If we want to be able to feel angry without acting on it, we must be able to control our anger. We want to be able to control our anger so that we can use it in a constructive way, rather than a destructive way. We usually refer to this as anger management. People who have high emotional intelligence have mastered the skill of managing their anger and enjoy healthy relationships with others.
There are many ways to manage our anger, but before we can talk of anger management we need to understand clearly what anger is.
"Do not teach your children never to be angry; teach them how to be angry."
~ Lyman Abbott ~
What is Anger?
By definition anger is an emotional state that ranges from mild irritation to intense fury and rage.
Anger is an emotion that has a physical effect on our body - our heart rate and blood pressure go up and the levels of the hormones adrenalin and noradrenalin increase.
Most often, we know that someone is angry because we can see the external expression of their anger in their facial expression and body language. It can be a very unpleasant experience to be in the presence of an angry person – particularly when they are unable to control or manage their anger.
Anger has both negative and positive aspects.
Why do we Need to Manage Anger?
“Anger is only one letter short of DANGER”
~ Eleanor Roosevelt ~
There are many reasons why we should manage our anger, the most important being:
The physical effect of anger is damaging to our health. As mentioned above, our heart rate and blood pressure go up and the levels of the hormones adrenalin and noradrenalin increase. Unmanaged anger may also lead to:
- Increased risk of heart disease
- Increased risk of anxiety disorders
- Increased risk of depression
- Muscle tension and back pain
- Compromised immune system
If we want to avoid possible long term damage to our health we must be able to manage our anger.
When we are angry, we can lose control of our temper and engage in dangerous activities such as physical fighting, reckless driving etc.
When we cannot control our anger, we do not command the respect of others. We rather instil fear, resentment, defensiveness and lack of trust in others. This undermines the development of healthy relationships.
All in all, when we express anger in the wrong way, we are close to danger (as mentioned above), so it is imperative that we learn to manage our anger.
Remember that we can use anger constructively – but, we have to choose to do so!
What Does Managing Anger Mean?
Managing anger does not involve getting rid of all anger, but rather using our anger to enhance our lives.
Anger comprises both negative and positive aspects and anger management is about increasing the positive aspects and decreasing the negative aspects.
Negative Aspects of Anger
“Anger is an acid that can do more harm to the vessel in which it is stored than to anything on which it is poured.”
~ Mark Twain ~
Certainly there are many negative aspects to anger, such as:
- Disruption of our thinking - when we are angry we can’t think of anything else but what we are angry about.
- Unnecessarily defending ourselves – when we are angry we usually get defensive.
- Becoming aggressive – when we are angry we can get aggressive and even lose control
- Becoming known as an angry person – when we are often angry we get the label of being aggressive and people don’t like being around us in case we explode.
Unfortunately, most people think that anger is all negative and instead of teaching children how to manage it, they tend to squash it. Let me give you an example:
Two brothers are playing a game with a toy and one of the boys (let’s say the older boy) won’t give his younger brother a turn. The younger boy throws a temper tantrum and they fight. Typically the mother will come in and do one of two things:
1. Shout at the older boy who won’t share the toy.
The older boy is told he is selfish, gets into trouble and is made to pass the toy over. The child who threw the temper tantrum learns that throwing a temper tantrum works if you want to get your own way. So continues to throw temper tantrums in the future. Neither boy learns how to communicate their frustration nor how to negotiate.
2. Shout at the younger boy who threw the tantrum.
The younger boy is told to stop behaving badly, but is not told how to deal with his genuine frustration and anger. Invariably he is not given the chance to explain himself, so does not learn to communicate his feelings. He only learns that he has to hide is feelings. Because he does not learn another more appropriate way to behave, he continues to throw temper tantrums and eventually other children don’t want to play with him.
And we wonder why so many of us (especially men) can’t communicate feelings!
Positive Aspects of Anger
There are positive aspects to anger too, such as:
- Increased energy - when we are angry we definitely have energy!
- Motivated to communicate feelings - Anger usually motivates us to talk. We let people know how we feel (which we may usually not do).
- Motivated to problem solve - when we are angry we usually want to fix the problem
- Motivated to take charge of the situation – when we are angry we often take charge of the situation to ensure it is fixed.
It is this positive side of anger that we want to harness.
So, if anger management is about increasing the positive aspects of anger and decreasing the negative aspects, how do we do that?
How do we Manage Anger?
In order to manage our anger we need to combine a number of different skills and techniques. All the techniques can be learnt and with practice you will find them easier and easier to use.
Distinguish Anger from Other Emotions
The most important skill in managing our anger is to be able to distinguish anger from a range of other emotions such as:
This sounds so obvious and so easy, but actually it is not.
Many people that I encounter in my practice or on my Interpersonal Skills Courses are not able to do this (Mostly because they have always had their emotions squashed as a child and have never learnt to identify and distinguish between them!). Much of the YOU-Q work that I do is helping people to 'Get Real' and become aware of their true feelings, so they can manage their anger and act appropriately.
