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What to Do When Getting Angry Gets You Nowhere

Four essential keys to using anger wisely and well.

Key points

  • Many of our problems with anger occur when we choose between having a relationship and having a self.
  • As we learn new ways of managing old anger, we can gain a clearer and stronger “I” and the capacity for a more intimate and gratifying “we.”
  • Strategies for managing anger include tuning in to the sources of our anger and learning effective communication skills.

To use anger as a tool for change in relationships–and grab a little happiness and dignity along the way–we need to pay careful attention to these four things.

1. We can learn to tune in to the true sources of our anger and clarify where we stand.

“What is the real issue here?” “Who is responsible for what?” “What, specifically, do I want to accomplish?” “What are the things I will and will not do?” These may seem like simple questions, but it's amazing how frequently we march off to battle without knowing what the war is about.

We may be putting our anger energy into trying to change or control a person who does not want to change, rather than into getting clear about our position and choices.

Managing anger effectively goes hand in hand with developing a clearer “I” and becoming a better expert on the self.

2. We can learn communication skills.

This will maximize the chances of being heard and that conflicts and differences will be negotiated. On the one hand, there may be nothing wrong with venting our anger spontaneously, as we feel it. There are circumstances in which this is helpful and those that are simply necessary as long as we are not abusive.

Many times, however, fighting may offer temporary relief, but when the storm passes, we find that nothing has really changed. Further, there are certain relationships in which maintaining a calm, non-blaming position is essential for lasting change to occur.

Even the hardest things we need to say can be said with kindness. Even when we're angry, we can make thoughtful decisions about how and when to say what to whom. Of course, it helps to calm down first.

3. We can learn to observe and change our steps in the old dance that brings us pain.

Learning to observe and change our part in relationship patterns goes hand in hand with an increased sense of personal responsibility in every relationship. By “responsibility,” I do not mean self-blame or the labeling of ourselves as the “cause” of the problem.

Rather, I speak here of “response-ability”—the ability to observe ourselves and others in interaction and respond to a familiar situation in a new and different way.

We cannot make another person change his or her steps to an old dance, but if we change our steps, the dance no longer continues in the same predictable pattern.

4. We can learn to anticipate and deal with counter­ moves or demands to “change back!”

If we begin to change our old patterns of silence or blaming, we will inevitably encounter strong resistance or countermoves. This “change back!” reaction will come from inside ourselves and significant others around us.

Those closest may have the greatest investment in us staying the same, despite whatever criticisms and complaints they may openly voice. We also resist the very changes we seek. Like the will to change, this resistance to change is a natural and universal aspect of all human systems.

If we are serious about change, we can learn to anticipate and manage the anxiety and guilt evoked in us in response to the countermoves or “change back!” reactions of others.

It is never easy to move away from silent submission or ineffective fighting toward a calm but firm assertion of who we are, where we stand, what we want, and what is and is not acceptable to us. As we become truly clear and direct, other people may become just as clear and direct about their thoughts and feelings or that they are not going to change.

In the short run, it is sometimes simpler to continue with our old familiar ways, even when personal experience has shown us that they only lead to more of the same. In the long run, however, there is much to be gained by using our anger to define ourselves and to take new and different actions on our behalf.

Many of our problems with anger occur when we choose between having a relationship and having a self. As we learn new ways of managing old angers, we can gain a clearer and stronger “I” and the capacity for a more intimate and gratifying “we.”

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