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Anger

When You're Too Angry to Confront Someone Effectively

Don't wait until you're ready to blow up before confronting someone. Here's why.

Key points

  • Waiting too long to vent your anger will make it impossible to do so assertively, since it's bound to come out aggressively.
  • One key reason not to react in fury when you feel offended is that you could be off-base about the other's (possibly benign) intentions.
  • Once you've gained additional insight into what you're actually reacting to in the provocative situation, your anger will likely soften.
 Openclipart/Public Domain Vectors
Source: Openclipart/Public Domain Vectors

Sadly, if you're like most people, you probably won't permit yourself to vent your escalating anger until it's too late—too late, that is, to be effectual. Which is why it's not prudent to hold off expressing annoyance until it reaches the boiling point. And it really doesn't much matter whether the recipient of your ire is your partner, someone in your family, your neighbor, business associate, boss, or anyone else.

Expressing anger: Waiting too long—or not long enough

In all these cases, when your patience or tolerance with the other has been exhausted, any steamed reaction toward them will be far from ideal. In waiting too long to declare your mounting irritation or grievance, your cautiously delayed expression is likely to backfire. It can actually make things worse than before—maybe much worse.

Why? Simply because when anger overtakes you, your communication skills will be seriously compromised—if not completely offline. The distinction here is between discharging your anger in a scrupulously self-monitored and controlled fashion—versus allowing your anger to dominate and take control of you.

When the latter instance occurs, you'll have lost the capacity to think clearly about (let alone care about) how your unrestrained ventilation will affect the other party. And this unfortunate obliviousness can't help but negatively impact the cordiality, not to mention viability, of the relationship going forward.

In other words, waiting too long to vent your anger will make it impossible to do so assertively. At that point, it's bound to come out aggressively, if not belligerently. And your chances of being heard and understood the way you want will sharply diminish.

Yet, on the contrary, holding in your spiraling anger for fear of how its respondent will react has major problems of its own. For once you're almost seething with anger, your words or tone will become passive-aggressive. And sooner or later—consciously or not—your hostile feelings will become patent to the person who's antagonized you.

There are powerful reasons why you don't want to be overreactive and respond angrily when you're offended. And they revolve around the possibility (probability?) that you could be significantly off-base about the other's intentions. They may have said (or written) something purely in jest, or they may simply be unaware of areas in which you're particularly sensitive and so can't help but take their words or actions personally.

Additionally, your over-the-top emotional reaction could be a displacement from a person who in the past verbally attacked, embarrassed, or humiliated you. This is why it's imperative that you distance yourself from your immediate feelings and ask yourself whether you might—either gratuitously or transferentially—be attributing malign motives to the other without sufficient evidence that they intended to demean you.

Dennis Relojo-Howell, offering an unusually pithy summation of the problem, states that your anger can disadvantage or hurt you "if it is too extreme, occurs at inappropriate times, or lasts too long."

So how do you decide when and whether it makes sense to air out your anger?

To begin with, you need to ask yourself what might be beneath your anger. The first post of many I've published on this topic makes the point that, however strange it may sound, anger is rarely a primary emotion because it typically masks a more distressing emotion beneath it—which it's vigorously defending you against. And these feelings include (but are hardly limited to) hurt, grief, anxiety, unworthiness, guilt, shame, fears of intimacy, or an irksome sense of vulnerability in general.

Once you're gained more insight into what you're really reacting to and can offer yourself some empathic understanding and compassion, it's likely your anger will soften. So when you do communicate your annoyance, you'll be able to do so in a much less attacking, confrontational manner, thereby prompting a more favorable result.

The other thing that's essential to consider beforehand is just what you wish to accomplish in addressing your irritation. This deliberation is what should dictate both whether and how to best approach the other person.

The post "Communicating Mindfully When We Are Upset" (2021) artfully condenses the criteria relevant to this evaluation:

Do we want them to feel bad about how they’ve made us feel?
Do we want to punish them with our words?
Or do we want to feel understood?
Do we want to find a resolution to a problem?

Furthermore, David Burns, in his classic self-help book Feeling Good (1980), proposes two guidelines to determine whether communicating your anger will lead to the outcome you desire. In his own words:

1. Is my anger directed toward someone who has knowingly, intentionally, and unnecessarily acted in a hurtful manner?

2. Is my anger useful? Does it help me achieve a desired goal or does it simply defeat me?

I'd add that if the other person has "knowingly" acted in a hurtful way, it's probably because, in their particular estimation, you've intentionally hurt them. So their communication may most accurately be viewed as vengeful or retaliatory—and feel every bit as justified as your own.