Let me give you an example:
A young man came to see me saying that he and his girlfriend had “huge arguments”. He said that she did and said things that really made him angry and then he would fly into a rage and shout, rant and become physically aggressive. He blamed his girlfriend for these aggressive outbursts, saying it was all her fault. He wanted to know how to make the arguments stop.
As we explored it, it became clear to me that the times he got really angry were the times when he believed that his girlfriend was not treating him with respect. Now all of us like to be treated with respect, but for this young man (because of the circumstances around his upbringing), it was a particularly big issue. When he believed his girlfriend was being disrespectful he felt rejected. The horrible feeling of rejection was too difficult to feel and cope with, so he reacted with anger instead.
Instead of identifying the feeling of rejection and dealing with it appropriately, he confused his rejection with anger. When we had worked together for a while he was able to identify the real feeling, label it correctly and then respond to his girlfriend differently. His response became a conscious choice rather than an unconscious, automatic reaction
So many of us lash out with anger, when actually it is another emotion we are feeling.
The Anger is YOURS - Take Responsibility for it
How many of you have said, or heard, the following words?
“You make me sick!” or
“You make me so angry! It’s your fault - if you hadn’t done this / said this / been this I wouldn’t be so angry!”
So, many of us blame other people for our anger, instead of taking responsibility for it.
Please know that nobody can make you feel anger -you choose to feel anger. Yes it might be an automatic reaction, but you can choose to go along with it or not. You can choose to stay in control of your anger or not. Our emotions are just that – ours - and the first thing to do is to own them. You are responsible for your emotions.
Let me give you another real life example:
A young man asked my advice regarding his fiancé – he wanted to know whether or not he should forgive her for “messing up his life”.
What he told me was that one evening he and his fiancé had a bad argument. He got really angry, stormed out of the house, got into his car and drove off. He then had a car accident which resulted in a lawsuit against him. He blamed his girlfriend for the accident saying that if she had not made him angry he would not have had the car accident.
Obviously this young man was not taking responsibility for his actions. He chose to storm out of the house in anger. He chose to drive his car and it was his own reckless driving that caused the accident. His fiancé was not to blame; he was. She did not ‘mess up his life - it was his series of unwise decisions that caused his misfortune. Instead of acting impulsively out of anger, he could have chosen to control his anger and act more wisely. He could have chosen to stay home until he calmed down. He could have chosen not to drive his car while he was in such an angry state….his options were numerous.
It is much easier to blame others than take responsibility, but a big part of anger management is understanding that we must own our emotions and take responsibility for them. Until we do that we will never be able to control our anger.
Know the Difference Between Anger and Aggression
Anger is the emotion and it is okay to be angry. Aggression is the behaviour – it is acting out inappropriately and it is not okay to behave aggressively.
Many of the newer Christian churches teach that it is wrong to feel anger, but they forget that Jesus himself got very angry. Think of the story of when Jesus went to the temple and it was being used as a market. He was very angry. (John 2 vs. 13 – 17)
Anger is one of our human emotions and we must not try to deny it – we are entitled to feel angry. It is what we do with our anger that may not be appropriate. The feeling is okay, the behaviour may not be. We do not have to hide our anger, but we do have to express it appropriately.
Become Aware of Thought Patterns That Lead to Anger
Cognitive Theory is based on the assumption that our thoughts affect our behaviour. According to this theory, people actually create their own problems (and symptoms) by the way they interpret events and situations. The theory can be summed up with the following Shakespearian quote:
“…there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”
~ Hamlet Act 2, Scene 2 ~
According to Cognitive Theory then, anger and aggression can be caused by irrational or maladaptive automatic thought patterns. The anger is caused by thoughts about the event / situation, rather than the event itself. These irrational thoughts have been conditioned through early childhood, but we add to the difficulty by re-instilling these false beliefs.
If we want to manage our anger we must become aware of our irrational thoughts. Some of the common irrational thought patterns include:
- Selective Abstraction (Filtering) - Concentrating on the negatives while ignoring the positives. Ignoring important information that contradicts your (negative) view of the situation.
For example: “My boss said most of my submission was great but he also said there were a number of mistakes that had to be corrected…he thinks I’m really hopeless!”
- Overgeneralisation - Coming to a general conclusion based on a single event or one piece of evidence. If something bad happens once, you expect it to happen again and again. Such thoughts often include the words “always” and “never”.
For example: “You always find fault with me.” or “I never do anything right for you!”
- Polarised Thinking (Dichotomous Reasoning) - Thinking in black and white terms (All-or- Nothing / Good-or-bad / either-or thinking). A tendency to view things at the extremes with no middle ground.
For example: “This job is so bad…there’s nothing good about it at all!”
- Personalisation - Taking responsibility for something that’s not your fault. Thinking that what people say or do is some kind of reaction to you, or is in some way related to you.
For example: “You’re making fun of me!” or “You did that to deliberately hurt me!”
- Magnification and exaggeration (Catastrophising) - Overestimating the chances of disaster. Expecting something unbearable or intolerable to happen.
