Lee A Edwards, PhD

Psychologist, Austin Texas

Anger - What It Is, How To Deal With It

What Anger Is

Anger is our reaction to not getting what we want and seeing someone else as to blame for it. Without the blame, it tends to be just frustration: "Damn! I wish it hadn't rained today." If you think God or The Universe is making rain to mess you up, you may feel anger instead of just frustration.

Anger is what's called a "secondary emotion." That means it's a reaction to another emotion, typically hurt or fear. We often hate feeling those vulnerable emotions, so we get hard, big and tough--we get angry. Occasionally that helps, such as when you need to beat up the person who's trying to steal your child, but usually the anger just makes things more complicated.

Like all emotions, anger can be mild or severe, so we have lots of words for it, including irritated, pissed, mad, angry, hot, enraged...etc.

How To Notice Anger

If you're not good at noticing your anger until someone else points it out, look for these signs:

* Tension in your body, particularly in your jaw (you may have a place you usually tense up when angry; learn it!)

* Faster breathing

* Thoughts that are fast and blaming/critical

* Voice is loud, fast, hard in tone

How Anger Helps

Anger is a great energizer and activator: it gets us ready for fight or flight. Even in non-physical challenges, such as relational conflict, it empowers us to fight. Most of the time, that's not helpful, but sometimes it is. Anger is useful when we need that extra energy and power to protect ourselves. You can tap into it when you need to say "No!", to set any kind of boundary, to protect yourself.

...but...

Most of the time, anger creates as many problems as it solves. People very often respond to it defensively and angrily. So now the original problem isn't solved, and you have a new problem of this current conflict. Not good.

How To Deal With Anger

There are several ways to deal with anger well. You'll need to use different strategies in different situations, and you'll need to learn these skills before the conflict happens. Try to learn all of these so you can use whichever best fits a particular situation.

* Just say it rather than acting it out. "I'm angry" or "I'm pissed at you right now." It actually feels a little better to say it, and--more importantly--it helps you take responsibility. When you're mad, you're thinking about how the other person was wrong, wrong, wrong; this helps you shift some of the focus to, "Oh, I'm angry. Better be careful what I do and say while I'm pissed off."

* Talk about the hurt. In personal relationships, the main problem is usually that what somebody did or didn't do hurt because it seemed like they didn't care about you, didn't respect you, etc. So instead of saying, "You're an idiot for not remembering what I asked for," you can say "I'm angry you didn't remember" or, even better, "I'm hurt that you didn't remember." There's still a problem, but hurt is the more personal, intimate layer than the anger. It's almost more at the core of the issue if this is a personal relationship.

* Take a Time Out. If you can't find constructive ways to deal with the conflict and the anger, pause. Big bonus points if you say clearly (1) that you're taking a Time Out or (2) where you're going or (3) when you'll come back to the conversation (even if it's vague; it helps).

* Vent, but not to the person you're angry at. Drive around and scream. Write in a journal. Destroy something you don't need--out of earshot of the person you're mad at; don't do it for drama. Vent some angry energy by exercising. Call a patient friend and complain. If you keep venting and venting, though, you're probably not helping yourself; you're probably just digging deeper into the Permanently Angry hole.

* Look for solutions. We only get angry about problems. So, how can you fix the problem, other than waiting for the other person to do exactly what you want?

* Set a boundary. Maybe you're pissed because someone hurt you, and you stay pissed partly because you know it could happen again. Well, maybe you need to do something to protect yourself longer-term...break up, move out, disentangle your finances, quit relying on that person for some things, etc.

* Just repeating: consider saying it cleanly and directly to the relevant person. The classic "I" statement is: "I felt angry when you...."

How To Be Less Angry

No, I'm not saying pretend you're not angry, and I'm not saying anger is sinful. But I am saying it's a pain and very hard on relationships, so it'd be great to feel angry less often and less intensely. How?

* Again, look for the hurt and deal with the hurt rather than it's macho cousin, anger. The anger's real, but the hurt is more primary, more core.

* Quit expecting people to do things your way when it's predictable that they won't. Don't set yourself up for anger by expecting people to be what they're not. Expect them to be exactly what they are.

* Again, set boundaries. If someone's chronically late, instead of being a victim of their lateness, say, "Let's go together. But if you're not here by seven, I'll just go on without you." This overlaps with expecting people to be who they really are.

* Learn to notice when you're angry at someone else partly because you messed up. What? Yep, we sometimes get really defensive and angry when we know we messed up, but don't want to admit it, so we'll work doubly hard to blame someone else. Nothing gets fixed, and you get stuck in anger.

* Accept that you don't control everything. That includes people (quit expecting..., set boundaries), but it includes lots of other stuff. American culture tends to pretend we can control everything, which is, I think, part of why we're such a tense, stressed culture despite having more wealth and safety than most humans. Get a little Buddhist "detachment" going. Cling a little less tightly. Say to yourself, "Sometimes I'm powerless, and my job is accepting it, not fixing it." If the last sentence made you nauseated, you really need to repeat it a lot of times. If other drivers make you angry fairly often, you need to work on acceptance vs. control. People are going to drive the way they drive, and your getting angry just makes you unhappy and, likely, a worse driver. Let it go, and accept that lots of people are going to drive badly.

Summary

Anger is our tough way of dealing with how vulnerable we really are. It's good for protection, but lousy for intimacy and problem-solving. Try the coping strategies above, and try the strategies for actually having less anger overall. Mostly, try accepting: accepting your own vulnerable emotions (not easy) and accepting reality (people drive poorly, the weather doesn't follow your wishes, etc., etc.) rather than pushing against it. It's a hard change to make, but you'll be much, much happier.

Communicating About Anger

It may help to read my tips on communicating about difficult topics.


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Licensed psychologist, Austin

(512) 694-1322

4403 Manchaca Rd, Suite A, South Austin, TX 78745