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3 Keys to Anger Management

Anger is never what it seems

Even Tom would admit that he is easily irritable; his wife would say there are days when she is walking on eggshells and knows to stay out of his way. He never explodes directly at anyone, but when things go awry – when he realizes he left one of his tools at the jobsite, when Saturday plans get rained out – he’s rattled, upset and slamming doors.

Sara, unlike Tom, is rarely angry. She’s the easy-going kind of person who is always pleasant, always willing to help others out, always the first to volunteer to for a project or event. But… occasionally she blows and when she does it’s big – rages, huge WWIII arguments over something seemingly small. Those close to her have learned that this is the time you duck for cover.

Anger is one our primary emotions –young children who bite another child over a toy or stomp their feet when they don’t want to go home; teens who flare up when you mention “homework” or “last night,” adults who go from 0-60 in nanoseconds when someone cuts them off in traffic. Though it’s the boldest of emotions, it’s also never what it seems. Many therapists describe it as a “cover” emotion, one that masks some other emotion beneath.

Anxiety usually heads the list of possible underlying emotions, and is a common driver of anger. Those, for example, who grew up in chaotic environments – alcoholism, abuse, volatile parents – they have few childhood coping skills except to become hypervigilant – always on guard, always externally focused on others, always on edge waiting to see what is going to happen next. With their brains wired in this way, even as adults in more stable environments, they are still on duty, ready to react, coping in the same childhood way.

For others anger gets linked to depression – this is Freud’s definition of depression as anger turned inward. Here we see the agitated depression of some adults, usually men, and young children, who seem irritable and easily angered but inside are as depressed as the person who refuses to get out of bed – the why bother, the hopelessness, the self criticism.

And finally there are those where anger is essentially their only emotion – when they get sad the get angry, when stressed get angry, when horny get angry – it doesn’t matter, every emotion gets translated into varying forms of anger. They lack an emotional range.

We can also look at anger from the perspective of personality and the role we take with others, the way we run our lives. Here are some common overlapping personality patterns and their relationship to anger:

Control freaks: These folks run a tight ship with themselves and others all the time. They know on Tuesday what they are going to be doing on Saturday. Underneath the control is anxiety, and when control is in command the anxiety stays at bay. But when things happen outside their control or their plans – their wife suggesting on Saturday that her mother come over for dinner – anxiety and anger bubble up. They get rattled and snap. And this is where Tom gets into trouble – the guy who is always on edge now becomes derailed and upset.

Martyrs: This is Sara. She is over-responsible and nice. She goes and goes, does and does and periodically blows up because she eventually gets fed up. Fed up with doing it all, fed up with being nice, fed up with others not appreciating her or pulling their weight. It’s all unfair, and she feels that she deserves to be so angry. But after it’s all over, her good-girl conscience kicks in, she feels guilty. She makes up and starts the cycle all over again.

Victims: If you are always under someone else’s control, if you feel abused in some way, that you can never please the other person, that you can never win, your pent-up resentment, like Sara’s, can periodically come to the head. While it may come out as a emotional blow-up, because of the one-down nature of the relationship, it often takes the form of passive-aggressive acting out – the partner who angry at the other goes on a shopping spree, the guy who feels taken advantage of on the job steals supplies from the company. Again, there is a sense of deserving, but the source of the problem, the dysfunctional relationship, never gets addressed.

Bullies: Bullies are actually a group unto themselves. While it’s easy to see them as always angry people (and many are) or the 0-60 types, there is a different psychological dynamic at work. Their modus operandi is less about spraying pent up emotion around the room and more about resorting to anger, aggression and power to get those to do what they want or get them before they do.

Often these unfortunate souls were abused, learned to psychologically identify with the aggressor, and are replicating their own histories. In severe cases they have grown so hardened that they lack conscience, are manipulative, and see a world with themselves as predators, everyone else as prey. They do so much need anger management as the ability to connect and empathize with others.

Internalizers: Internalizers well…internalize. We’re back to Freud. It’s easy for these folks to automatically assume that whatever happened is undoubtedly their fault, not the other guys; they mentally beat up on themselves, leading to depression. Or they may actually feel the sting of anger but feelings so emotionally overwhelmed and fearful of confrontation they hold it, often coping through self abuse – cutting, drugs, alcohol, food.

