How To Manage Anger
Years ago, a hulk of a man came to see me with a lump in his neck. He was as big as the lump was small, standing at least six and half feet tall with shoulders that seemed almost as broad. His lump, in contrast, was only 2 cm wide.
Wide enough, however, to warrant concern. It was firm rather than rubbery, fixed rather than mobile, and non-tender rather than painful—all hallmarks of something potentially malignant. He’d noticed it only one month prior to coming to see me, which made me think it had grown rapidly, another bad sign. He’d had no infection during that time that he could recall.
I recommended a biopsy, to which he agreed, and set up an appointment for him to see a surgeon. A week later he called me to ask some further questions. The conversation started calmly enough. He related how he’d gone to see the surgeon who’d immediately scheduled a biopsy—and then suddenly he was literally shrieking in my ear. He’d had to wait 30 minutes in the waiting room and then another 15 in the exam room before being seen! He’d expected an office procedure and instead they’d taken him to the operating room! He’d wanted general anesthesia and instead they’d used a local block! What the fuck, he’d wanted to know, was wrong with these people!
I could only listen in stunned silence, not just because I was taken completely off guard and intimidated, but because he literally offered no pauses during his diatribe—which lasted a full ten minutes—to allow me to respond. By the time he’d finished, however, I’d managed to regain control of myself and suggested he come in to see me right away to discuss what had happened.
He arrived later that afternoon, his bulk hardly fitting through my office door, and sat down in a much calmer state than he’d been in on the phone. He even laughed derisively as he related how someone had called the police after he’d gotten off the phone with me. Apparently, he’d been standing in a bookstore during his angry rant and his yelling had frightened someone enough to lead them to call for help in case he became violent. He had no insight into why someone would have done that, found it a completely overblown response to his “blowing off steam,” and apologized for “being a little harsh” with me.
WHY PEOPLE GET ANGRY
There’s no shortage of theories about why people get angry. My own view is that it happens for four main reasons:
- To harm oneself. Being depressed often results in anger directed at oneself for feeling and being powerless, and represents a wish for self-destruction.
- To achieve control. Whether arising from paralyzing fear or merely irritation that things are going differently than we want, anger is often used to intimidate in order to manipulate.
- To feel powerful. If we feel small, getting others to feel smaller makes us feel in comparison big.
- To fight injustice. Righteous indignation coming from a person’s moral center, outrage at an inequity being committed against oneself or others.
Though anger is often considered a negative emotion that we should do our best to eliminate, the validity of this has always seemed to me to depend on why the anger arises in the first place and what’s done with it. For example, anger has always seemed to me an appropriate response to injustice, one that does little harm to oneself psychologically and very well may even be beneficial in that it motivates action to rights wrongs. The goal, it seems to me, isn’t to eliminate anger but to control it; not to suppress it but to create value with it. How, then, can anger be properly managed?
HOW TO DEAL WITH ANGER IN YOURSELF
Not by ignoring or suppressing it. Experience and science have shown repeatedly how poorly those strategies work. Once anger rises past a certain point, it seems to require satisfactory expression to be diffused. That is, it must be expelled in a way that feels good—in a way that is literally emptying. The goal then would be to expel it in a way that does as little damage as possible. How one does this depends on why the anger one feels is rising in the first place.
- Anger aimed at harming oneself. Depression is almost certainly the cause and should be identified and treated.
- Anger aimed at achieving control. Ask yourself why you feel out of control. Fear is a common reason. Actually lacking control is another. Anger is, fortunately or unfortunately, often a good strategy to regain control in the short-term, and easier to feel than many of the emotions that trigger it. But as it ultimately remains an expression of our unfulfilled need to control (if we actually had control, we wouldn’t get angry), far better to identify a means to actually provide us real control rather than the illusion of it. When such control isn’t possible, a next best option is to fully recognize what feelings being out of control leads to first, before anger: fear and uncertainty. If we can identify these feelings each time they arise, we at least have a chance to deal more constructively with them—or at least more consciously.
- Anger aimed to make us feel powerful. Control isn’t exactly the issue here. It’s more that we feel small and insecure and have stumbled upon anger as an effective means to feel bigger than those around us. Recognizing this is what’s going on empowers us again to interrupt the generation of anger and instead to deal with the feelings of insecurity. Anger that arises from insecurity is particularly efficient at destroying intimate relationships.
