Understanding Anger

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Many times when we are angry we feel a dilemma of sorts.  Should I let my anger out or keep it in.  If I keep it in it fills like the “pressure” will build up and then I will explode.  If I let my anger out the pressure will be reduced, but someone might get burned.  This type of frame views anger like steam and your choices are to vent the steam to reduce the pressure or keep it inside, running the risk of the pressure building up.

This is a false choice.  I don’t have to choose between venting or suppressing because there is a third alternative.  The third alternative is asking metaphorically “why is there steam present in the first place?” Maybe I can address the source of the anger by turning down the heat, then I won’t have any steam to worry about.

Misdirected Control

Think of the last time you were really angry about something.  Picture the different elements of the situation and the people involved.  Ask yourself what in this situation were you trying to control?  The answer quite likely was something other than your own self.  Anger is often the result of trying to control something that, in reality, we have no control over.  Examples of things we have no control over include how someone else thinks, things other people do, or situations that have already happened.  A good way to remember what you do not have control over is to look at the end of your finger tips.  Everything in the universe ” beyond the end of your fingertips” includes the things over which you have no control.  How you look at things, choices you make, what you do or otherwise represent the limits of our control.  Sometimes re-framing the situation in terms of what you have control over can go a long way towards dissipating anger.

Unmet Need, unexpressed

Sometimes we can really get angry when we have a need that is important to us and someone we look toward to meet that need is not responding.  However, all of this bounces around in our head and we, at times, forget that we have not expressed this need to the other person.  I get mad at the person for not meeting the need I didn’t tell them about.  Even though that is a distorted view to hold, we all do this from time to time.  Sometimes avoiding expressing our needs is rooted in fear that our need will be rejected if we voice it directly.  Sometimes we have a romanticized belief that we shouldn’t have to tell the other person our needs: “they should just know.”

Anger Directed at You

Sometimes we are on the receiving end of anger that someone else is experiencing.  They may be trying to control us or some past event or might need something but are having trouble clearly voicing it.  In this case we can try to use what I think is an almost magic-like question:

“What is it that you need right now that I’m able to do something about?’

Let’s break down the question a little bit.  Remember that anger is often generated by trying to control something that in reality one can not control.  Often this is another person.  The first part of the question, “what is it that you….” helps the other person to begin to focus on themselves.  The unspoken subtext is “How about we focus on you instead of me and what you think I should or shouldn’t be doing?”

Next, the thing that we might want to focus on is what it is that you need.  The unspoken subtext here is “I’m not really interested in your anger, but I am interested in what it is that you need to be happy and well in this situation.”

The next place to focus on is  the here and now.  What is that you need right now?  The subtext here is “I can’t do anything about what you needed an hour ago or last year.  What is it that you need now about this problem?”

Finally, we focus on what we are able to do something about.  Again, if our mind is attached to things over which we have no control it will tend to get stuck in a state of anger.  If we focus on what we have control over we are more empowered and more effective.

So, a mind that is focused on what it needs in the present moment that is possible to address…that is a much less angry mind.

Autonomic Arousal  

Sometimes it is difficult to think clearly and properly re-frame things when we feel angry because who are emotionally flooded.  When we experience anger it often takes the form of elevated autonomic arousal.  Reducing this arousal helps us to bring online the more thoughtful part of our brains.

Pausing – taking a break from the situation can be helpful.  Pausing helps us to put distance between our emotional impulse and action.  Stop and think.

Breathing –  taking  deep, slow belly breaths can influence your brain to send out an “all clear” signal reducing arousal.

Exercise –  aerobic activity can help reduce arousal.  When we are flooded the primitive “fight or flight” mechanism gets activated.  This is helpful when there is a physical threat and we have to mobilize immediate action ( think about a bear trying to eat you.)  This response is not so helpful if the threat is your boss or your spouse.  It is not typically a good idea to do the “fight” part of the reaction.  Therefore, try “flight.”  Doing a a light job will give your system biological signals to send out the all clear signal.