So how to manage anger? Three steps. We’ll take them one-by-one:

#1. Prevention. If you are a type of person who goes from 0-60 or who periodically explodes, who has a difficult catching anger, resentment, even anxiety as it builds, then you need to slow it down and become more self-aware. Here are the steps:

  • Check in with yourself once an hour. Ask yourself on a scale of 1-10 with 1 flat-lined, 10 enraged or extremely anxious, where am I in terms of mood, emotion? By asking the question you are stopping yourself from going on autopilot; you gradually become more aware of your emotional life.
  • Solve the problem. When you find yourself getting up to a 4 or 5 ask yourself: Is there a problem I need to fix? This is about using anger for information rather than release. Maybe your supervisor scheduled you for the weekend and you realize it’s bothering you – go talk to your supervisor or send him an email. Maybe Sara volunteered to help out at the church but now regrets giving up the weekend. She needs to back out or commit to less time. Do something different rather than sucking it up.
  • Ask yourself: What else am I feeling? Because those prone to anger tend to be emotionally limited in range, this question begins to reset the brain. The first 350 times you ask yourself that question your response is likely to be, Don’t know, I’m just feeling pissed. That’s fine. However, whenever you do notice something else – you’re worried, you’re sad – label it – I’m worried – and again do something with it – actively address the worry, write down or tell someone what you are sad about and see if you can sink into those feelings.

Ongoing stress reduction. These are daily prevention tips. The other prevention path is reducing your overall anger / anxiety threshold. This is about engaging in regular exercise, meditation, or medication to lower your reactiveness and making it easier to catch yourself when emotions start to build.

#2. Act in the moment.

When anger gets up to the 8-10 range and begins to flare out of control you need to have first-aide techniques to put out the emotional fire. When you’re angry, your anger makes it easy for you to blame others for making you feel that way, and to expect them to do something to make you feel better (like do what you want). But you’re responsible for your emotions. If you are getting overwhelmed, you, not someone else, needs to be able to calm yourself down.

This is where first-aide, in-the-moment techniques come into play: Deep breathing, Emotional Freedom Technique (there is plenty of info on this online), mindfulness, distraction, exercise, journaling. Again, there are plenty of tools and techniques out there to use and a number of articles on this website. Your goal is to recognize your anger level, label it, own it, and take some concrete action there and then to lower the emotional fire.

While your angry brain may say that you need to fix the problem now in order to calm down – get the other person to do what you want, quit your job, etc. – this is a bad idea. Your rational brain is offline. The emotions are the immediate problem, not what you’re thinking. Put out the fire.

When you’re feeling more calm, when your rational brain is back, use your anger as information, assess the problem, and take action in an adult way.

#3. Reshape your personality.

Steps 1 & 2 are about managing anger. This step is about seeing anger as a bad solution to another problem you’re having in running your life and relationships. It's about stepping out of the dysfunctional roles and out-moded, ineffective coping styles that you’ve relied upon.

Control Freaks: So if you are like Tom, you need to address your anxiety directly rather than relying solely on control to manage it. You may need medication or meditation or therapy. Most of all you want to resist the magical thinking that if you could just run a tighter ship you’ll feel better. Actually, the opposite is the case. Your goal is to learn to recognize anxiety, tolerate it better, and when necessary have more effective tools to rein it in.

Martyrs: If, like Sara, you are one of these folks, you need to stop running your life solely on “shoulds” and making everyone happy, but instead learn to focus on you, what you want. This doesn’t mean becoming insensitive to others, but rather becoming more sensitive to yourself.

Victims: Victims feel trapped and are often easily overwhelmed by emotions. The way out is two-pronged: Having ways of calming the emotions so your own rational thinking can replace relying on the other’s control; having a way of escaping the relationship or rebalancing it so you don’t feel so unempowered. This can be tough to do or figure out, and you will likely need support from community, family, friends to develop a plan and take the necessary steps to break free.

Bullies: Most bullies don’t see themselves as bullies. If they did they probably wouldn’t be one. What often has the best chance of changing their behavior is bottom-lines – getting disciplinary action at school, on the job, their spouse threatening to divorce, trouble with the law. Their biggest challenge is learning to take responsibility for their behavior and emotions rather than blaming others.

Internalizers: This is about learning to speak up when you’re inclination is to shut down and pull back; to not believe the self-critical voice in your head all the time, to build self-confidence by solving problems. Therapy can help a lot, medication can reduce the anxiety of taking acceptable risks.

So there you have it, a combination of tools, action, new ways of thinking. Since a lot of these behaviors and emotions are so hot-wired, it’s about having a goal, a plan, about taking baby-steps to handle emotions, relationships differently.

Be patient, be kind to yourself, take it one step at a time.