- Anger at injustice. How best to discharge this anger? Take action to correct the injustice, whether committed against yourself or someone else.
Of course, anger may arise for more than one of these reasons at one time. Anger at an injustice committed against you (as opposed to someone else) may intermingle with anger aimed at achieving control (as an expression of a wish for control that could have prevented the injustice from being committed in the first place). Anger aimed at yourself for being powerless in a given situation may intermingle with anger at someone else as a way to achieve the very power you lack.
HOW TO DIFFUSE ANGER IN OTHERS
The goal here is two-fold, your ability to carry out the second being dependent on your ability to carry out the first:
- Remain in control of yourself. When you find yourself on the receiving end of someone’s anger, they’re either trying to control you in some way or make you feel small so they can feel big. Or you’ve done them some kind of wrong. You should seek to understand which of the three it is. You must tell yourself that anger is their strategy and has nothing to do with you at all, unless of course you really have committed an injustice against them, in which case you should make amends.
- Help them discharge their anger in a way that feels satisfying without causing harm. Responding to anger with anger rarely accomplishes anything positive. If you remain in control of yourself so that another’s anger neither manipulates you nor makes you feel small, you have a chance to help them deal with the real issue that triggered their anger in the first place. What tactics work to accomplish this?
- Validate their anger. Resisting a person’s anger, getting angry back at them, denying that their anger is justified all do nothing more than inflame it. Even if their anger isn’t justified in your mind, what would convincing them of that accomplish? It likely wouldn’t give them control over it. Feelings require no justification to be felt.
- Apologize. I told my patient how sorry I was he had such an unpleasant experience. It wasn’t my fault, but in commiserating with him, I was able to validate his anger.
- Help turn their anger into language. Get them to express in words, rather than in harmful action, just how angry they are. This is often an effective way to help them discharge their anger in a way that feels satisfying.
- Get angry with them. Get even angrier than they are. Transform yourself from the object of their anger into their partner in feeling the same anger as they.
Though buried deeply, fear was the obvious cause of my patient’s anger, an emotion with which I could far more easily sympathize. As he’d already calmed down by the time he came to see me (he’d satisfactorily discharged a lot of his anger already over the phone), I spent most of my time validating his anger and attempting to address its underlying cause. He never would acknowledge he was afraid, however, which made me worry there would be similar future outbursts (there were), but having fully apprehended its cause, his anger never again intimidated me. He was ultimately diagnosed with lymphoma, endured several cycles of chemotherapy, and was eventually cured. Of his lymphoma, that is.
Next week: Tribute To A Patient
Excellent, Alex! And very timely for me. I needed that—thanks.
I used to be angry all the time. Six years ago I got sober. I’m not angry anymore. Go figure. Actually, some of the angriest people I know are alchy’s. It is not surprising though. I have never had a happy hangover.
Thank you for very practical, detailed examples of value creation and changing poison into medicine. I always enjoy your columns; this one is especially helpful for me.
Excellent post and some very important suggestions.
Similarly to your fear example, people often direct their anger at others whenever they are angry at themselves. They immediately shift the blame to someone else, and with it their anger.
A very interesting discussion on controlling your anger:
(my link is to anger in a relationship but there are several related topics there).
“Of his lymphoma, that is.”
He would probably disagree with you that anything else needed curing.
Portions of my life have been spent struggling with anger. It’s notable that the first thing that hooked me into continuing meditation was the absence of road rage. As I grow more familiar with strategies for dealing with anger in myself, the more comfortable I become with it as an emotion, which means more comfort in encounters with angry people. It even becomes possible to feel welcoming towards anger.
Great post, Doctor A. When people I care about are angry, though, it just makes me sad. I’ll try to use your diffusers next time.
It took many years before I realized that I shouldn’t immediately react angrily.
We can sometimes imagine that the positions are switched for a different perspective on the situation. Sometimes the perpetrator is emotionally ill or extremely stressed and perhaps feeling very badly. There may be deeply rooted causes.
