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Communicating Anger Constructively

For example, emotions are what make changes in the world. When people are fired up and passionate about government policy, human rights, discrimination, or incidents of bullying, there is very likely a healthy level of anger fueling debates and mobilizing people into creative action. Anger is a normal healthy emotion that supports us in knowing when to protect others or ourselves from mistreatment and when we need to conduct ourselves with more vigor and commitment.

However, anger becomes problematic when we are not able to contain angry feelings instead, these feelings are acted out rather than thought about. It is a frightening feeling when we are experiencing an intensity of anger because often we don’t trust that we will be able to control ourselves.

Understanding the cycle of anger may shed some light on what exactly is going on. At the beginning of the cycle we experience a build up of tension; the tension, which consists of an accumulation of difficult feelings, encroaches on any available space in our mental and emotional world, and it becomes harder and harder to keep it contained inside ourselves. When it is too much we take action to get rid of the tension; something makes us angry and we explode with emotion. The release of tension is gratifying; all the tension that we were carrying around has been unleashed. We feel the calm after the storm. However, the calm is followed by an eruption of guilt when we look back and reflect on our actions and we feel badly. Guilt lowers our self-esteem; we see ourselves as out of control and lacking something that other people have. Lowered self-esteem leaves us feeling like we have less control over our lives and ourselves. Feeling powerless adds to our tension and the build up starts all over again. We are caught in the cycle of anger.

The Cycle of Anger

It is helpful to bear in mind that feeling out of control is different than actually being out of control. This is an experience that is tough to distinguish unless you slow your reaction down and begin to notice the decisions that you are making when you are getting increasingly angry. For the most part, if we are willing to be totally honest with ourselves, we can start to recognize a thought that encourages us to justify being out of control in our response or behavior. If you think of the last time you snapped or exploded with anger, was there a point at which you took license –consciously gave yourself permission to escalate or to express it in an uncontrolled fashion? An indication of such might be that you only get uncontrollably angry with certain people (usually family members), or, that you don’t explode at work, or, only when you feel humiliated by someone, or, only when you have had too much to drink. If a person were truly out of control one would not be able to select occasions, persons, nor locations in which to act it out.

When we start to feel increasingly angry, it can feel as though we are at the mercy of physiological and biological changes – heart rate increases, blood pressure goes up, and there is a release of hormones (known as the hormonal flush - mostly cortisol and testosterone). We switch from using the cerebral cortex, the thoughtful, part of the brain where we can access rational thought and judgment, to the limbic system, which is considered the more primitive part of the brain. The limbic system is in control of our emotional life and is responsible for fight or flight. When we are angry we shift into the limbic system, which means we perceive the situation as threatening and we are charged up to either fight what is in front of us, or flee from it; we are unable to access creative, thinking. The emerging physiological changes are an indicator that you still have time to make a decision before expressing anything.

These are two critical steps to bring to mind:

  1. Stop and Think – Hold off your response so you can think. How do you want this to go? What kind of response will leave you feeling good about yourself and what will detract from your positive self-concept? If you have been unhappy with your responses in the past, this is the time to play the tape of consequences in your mind. What are the consequences of expressing yourself in an out of control fashion? Ask yourself will this response harm the relationship or help the relationship?
  2. Take a Break! With the onset of these changes you still have time to make a decision to take a break. No one can be faulted for taking a break. The break allows for some of the intense feelings to pass. We need a minimum of 20 minutes to calm down; adrenalin will decrease and slowly you will be able to regain access to creative thinking as you shift back into the cerebral cortex. If there is a risk that you or someone else might act out the anger violently, physically removing one’s self from the situation is essential for safety.

When we are angry, we are often responding to deeper more intense feelings that are less identifiable, they are expressed, as anger however, beneath the anger there may be feelings of disappointment, hurt, loss, grief, and rejection. It is easier to lash out with anger than it is to grapple with deeper emotions. Notwithstanding the fact that what I am about to suggest is very difficult to do, I will put forth some concrete steps to take that may help you to regain some sense of control and allow you to speak something difficult in a way that you can feel good about.

Again, give yourself permission to get some distance, either physically by removing yourself or by slowing things down. The first step is to try and locate a feeling inside you. It is a matter of going inward and paying attention to the build up of feelings – what is it that has pushed you to anger? Do you feel attacked, criticized, accused, abandoned, disappointed, or hurt by what a person said or by what just happened? The presence of one or more of these feelings creates a tension inside of us. The goal at this point is to find the words that allow you to speak the tension. It requires expanding your tolerance for the difficult feeling, and expressing through words the source of the tension.

It is a matter of going inward and paying attention to the build up of feelings – what is it that has pushed you to anger?

For example: If you find yourself in some kind of conflict and you are growing angry because you feel attacked, saying ” I get angry when you criticize me, because it leaves me with a bad feeling,” means you are staying with the feeling of hurt, or rejection that may be making you angry, and instead of lashing out, you are stating how you are impacted by what is going on. Saying to yourself when you are driving, ” I get so frustrated when people cut me off and I don’t understand why I get so angry,” puts the frustration into words (which means you are tolerating the feeling of frustration) and gives you the opportunity to think about what just happened rather than reacting to what happened.

There are ways to express anger without hurting anyone. Angry feelings cannot be eliminated from our emotional repertoire, and of course we need anger for critical thinking and communication. Developing a healthy expression of anger involves controlling our outward behavior by calming ourselves down and giving voice to the anger. It is appropriate to say, “I feel really angry,” and to make constructive use of the energy generated by the feeling.

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