you pause before reacting automatically, and second, it can help you to focus on lowering the level of physiological stress triggered by your anger.
Other techniques which some people find helpful include daily meditation, as well as yoga and other stress reduction practices.
Anger management starts with becoming aware of what happens to you physically when you become angry, and finding ways to calm down.
Although this may sound simplistic, you may need to work on changing the way you think about the situation arousing your anger.
While there usually are some valid reasons for feeling irritated, very often one’s personal history and family background have caused particular sensitivities and tendencies to interpret and react to situations in ways that are reminiscent of childhood.
While psychotherapy can be helpful in uncovering the origins of these unconsciously learned patterns, it still becomes a matter of choice to take responsibility for managing your impulses as an adult.
When we become angry, there is a tendency to think in exaggerated and overly dramatic ways.
These thoughts are usually somewhat — if not very — irrational, and reinforce negative assumptions which are not logical and do not serve us well.
For instance, instead of thinking “I always get the short end of the stick,” stop and tell yourself that while you might not be getting fair treatment at this moment, there may be reasons which, in fact, have nothing to do with you.
Also, it is very unlikely that you are always being short-changed. It may feel that way, and this may have been the case at times in the past, but you need to examine the accuracy of this assumption in the “here-and-now.” To what extent does this belief perpetuate and distort the way you interpret and react to situations in which you perceive a personal injustice?
It may help to ask yourself “Is there another way of looking at this event?” For example, if you are becoming irritated about someone’s lateness for a meeting, and creating scenarios in your mind which portray that person as irresponsible or disrespectful to you, you might ask if there might be a reasonable explanation to the delay. Is there traffic? Could something unexpected have come up which you will find out about when she arrives? Or, did you tell the person that punctuality is very important to you, and that you prefer to be called if he is running late?
There is often a tendency when angry to perceive the situation as much more serious and consequential than it actually is. In the hypothetical situation of the late arrival described above, you might try saying to yourself, “So what if she’s late? How important are those 15 or 20 minutes, in the larger scheme of things?”
In addition, thinking of potential outcomes can help to halt the escalation of the anger which begins to mount. “Could getting all aroused with anger end up ruining the evening?” If you verbally assault your friend when he does appear, what might happen? Also, how would you feel if you had a legitimate reason for being late, and were nonetheless greeted with anger and incrimination? You might feel that you would want to turn around and go home!
Finally, try forcing yourself to think about what the other person may be experiencing or feeling. “What would I be thinking if she were responding to me the way I am behaving right now?” Pausing to consider the validity of the other person’s feelings and extenuating circumstances can help to reduce your anger to the extent that it becomes manageable.
These are just a few suggestions that can help you to gain some control over your angry reactions. The goal is not to eliminate anger — this isn’t possible, nor is it desirable. Life can truly be unfair, hurtful, and frustrating. We can’t change or control that. However, we can learn to change the way that we let such events affect us. Learning to control angry responses can keep them from making us even more unhappy in the long run.
If you feel that you might benefit from learning some strategies to manage your anger more constructively, please feel free to call the MAP office for an appointment at (212) 397-4802.
This article is based on material from “The Dance of Anger” by Harriet Lerner; “When Anger Hurts,” by Matthew McKay, Peter Rogers and Judith McKay; “Controlling Anger — Before It Controls You,” at www.apa.org; and “Anger Management” by Robert Westermeyer at www.HabitSmart.com.