Dealing with anger
We all feel angry at different times and to varying degrees. It’s simply part of the human experience. Feelings of anger can arise in many different contexts. Experiencing unjust treatment; hearing a criticism; or simply not getting what you want are but a few of the potential triggers. The experience of anger can range from mild irritation, to frustration, all the way up to seething rage. As a matter of fact, even boredom is a mild version of anger in the form of dissatisfaction with what is happening.
- Can you describe your anger?
- Can you draw it?
- Can you list the things and events that trigger your anger?
Whilst anger can be a great tool when used constructively, fuelling change, enabling us to meet challenges and fight injustice – it can also be extremely destructive.
- How do you use your anger?
- Is it a constructive or destructive element in your life?
What many people don’t realise is that anger is a secondary emotion. What does this mean? Typically, one of the primary emotions, like fear or sadness, can be found underneath the anger. Fear includes things like anxiety and worry, and sadness comes from the experience of loss, disappointment or discouragement. Please take a look at the ‘Anger Iceberg’ below. What are the feelings beneath your anger?
Feeling fear and sadness is quite uncomfortable for most people; it makes us feel vulnerable and out of control. Because of this, people tend to avoid these feelings in any way they can. One way to do this is by subconsciously shifting into anger mode. In contrast to fear and sadness, anger can provide a surge of energy and make us feel more in charge, rather than feeling vulnerable, weak or helpless. Essentially, anger can be a means of creating a sense of control and power in the face of vulnerability and uncertainty.
- Are you addicted to feeling angry?
- Do you use anger as a shield and a form of protection?
- How does anger help you in your life?
- How does anger impact negatively on your life?
The crucial point to improving the management of anger is to differentiate between our feelings and our behaviour.
The feeling is the felt sense we experience in our body. There are a lot of different variations and forms of it: we might feel frustrated, annoyed, envious, mad, irritated, jealous, resentful, upset or aggravated. All those words refer back to the same primal feeling of anger.
The behaviour is what we do, both physically and mentally with these emotions. What we commonly associate with anger is aggressive behaviour, lashing out at people, saying things we regret, being snappy and so on.
We need to focus on the basic distinction between feelings and behaviour. Once we are able to differentiate between the two, the next step is to validate the feelings and challenge the behaviour.
Very often when we are angry, we are in touch with something that is really important for us. I often ask my clients to think about anger as passion. The word passion sounds and feels so much nicer!
- If instead of using the word anger, you used the word passion, what would you be passionate about?
It is so useful here to think about what was taught to us about anger when we were growing up.
As infants we are wired to seek safety from our primary caregivers. Naturally, therefore, with anger comes some anxiety. If we get angry with our parents will they stop loving us? This anxiety often leads children to suppress their anger, resulting in the belief that they cannot fully be themselves if they want to maintain attachment, parental approval and love.
- How was anger displayed in your family?
- How did your parents manage anger?
- Was anger something that was encouraged or suppressed?
Next time you’re feeling anger – whether mild or strong – pause for a moment to check in with yourself and see if you can identify the primary emotion driving the anger. If it’s hard to notice anything but the anger, start by exploring your thoughts, as these are what fuel all emotions. Keep in mind that the shift from a primary emotion like fear or sadness into anger mode is typically quite fast and unconscious. Feeling anger may be an ingrained habit for you, which means that it can take more time to identify the deeper thoughts and feelings that lie underneath.
By working with the fear, sadness, or both, you will develop more skilful ways of relating to your anger. For example, you may find that you have some unresolved grief. Or, you may notice that you feel scared about a certain outcome. That’s good information to work with, as it involves addressing a deeper need than the anger.
By identifying the primary emotion, you can more easily determine the best course of action to resolve your problem. For example, you can figure out whether another’s actions are truly unjust or simply a blow to your ego. Standing up for injustice, like protecting yourself or another from being taken advantage of or harmed, is rational. But, choosing to argue with somebody over something trivial is more about ego. Putting attention on the latter is a waste of energy that could be spent more wisely.
Some exercises to try:
- Please think about the last time you got angry? Can you write this down? Now imagine this scenario with you as an onlooker. How does it feel to observe from a distance?
- 4-7-8 Breathing technique
Breathing techniques have been proven to calm us down. Next time you feel angry please try the below exercise.
Step 1) Make a whoosh sound by exhaling completely through your mouth.
Step 2) Shut your mouth and quietly inhale through your nose, counting mentally to 4.
Step 3) Hold your breath for 7 seconds
Step 4) Exhale by making a whoosh sound again, for a count of 8.
Step 5) Repeat this cycle another 3 times, so in total for 4 breaths.
Anger does not need to be displayed in a hostile way. But nor should it be repressed. Most importantly, it should be seen as a physiological process to be experienced. Anger provides us with essential information and when we allow ourselves to experience the anger and contemplate what may have triggered it, we become empowered. The key here is the experiencing of anger and our power to choose what to do with it.