Al is a quiet, sweet tempered man in his early thirties. He makes a conscious effort to be kind to other people -- even on the crowded New York City subway in the middle of rush hour. But the other day he came into my office seething with fury. Another child had pushed Al's young son on the playground, causing him to fall and break one of his front teeth.

"I don't think I've ever been so angry in my life!" Al said through his own clenched teeth. He took a deep breath. "I mean, these things happen of course; but this time was no accident. This kid is out of control. He's a bully and his parents are completely out to lunch. No one is taking charge of him. And my kid got hurt!"

As therapists often do, I asked Al to tell me about his own experiences with aggression. He spoke of childhood memories of fighting with his siblings, of being punished by his parents; and he also talked about his struggles to contain his own aggression. "I was a tough kid," he said. "I liked to fight. My parents channeled a lot of my aggression into sports. I played everything and loved them all, although I was not exactly a good sport. I couldn't stand losing!"

I looked at him in astonishment. This picture did not fit with the man I thought I knew. As a businessman, Al was a great sport, a generous competitor who shook hands (literally or figuratively) with his business opponents whether he won or lost any competition. He laughed.

"I know, I know," he said. "I learned how to be a good sport. I learned how to take my aggression and use it to make myself move forward."

In the past few months, I have listened to increasing numbers of clients struggle to manage their angry and aggressive feelings. Some people simply try to get rid of them. Others try to talk themselves out of them. Others feel so ashamed of these "ugly" emotions that they become depressed and withdraw from the world.

Freud pointed out that aggression is part of the human condition. The job of parents, he said, was to teach children how to manage their belligerence, not to get rid of it. Al is an excellent example of someone who learned to channel this part of himself without feeling shame or humiliation about the feelings.

Virginia Demos, a psychologist in Massachusetts, says that we have feelings--even negative, hostile and angry ones--for a reason. The question is why do we have them, and what do we do with them?

Anger has numerous meanings. It can be protective, of ourselves or of loved ones, as Al experienced. It can be a reaction to feeling hurt, frustrated, or as the self psychologist Heinz Kohut put it, fragmented by someone else's behavior. It helps us pull ourselves together. It gives us cues to take action. And it gives us a sense of power when we are feeling powerless.

Unfortunately, some of the actions we take in response to our anger can be harmful to others, including some of the people we love the most. So what do we do with these feelings?

Here are some tips:

  1. Recognize when you start to feel angry. Often there are small cues that anger is building, cues that most of us do not pay much attention to. We notice only when we get to a point of no return. But if we can pay attention to the early signs, we can start to take control of a situation before it gets out of hand.
  2. Try to put into words what you are angry about and why. Al was furious that his child had been hurt. He felt rage at the other child, at the school, and at the child's parents. Ultimately, however, he realized that his anger was in direct proportion to his pain and fear about his son's injuries.
  3. Wait till the iron is cool (this wonderful phrase comes from the psychoanalyst Fred Pine). Al felt that some steps needed to be taken to protect not only his own son, but also other children from the boy's aggression. He also wanted the school to make some adjustments to the physical layout of the playground and the amount of supervision provided. But he waited until he was over the intense heat of his distress to have a civil and productive discussion with some of the other parents and with the head of the school.
  4. Pay attention to your own history with anger. Who got angry in your family? Who did not? What was the message about aggression? How easily did the people you grew up express irritation and how quickly did they get over it. We carry with us all sorts of early messages and experiences with strong emotions, many of which are not readily available to us. Thinking about the different ways that anger and aggression were managed in your family will help you find not only negative and/or painful experiences, but also positive ones that you already have in your repertoire.
  5. Take responsibility. Find ways to manage your anger without negating your feelings. This may mean taking a mindfulness class or an anger management course. It may mean going into therapy. There is nothing to be ashamed of if you feel that you could use some help processing and coping with these feelings. If more people would own their anger and take responsibility for managing it, the world would likely be a much better place for us all.

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