Mindful Anger

A pathway to emotional freedom

7 Things You Need to Learn About Your Temper

Anger can blow up your relationships, if you don't know where it's coming from.

"Stop crying this instant!"

"Don't take that attitude with me!"

You might not hear these commands much these days, but the things your parents and caregivers told you when you were angry as a child have probably stuck with you. How your parents expressed their own anger might have taught you things as well—that the emotion should be avoided, that it's bad, or that someone always gets hurt when it's expressed. In other words, your childhood experiences may have created lasting emotional wounds that alter your adult relationships today.

When you're angry, stress hormones flood your body, shutting down the rational part of your brain. You may run and hide, or attack and deny, depending on your upbringing. More often than not, the autopilot response to anger you've been stuck on since you were a kid is hurting you.

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Thankfully, wounds like these can heal. By learning a few things about anger, you can find better ways of addressing the emotion. Here are seven things to know about anger caused by emotional wounds and how to prevent it from controlling your life:

1. Suppressed anger is like a volcano.

Anger can make others uncomfortable, or frightened, so your parents may have encouraged you to bottle it up rather than let it out. The problem with suppression, though, is that it creates a mountain of explosive feelings that can eventually erupt in harmful ways, from physical illness and depression to self-defeating behaviors.

2. Your anger is trying to talk to you.

Anger is your brain's way of telling you that something upsets you. If someone says or does something that angers you, and you ignore your feelings, you're also ignoring the trigger. If something is important enough to you that it causes the emotion, it's obviously too significant to be dismissed.

3. Your body tells you when you're angry.

Anger often develops so quickly and intensely that it's hard to recognize you're even feeling angered before you react. By learning to recognize what anger does to your body—makes your face hot, creates pressure in your neck—you'll be able to create a space between the trigger and your reaction.

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4. Reactions can be controlled.

A friend says something hurtful, a romantic partner seems remote, or a child is cranky. Any of these can spark a reaction that drives you to respond in a damaging way. It may not seem like it now, but it's possible to manage your reaction to triggers. By controlling impulsive responses, you can consider the situation and choose to speak or act in ways that best serves you.

5. Your childhood is still making you angry.

Consider this scenario: As a kid, your dad would look at your homework after dinner while enjoying his fourth beer of the night. He always found something wrong with it and would insult you, calling you "stupid" and "lazy." Instead of dismissing your father as an alcoholic, you developed a fear of being criticized and a belief that all criticism is demeaning. As an adult, when your boss asks you to redo a report that has errors, you respond with anger, but what triggered your reaction has more to do with your dad than it does with your boss.

6. Reactivity can quietly destroy relationships.

When you try to talk to your partner while either of you is reactive, nothing is gained. You talk over each other, or you only think about what you can say next to win the argument. In the end, you both lose, because no one is listening. This kind of reactivity can lead to a relationship in which one or both of you walk on eggshells for fear of causing a fight—while the problems underlying the heated exchanges are never revealed and dealt with.

7. Mindfulness is the opposite of reactivity.

Good relationships don’t happen by accident. Anger handled in an unhealthy way keeps you and those you love from getting what you need or want from life, and from each other. Mindfulness is the key to unlocking healthy reactions to triggers and anger, because mindfulness is the opposite of reactivity.

How to Move Forward

The first step to changing the way you interact with others is to identify problems and accept responsibility. Look at yourself honestly and do a mindful review of the role that anger has played in your relationships. Then you can begin the process of learning how to access and process your feelings. When you commit yourself to changing the way you think and behave, you take back power over your life. By using mindfulness to repair emotional wounds, you can move forward in a spirit of forgiveness and gratitude.

Dr. Andrea Brandt, Ph.D, M.F.T, is a psychotherapist with over 30 years of experience treating anger, passive-aggressiveness, anxiety, relationships, and work-life balance.

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