4 Strategies for Dealing with Anger
Psychologists say that anger is a “secondary” emotion. It safeguards you from dealing with harder emotions, like shame, sadness, or fear. It also generates a powerful, self-soothing neurochemical. And it creates a heightened sense of control. As the anger expert Dr. Leon Seltzer says, “If anger helps you feel in control, no wonder you can’t control your anger!”
A friend told me about several angry reactions he’s had recently with his wife. When I asked him what emotions were behind that anger, his answers came fast and intense:
- I’m disappointed that my children are not growing into good character.
- I’m afraid that my wife is not creating a social community.
- I’m sad that she and I don’t have more fun together.
“You didn’t hesitate on that answer,” I said. “Sounds like you’re really clear on those factors.”
“I wasn’t until just now. I need to write those down,” he said as he pulled out his phone.
I can relate. I’ve been angry several times in recent months. In each case, I had more to realize beyond my anger.
For instance, I was angry when a client nearly cancelled a project due to their internal politics. This can’t happen! I thought. What a reflection of their large-company bureaucracy! Now I have to do whatever I can to save it!
Then I remembered my friend’s answers. I realized:
- I’m embarrassed to have to tell my team.
- I’m ashamed for having done work on the project before it was fully approved.
- I’m scared that I won’t find another project to make up for the lost revenue.
How to Respond to Angry
Why does understanding the emotions behind the anger matter? Because it results in a more truthful conversation with yourself and others.
I remember one time when my son was so angry at the dinner table that he refused to eat and was being rude to everyone else. I got angry back.
“You need to eat your food, and you can’t treat people that way!” I demanded.
And then I realized that I might not be confronting the true issue.
In a much softer tone I said, “You seem really angry. Did something happen that’s making you feel this way?”
Tears welled up in his eyes.
“Yeah, kids were mean to me on the bus today.”
That led to a very different conversation from the eat your food and treat people with respect battle.
Being angry is being human. But you can learn to respond to it in a more productive way. Here are some things to remember when you’re dealing with anger.
- Be curious rather than defensive. A wise counselor has often repeated this advice to me: Defensiveness is a weaker posture than curiosity. Coach and author Kyle Benson says that, although it’s much easier to become defensive, he’s found that when he stops and thinks, “Wow, this person is angry. Why is that?” it allows him to uncover the raw emotions beneath the anger. And that journey, he says, actually brings them closer together.
- Don’t accuse people of overreacting. Benson goes on to say, “Maybe you grew up in a family where anger wasn’t allowed, so when [someone] expresses it, it feels paralyzing and you freeze. Or maybe you try to solve their anger for them because their anger scares you.” Either way, avoid telling the other person “they are overreacting” or to “calm down,” he advises. “This tells the recipient that their feelings don’t matter and they are not acceptable.”
- Affirm (before you try to fix) the underlying emotions. The emotions behind anger are often too painful or confusing to address. After all, they wouldn’t have made us angry if we had them under control. So the best responses might be: “That’s hard,” “I’m sad you’re feeling that way,” or “Those are painful things.” That, followed by more genuine curiosity, leads to discovery and understanding.
- Remember that it’s OK to be angry, but it’s not OK to hurt others. Hurt people often hurt people. But being hurt doesn’t give you the right to make someone else hurt. Knowing about the nature of anger and exploring its source can allow you to develop a more productive response. Breathe, take a break, reflect.
Who or what makes you angry? Who and when are you the recipient of anger? Think about the true nature of anger—and the raw emotions that lie beneath it—and you might be able to respond better the next time anger rears its head.