Anger is often described as a ‘secondary emotion’ i.e. it is accompanied by more or other emotions, namely sadness and/or hurt. Anger is also a highly accessible emotion. That means it’s available and easy to get too rather than go to the true emotion beneath it. It is easier to get angry and ‘lash out’ than admit ‘I’m really hurt by what you said/did’.
When we feel envious of someone, it is easier to blame and criticize them in an angry way, rather than admit that we are jealous. It’s a bit like always running to our local convenience store to get the bare essentials, it’s quick and easy but we really know we should go to the supermarket to get everything we need!
As an adolescent therapist, I see this tendency to ‘lash out’,almost every other day. I often use the analogy of the iceberg, upon which the tip is anger but beneath it lie an array of feelings ranging from sadness and embarrassment to shame and fear.
Anger is an easily accessible emotion. The task in addressing anger is understanding and accessing the other emotions beneath it and consequently learning to become less angry less often.
Another key point about anger is that it can be addictive. Because it’s so accessible, people will react with anger first. It then becomes a habitual behavioral response i.e. they do it over and over again. Anger also drives us towards the object of our arousal unlike shame, sadness or anxiety, so there’s a reward system linked to getting angry.
So, the question is, how can I help myself or someone I know manage their anger? Here are some tips below.
1. Identify your triggers
Knowing what exacerbates your anger is a really useful and practical step. Things to check here are:
- Am I getting enough sleep every night?
- Am I eating the right food for my body?
- Am I drinking too much alcohol?
- Do I have a physical ailment that is making life hard for me right now?
- How are my stress levels right now?
- How is my self care these days?
Certain people can also trigger us into anger. They may remind us of someone from our past that triggers some ‘beneath the iceberg feelings’. Anger can act as a defence here, but it might be useful to avoid this person where possible, until you feel you can regulate your emotional response.
When we become emotionally flooded, the thinking brain becomes hijacked. A very simple yet effective way to counteract this is to take a deep breath in for a count of 7 and exhale for a count of 11. Focus on the exhale and back this up with the statement ‘I am becoming calmer’ in between counts.
3. Thoughts are not fact
The thoughts that inform your anger are only thoughts and not fact. Take a minute to remind yourself of this.
4. Create a Distance
Creating a distance between you and your trigger points is a useful step. You can do this physically (by walking away) or by practising a de-escalation technique such as the one detailed in point number two above.
5. Respond and don’t React
You can respond calmly via the following
- Tone of voice – be firm, clear but don’t shout.
- Body Language – Practice a strong and grounded posture. Not an overbearing and intimidating stance. You can practice this in the mirror or ask someone close to you for feedback on this.
- Be clear about what you are trying to communicate. I mention more specific details about this below. I call it…
6. Be Expressive not Aggressive
How do we effectively express ourselves? It’s important that you’re clear on what you need to communicate. I often ask myself, ‘What do I need this person to know here? What do I need to communicate to this person?’
- Communicate clearly and succinctly
- Be firm, but polite
- Articulate accurately what you’re trying to say
A useful way to structure this is to follow the steps below.
Take Ownership and don’t blame: Use words like ‘I’ (ownership) and not ‘You are’ (blame)
Explain impact – Example ‘it delays proceedings and we fail to finish on time’.
Make a request – Do you think you could make it on time for the next meeting?
Here’s an example:
Your colleague is always late to meetings which has an impact on the whole team.
An angry ‘Lash Out’ response would be:
“You’re always late for meetings. You’re selfish and inconsiderate. The whole team is annoyed with you. Don’t bother coming from now on!”
A calm, structured response would be:
We struggle as a team when you’re late. It delays things and we don’t get to finish on time. What would make it possible for you to get here on time for the next meeting?’
How you communicate is as important as what you are communicating.
Being calm, confident and considerate is the perfect antidote to anger.
And practicing is the best way to get there!
If you would like to learn more about assertive communication, Dr Julie Hanks has a lot of information on her website and a very useful book on the subject. As always, if you feel you cannot manage your anger on your own, then I suggest researching some therapists and/or support groups in your area.