DEALING WITH ANGER

Anger

Dr. Stephen Newdell

Dr. Robert Firestone at PsychAlive.org discusses anger and we can see how the discussion applies in all situations including marriage.

 Those who stifle their anger are apt to express it indirectly through passive-aggression or by becoming withholding.  Withholding behaviors, such as being forgetful, habitually late, procrastinating and otherwise provoking, alienate others; in particular, they create distance between partners in intimate relationships and bring about problems in the workplace. In general, passive-aggression is dysfunctional, drives people away, increases guilt feelings and has a bad overall effect on the perpetrator.

Lastly, when people find it difficult to acknowledge anger directly, they instead tend to justify the reasons for their anger, which leads to feeling misunderstood, victimized, righteously indignant or morally wronged. This often causes the anger and victimization to become obsessive, and the angry thoughts not only persist for long periods but build and eventually take their toll on one’s overall happiness and adjustment.    

Anger is perhaps the most misunderstood of human emotions. There are many misconceptions about it.  Some people perceive anger as bad or immoral and feel that becoming angry makes them a bad person. Others believe that anger is the opposite of love and feel that expressions of anger have no place in close, personal relationships or in the family. Still another common, yet incorrect, belief is that being angry about someone implies that one is accusing that person of wrongdoing.

Anger is a natural and inevitable response to frustration or stress. The degree of anger is proportional to the degree of frustration experienced at the time, whether or not one’s feelings of anger are rational and appropriate to the situation or irrational and entirely inappropriate.

In this regard, it is beneficial to understand that anger is a healthy emotion, and it is ideal to feel the emotion fully. Critical, vicious thoughts and attitudes are entirely acceptable, morally speaking, whereas actions must be judged on moral grounds, and even a sarcastic or superior tone or an insensitive act can be considered hurtful.

In The Ethics of Interpersonal RelationshipsDr.  Firestone emphasize that it is essential, in terms of our mental health and well-being, to give all of our feelings free reign in conscious awareness and experience, whereas, in relation to our actions, we must make a rational decision about how to express our anger that involves both moral concerns and reality issues.

In the chapter titled “Mastering Anger,” he describe two salient points in relation to acting on our anger: is it consistent with our values and would it be in our own best interest?  Regarding the latter, it would be foolhardy, for example, for a person who values his/her job to blow up at the boss; instead, it would be more productive to simply acknowledge and feel the hostile feelings without acting them out.

For the most part, over-reactive emotional responses in adults, including intense anger or rage, contain a primal element based on early experiences that were threatening or traumatic

Becoming sensitive to the types of situations that arouse overly strong reactions of anger is useful in making a distinction between present-day and primal emotions.  Whereas the anger in the current situation may be justified, the intensity is often not appropriate to the personal significance of the event.  An awareness of the primal components of one’s anger not only helps defuse the level of anger but also allows time for rational self reflection and a more thoughtful consideration of one’s thoughts and actions. 

Bear in mind that it is crucial to be able to express anger, and at times it can have a remarkably positive effect in personal, vocational or political situations.  It is generally best to state one’s anger directly and in a calm tone of voice, rather than in an angry or rage filled manner.  For example, saying “I felt angry when you did thus and so,” matter-of-factly is more effective than expressing it angrily, which will usually provoke an immediate angry retort. However, if you are further annoyed by the response to your anger, or it fails to achieve your purpose, you can always state things more strongly and forcefully. In general, this escalation should be gradual and controlled to achieve the best results.

In summary, when we deny or suppress hostile emotions, our anger is likely to be internalized, turned against our bodies or will be externalized, distorting the world around us. In addition, we are more likely to lose control and act in ways that are detrimental or destructive to ourselves and to others. 

The acceptance of anger and the ability to tolerate angry feelings brings anger under our control and regulation. Indeed, when men and women are able to experience angry feelings and are comfortable with them, they become stronger and more self-possessed. In addition, they tend to be more accepting of anger in their children and more likely to encourage their child’s movement towards positive self-expression, while discouraging passive aggressive or manipulative behavior. In this way, they teach their children important lessons about anger management (e.g. when and how to express it) that are so critical in later life.

For all the reasons noted above, psychotherapists work hard to help their clients recognize, accept and fully experience their angry emotions and learn to express them when appropriate.

Some other thoughts to consider: (For the sake of English I’m assuming “the patient” the angry one is a woman, and the listener is the husband.)

Anger from you toward someone may indicate that you know you have somehow harmed that person. Really, you may be angry with yourself.

Do all you can to consider the other person’s point of view. Why did she say or do what she did? Maybe you re-stimulated a very bad memory. Maybe the best thing to do is answer, “Is there more you can tell me about that?” Let her talk it out!

Ask: Can you tell me how this all started? Where did it all begin? Encourage her to continue talking until it’s all spoken.

Ask: Am I to blame? Why are you angry toward me? What have I done to hurt you?  (She may admit, you have done nothing. She may say, “It’s not you. It’s me. It’s a very bad old memory of my _____ and what he said to me. If that’s the case we’re back to, “Is there more you can tell me about that?” Let her again talk it out! Let the talking go on as long as she needs to speak.

Finally ask her to consider: “This is not me. This is an idea I have been holding. I going to stop giving it my emotional energy and replace it with what I would prefer.” A technique I like is to imagine I’m looking into the night sky. In the way of my vision is a bubble. Go into the bubble and go all around looking at the cause of anger. Feel the emotion. Get a really strong understanding and feeling for all of it. Then come back out of the bubble and again say, “This is not me. This is an idea I have been holding. I’m going to stop giving it my energy. I’m going let it go now.” See it fade like a fog and disappear. Now all I can see is black sky and stars.

Then, “I will replace this idea I have been holding with what I prefer.” Let her (the patient) make the decision. Don’t tell her what to think. She must work through it.

Expect you’ll get more emotional response, perhaps tears and an apology, perhaps a big smile, laughter and let her tell you what big realization has come to her mind. Often as a case improves it moves up from continual apathy or boredom through anger and then up to a more stable, comfortable, cheerful condition. Therefore, if she becomes angry for a few days, it’s not an indicator that things have gone badly. It indicates she’s healing, improving, working through some old mental trash, and will in time rise toward feeling conservatively content and above that into being almost always cheerful.

DO NOT attempt to tell her your story. DO NOT attempt to evaluate for her, tell her why she is right, wrong or anything else. Just finish with, “Thank you for going through that with me. Thank you for telling me that. If you are the patient’s spouse give a hug and a little kiss. Reassure him/her “I’m really glad I married you. I love you,” and move on to something else non-emotional as for example: “Now what should we do about lunch?” That would end the experience for both of you.

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