Anger: What do we do with it?
Anger is an emotion people give the worst reputation. Like all other emotions, anger is part of our internal feedback loop system. A clinical view of anger is that it is simply data. Like computers, our brains take data in and export it in many ways. Too often, anger is expressed by aggressive and hostile behavior. Anger can be expressed in many ways, not all of them dysfunctional.
Some people shut down in anger, whereas others make sarcastic remarks about others. Anger is not the problem in and of itself. How we handle it can definitely be a problem. When we get into physical fights, throw things, slam doors, yell at others, hold others in contempt, or give loved ones the silent treatment, our response to anger is a big problem. Not only do these behaviors drive people close to us away, they can lead to legal trouble. Given enough repetition, these intense responses tend to drive those once close to us away for good.
What should we do with anger then? Men simply need to acquire skills in responding well to their anger. It is no different than learning any other skill. All men possess the ability to learn how to get their needs met without damaging their relationships and lives.
Many therapists claim that anger is a secondary emotion. Dr. John Gottman points out that many scientific studies on anger support that it exists along with other emotions, not in lieu of it, and that none of the primary emotions are arranged in our brains in any sort of hierarchical system. Anger occurs in conjunction with other emotions, often several emotions at a time.
Anger is a physically exhausting emotion because it causes such a strong physiological response in our bodies. Men yell, throw things, and move about with grand motions. Like all physically exhausting activities, our bodies cannot maintain significantly elevated levels of physical activity forever. Once we expend a lot of energy, our bodies are forced to calm down to recover physically. This gives rise to our awareness of other emotions occuring along with anger. These may include sadness, fear, rejection, loss, anxiety, and disappointment. Often these emotions relate to an injustice we perceive to have been cast onto us.
Often, we hear that life is not fair. Does this mean we are doomed to a life of angry outbursts? Yes, and no, but not in the way you may think. Anger, like all emotions, is an emotion every human being feels. It will never go away. We simply need to learn how to respond better to it so we do not lose people, jobs, friends, and family important to us.
How do we do this? First of all is being willing to admit to ourselves that our current method of handling anger is not working. It simply is not good for us. Forget about its impact on others for a minute. We need to take a good, hard look at what it costs us. It costs us our own happiness, confidence, self-respect, health, enjoyment, time, and connection with others. Those are significant costs! Without these things, we do not have much of a life. We are better than this!
Next, we need to understand that our behavior is not us. We can be good people and make bad decisions. It is perfectly healthy to feel badly about our behavior and give ourselves compassion for being imperfect people. Your anger and your poor behavior do not define you. They are not even your fault.
Next, we need to understand that temper tantrums come from three sources in our early childhoods: 1) a parent doing it to us, 2) a parent modeling this in our presence, and 3) us having outbursts ourselves without a responsible parent ever correcting this behavior. Ask yourself which of these sources gave your response to anger the OK signal. As children, we rely on parents or caregiver to teach us healthy ways to deal with stress in our world. When parents fail, we wind up with unhealthy responses to anger. It is not our fault that we had this thrown in our laps. However, it is our responsibility to shed our immature child-like responses to anger and allow our adult selves to take over.
This is where trauma work comes in. Men with unhealthy responses to anger are essentially stuck in their child mode. Look at what a child does when he has a temper tantrum. Look at yourself when you have one. They look pretty similar, don’t they? Trauma work is where we work through your past hurts so you can stop reacting to things that happened decades ago like they keep happening today. This is why others look at us when we fly off the handle like we are nuts - our reaction does not fit the situation. We react at level 8 to a situation that is logically at a level 2 or 3. But, it feels to us like the situation is a level 8 or even 10. Once we work through your trauma, you will likely feel your response to anger at much lower and more rational levels. Sometimes an intense reaction is justified by an intense situation, but most of the time we react irrationally.
Once we do this work, we understand that we can call attention indirectly to something we perceive to be an injustice, assert ourselves in effort to get our needs met, and maintain self-respect regardless of the outcome of the challenging situation. Putting our temper tantrums to bed for good does not mean our needs go unmet. Not at all. In fact, the opposite is true. We can get our needs met without resorting to throwing a fit. Once you get a taste of this success, you will look for ways to do it again. This is where the rubber meets the road.
Feel free to email me your questions about your anger response.