“It’s hard to have one’s watch stolen, but one reflects that the thief of the watch became a thief from causes of heredity and environment which are as interesting as they are scientifically comprehensible; and one buys another watch, if not with joy, at any rate with a philosophy that makes bitterness impossible.” – Arnold Bennett (1867-1931)
Thanks for the post, Alex—I have had the experience of witnessing angry outbursts from family members and others. I’ve often wondered if somehow recording an outburst and playing it back to the angry person (at a calmer moment) would open their eyes to how frightening and damaging these outbursts can be. It seems that they are not really aware of what they say and how it sounds. They seem to use these outbursts to make themselves feel better while being unaware of the scorched earth they leave in their path.
That is so true, amen!
I now recognize a certain type of unrestrained, inappropriate ballistic anger as an aspect of mental illness. In both cases the angry individual was bipolar and didn’t want to admit it.
What a clear picture you’ve created on what causes anger and how to diffuse the bomb. Anger is such an emotionally charged set of feelings—it can make it challenging to step back and identify what’s keeping the emotions on the surface.
Thanks for this message!
Jill’s Latest Post: Personal Challenge Monday.
When I feel deeply hurt, i use anger so that I don’t have to acknowledge the real feelings underneath. I guess I’m afraid of the pain being too big to ever get over. When I allow myself to feel it, it DOES hurt, but it’s also kind of a relief to let go of the pretense (it’s hard work fooling yourself!). And it’s only then that I can begin to shift it. It’s harder in a way, but anger seems to be much more fixed and unchanging, whereas with hurt you can move through it in stages (kind of like grief on a smaller scale.)
Another post I’m gonna print out and tape to my mirror!
A powerful piece. Thank you so much for your post. I agree that there is a strong difference between anger that eats you alive inside and that which spurs you to act in the face of moral injustice.
Sometimes I wonder if we really know why we’re angry 99 percent of the time? And, I wonder, how much of it is rooted in past hurts? I found the CD, “Anger & Forgiveness” by Belleruth Naparstek to be especially healing. It can be found at http://www.healthjourneys.com.
At any rate, identifying the root cause (or causes) is the most healthful, intellectual and healing way to cope and manage this emotion. Thank you for validating that, as well as for your wonderful insight.
I never had an anger problem myself. However, I was deeply troubled in the past when people, especially members in my family, got angry with me. Their anger was a big source of my depression and I often felt saddened at how painful their words could be (I’m a very sensitive person). After I discovered Christianity, however, whenever someone directs their anger and me, I recall the bible passage “If the world hates you, remember that it hated me first.” Reciting that in my mind makes me feel at ease and that way I don’t hate the person who is angry at me. Instead, I feel sorry for them and can put myself in their shoes.
Great post. Thanks.
Several years ago I came across what I think is an excellent book on dealing with anger; entitled Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). In it I discovered the following really effective technique for dealing with my anger (and other difficult emotions).
Instead of saying “I’m angry”, I practice(d) saying “I am having a feeling of anger.” It sounds simplistic. However, I discovered in this rephrasing that I am NOT my anger (as in, I’m angry). Catching myself when I become aware of anger and rephrasing it as “I am having a feeling of anger” allowed me to separate my SELF from my FEELING for just enough time to let me become aware that I have a choice in my reaction. I could then choose—to be angry—or some other emotion and/or reaction. It was very liberating.
I’m was, and am still, really amazed at how effective this technique is. I’ve used it to good effect since then to deal with feelings of sadness, anxiety, etc.
Giving myself that simple little gap in how I express has been a wonderful and healing gift.
What helps me is asking myself what I felt just before the anger. Usually, I felt hurt. And feeling angry was “easier” than feeling deeply hurt.
Hazel, thanks for your post.
Hmmm. When I read that you were going to post the causes for anger, I closed my eyes and tried to come up with the reasons, myself. My result: 1) angry because not at peace with oneself—what I call unsettledness; 2) angry because person does not view oneself as miniscule part of cosmos, 3) angry because person has a headache or toothache and feels crabby which is a temporary, natural state, and which will pass; 3) angry because pissed at life, feeling like not receiving what entitled to = ego, once again. The cure for anger? Smile! Go dancing! Realize that you’re taking yourself too seriously. Move on to something really worthwhile, such as: How can we find homes for the dogs in the shelters? Every time I think of myself, I say to myself, “Think of something more important!”