All this should underscore that responding angrily to the party that presumably made you angry—when, according to Burns and others, ultimately you alone can make yourself angry—is misguided.

Remedies for not letting your expression of anger degrade your relationship

A great deal of literature is readily available online elaborating on how to best deal with your anger when it's getting, or has already gotten, out of control (e.g., see in my Reference section, Bothra, Brown, Relojo-Howell, Sheffield—and others whose names aren't provided).

Inasmuch as these writings pretty much repeat the same advice and space limitations don't permit me to expand on their commonsensical suggestions, I'll merely outline their recommendations and invite interested readers to click on the links furnished below to obtain more detailed information:

  • Before addressing the problem, cool your overheated engine by taking deep breaths, relaxing your body, etc.—and then reflect, rationally versus emotionally, all that's swirling around inside you.
  • Consider whether you might be confusing this person with someone else or seeing things prejudicially.
  • If the other individual has reactivated old self-doubts, talk compassionately to yourself—and extend that compassion to them as well.
  • Try to engage your sense of humor, viewing the uncomfortable situation from an absurdist or more ludicrous perspective.
  • Do advance planning on how, tactfully, you can communicate your distressed feelings to whoever allegedly provoked them.
  • Make a sincere effort to listen to their viewpoint, as well as appreciate its (subjective) validity.
  • Don't demand a change in their behavior but—gingerly—request it.
  • Voice your concerns respectfully (a real challenge if you haven't already rehearsed your prospective strategy).
  • In bringing all your communication skills to the situation, try to employ "I feel" statements, which focus on your emotional reactions rather than something reprehensible about the other person. For if you speak in an attacking manner, you can't expect the "accused" to be very sympathetic to your position.
  • If you realize you're still too upset to speak in a manner that could resolve your relational impasse, politely request a timeout to collect yourself.
  • Focus not so much on getting out your anger but on the relationship goals and objectives you want such ventilation to achieve.
  • Finally, examine whether your very susceptibility to anger is something that, personally, you may need to work on.

Although probably, like most people, I'm not a great fan of confrontation, it's foolish to avoid it at all costs. At times it's essential if you're to uphold your boundaries, make your wants and needs clear, and stand your ground when you're being bullied, gaslit, or steamrolled.

So although it's hardly wise to evade all confrontation when it's genuinely warranted, it's critical that you approach it mindfully—with as much tact, diplomacy, and civility (if not cordiality) as you can muster.

© 2021 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.

References

4 steps for communicating when angry or upset (n.a.; 2020, Dec 29). https://amala.mas-ssf.org/4-steps-for-communicating-when-angry-or-upset/

Bothra, S. (n.d.). How to communicate when you are angry. https://thriveglobal.com/stories/how-to-communicate-when-you-are-angry/

Brown, J. (2020, Mar 3). Anger management: What to say when you're too angry to talk. https://www.fatherly.com/love-money/anger-mangement-too-angry-to-talk/

Burns, D. D. (1980). Feeling angry? What's your anger IQ? Chapter 7 in Feeling good. New York: Wm. Morrow & Co.

Relojo-Howell, D. (2015, Apr 7). How to communicate when you're angry. https://welldoing.org/article/how-communicate-when-youre-angry

Seltzer, L. F. (2012, Aug 16). A powerful two-step porocess to get rid of unwanted anger. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/evolution-the-self/201208/power…

Seltzer, L. F. (2013, Jun 14). Anger: How we transfer feelings of guilt, hurt, and fear. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/evolution-the-self/201306/anger…

Seltzer, L. F. (2014, Jul 3). What does Donald Duck have to do with anger control? https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/evolution-the-self/201407/what-…

Seltzer, L. F. (2018, Nov 7). Why you secretly enjoy getting angry. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/evolution-the-self/201811/why-y…

Seppälä, E. (2017, Sept 28). 6 ways the most emotionally intelligent people handle anger. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/feeling-it/201709/6-ways-the-mo…

Sheffield, T. (2016, Mar 10). How to communicate when you're angry with 7 helpful tips. https://www.bustle.com/articles/147164-how-to-communicate-when-youre-an…

TMP Admin. (2021, Apr 17). Communicating mindfully when we are upset. https://www.londonmindful.com/blog/communicating-mindfully-when-we-are-…

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