Alex, I love this post because it’s so true. There is nothing wrong with anger; we all feel it and actually from life experience I think it’s just as unhealthy to suppress it as much as it it to have it out of control. Learning to channel anger in the proper way is what’s important and I have used it to propel me to fight for injustices for others in a healthy way. Anger channeled in a healthy way has propelled me into taking action to move forward in my life and for the cause of others.
I have also found through life experience people that suppress it and don’t have the boundaries for taking action to confront certain situations end up being VERY passive aggressive in their anger instead, so it’s not really any healthier to wear a fake smile and try to pretend it doesn’t exist. I found yoga and kick boxing together PLUS my chanting has helped me channel my anger in a healthy way. Thanks for this amazing post, Alex. You are without a doubt one of the most talented and prolific writers.
This past spring, I had a terrible headache, a combination sinus/migraine/tension-stress one. Couldn’t get rid of it. My neighbor is an alternative healer. I called and he gave me some biofeedback strategies to use over the phone. It helped. Later that day, I went to see him for the 1st time at his practice. He helped me identify some events that had triggered the headache, and helped me find another way to release my lingering anger at these events. My headache dissolved—and I have not had more than a mild one since. When I start to get one now, I know what to look for, and how to mitigate it before it takes over. Wonderful!
An excellent and timely piece—especially when one looks at the angry reactions of many people to events in our world.
I think fear is at the root of most anger. Fear of change, the loss of control/power, physical harm, the unknown, the loss of respect to name a few. Righteous anger may be an exception to the rule. But what is considered “righteous” by one person or group could be seen as a reaction to fear by someone else. Consider the most volatile political issues of the day such as abortion or gay rights.
When someone is angry (including myself), I try to figure out what the person is afraid of and work to ease the fear. Sometimes it’s obvious, sometimes it’s not and sometimes it’s not possible to do much about it because the person is so deeply entrenched in their fear (as you said your patient was).
I think your methods of dealing with other people’s anger are good, especially point number one of remaining in control yourself. Anger in another usually stirs up many of the fears I mentioned and often results in our becoming angry ourselves. Acknowledging our own anger while remaining in control is difficult but crucial to resolving the situation. I particularly like Kevin’s phrase of “I feel angry” rather than “I am angry.” I used to tell my elementary school students that it was OK to be feel angry about something but what we say and do when we’re angry is important. That phrase would have been helpful.
Thanks again for another thought provoking essay.
I use anger as a cover for when I feel afraid or hurt. I figure if I yell loud enough and say enough mean things that people won’t see how hurt I am. I figure they won’t try to hurt me again because they will figure I am just as mean as they are but I don’t think I fool anyone, including me.
“…but having fully apprehended its cause, his anger never again intimidated me.” I thought this comment was worth pulling out because I missed it the first time.
I’m noticing that I have a fatal flaw in relationships, which is of burying my anger. I exercise, I look at art, I distract myself. The clouds clear. I find a zen about it. And the other side is somewhat aware that they’ve stifled dissent. And then it happens again—incident, anger, recovery. Without changing anything. I don’t make a conscious decision to accept their foibles, they don’t acknowledge my feelings and state an interest in changing if I give them time. Or, even if I do say something to the effect of “well, I guess we’ll have to agree to disagree,” the other person isn’t quite there. It enters that land of crazy of doing the same thing and expecting different results.
So many of these posts say more about the writers and their own *fear* of anger than about the emotion itself. Some of these posters are almost prudish.
Anger is a life force, like creativity and sex. It can be generative or destructive, like nature. Something is wrong with you if you’re unable to feel anger in a simple and clear way. Obviously the lymphoma patient was excessive, but I disagree that he needed to be cured of a capacity to feel anger altogether. Having a polite, rational debate with someone is not anger.
As I read Alex’s post, I couldn’t help thinking of his previous post, “Breaking Free Of The Past.” Perhaps you have your own un-examined discomfort with anger, doctor. Might I gently suggest looking for your anger in the circumstances of your previous post?
Very helpful article. Thanks for posting this, Alex. One way to diffuse your anger is to discover the underlying causes of it. If you listen to the causes of your anger, it’d be easier for you to rationalize your emotions in a calmer way. You should pay attention to the first signs of anger so you’ll be able to get hold of your emotions.
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