For example: “I’m not going to do that because I will make a fool of myself and people will laugh at me!”
Identify Your Physiological Responses
Many people are not even aware of the physical reactions in their body when they become angry. These reactions can include:
- Heart beats faster
- Stomach gets tight / upset
- Pressure on forehead or temples
- Feeling hot and /or flushed
- Clenched fists
- Sweaty palms
- Clenched jaw
If you start to consciously think about what is happening in your body and become aware of your physiological reactions to anger, then you can choose to stop and take control and soon as you feel any of these physiological reactions.
Learn Techniques to Take Control of Your Anger
Push your ‘Pause Button’
‘Push your pause button’ means doing something that will give you a few seconds or minutes ‘time out’ in order to maintain control of your emotions. It may be counting to ten, imaging a calm scene, deep breathing etc.
Everyone is different, so figure out what will work for you to help you keep in control of your anger.
There are some physical things that you can do…
- Deep breathing
- Breathe in through nose for 5 - 10 seconds to fill your lungs from the bottom (not chest breathing).
- Hold for 5 seconds.
- Breathe out through mouth for 10 – 20 seconds to empty your lungs entirely.
- In order to calm yourself it is most important that your exhalation is twice as long as your inhalation.
- Meditations or awareness building exercises
Your meditation can take the form of prayer, focussing on a spiritual phrase, imagining calm and tranquil scenes. Be aware of your anger and choose to control it.
- Refocus your physiological tension
Instead of’ lashing out’ in anger, try squeezing a stress ball in your hand (a small soft ball). The idea behind this is not tocontinue to think about how angry you are and to squeeze the ball as if it is somebody’s neck! That will just ensure you remain angry. The Idea is to re-focus your thinking on the physical sensation in your hands and arms and so divert your thoughts away from your anger, giving you time to calm down.
If you don’t have a stress ball, then squeeze and release the muscles in your body - moving through all muscles from feet up to your head. Squeeze – release – relax.
- Do some sort of physical exercise for a few minutes
Again the idea behind this is to not thinking about your anger, but rather to think about the sensations in your body as you do the exercise.
Note: Most people will say they don’t have time to do these sorts of things, but remember that if you don’t take control of your anger it will most likely distract you for a lot longer than a few minutes – and cause much harm as well!
The techniques given here are what we call short term techniques. They are useful for when you are already angry. There are, however, ways to help you control your anger and keep your cool in the long term – to help you prevent yourself being angry and irritable in the first place.
Long Term Ways to Keep your Cool
- Eat healthy food – there is a lot of research that clearly shows that what we eat has an impact on our levels of irritability and aggression. Think about the studies that are being done with school lunches in the USA and UK. When children were made to eat healthy meals both their concentration levels and their behaviour improved significantly.
- Get enough sleep – parents with young babies are laughing at this one! (Get enough sleep - yeah right!) Seriously we all know that if we are sleep deprived we have a shorted fuse.
Read my article, "Insomnia" for more information about the effects of sleep deprivation and how you can ensure a good night’s sleep.
- Manage your stress levels – most people do not realise this, but one of the symptoms of stress is increased aggression.
- Seek counselling for mental disorders such as Depression, Anxiety and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder – they all result in symptoms of anger and irritability. You may not realise it but your anger may be a symptom of one of these disorders. You do not need to suffer, these disorders can be treated.
For more information read:
- Learn to forgive - holding grudges and wanting revenge is a double edged sword – it maintains your anger and hurts you more than the person you are angry with.
“Speak when you are angry and you will make the best speech you will ever regret.”
~ Ambrose Bierce ~
Anger at Work
There may be times when you get angry with someone at work. We cannot always work with people on a conflict free basis. That is ok. Conflict is not a bad thing in itself. It is how you handle your anger and the conflict that counts.
Two key principles to remember:
- When you disagree, disagree with the idea not the person.
- When you criticise, refer to the behaviour not the person.
Read my article ‘Coping With Conflict’ for valuable tips on how to create win-win situations despite having disagreements with colleagues at work.
Read my article ‘Face up to Feedback (Giving and Receiving Constructive Criticism)’ for important insights into giving feedback to others.
“It is wise to direct your anger towards problems - not people; to focus your energies on answers - not excuses.”
~ William Arthur Ward ~
Managing Anger in Others
It is one thing to control your own anger, but what do you do when someone else is angry? There are three ways to handle someone else’s anger. Use the most appropriate one for the situation.
Do be aware, however, that when someone else is angry it causes us to react negatively too. We may react with fear, anxiety or even with anger too. You must control your own emotions first, if you want to successfully manage someone else’s emotion.
There are times when you know that something you said or did triggered anger in someone else – even though you didn’t mean to and may not know why they are so angry. In these cases apologise and get clarity.
You can say something like: “I am sorry that I have made you so angry, I didn’t mean to. I am not even sure what I did to make you so angry. Please tell me.”
Then give them all the time they need to rant and rave at you while you try to understand what it is all about, so you can address it. While they are ranting and raving, just listen. Don’t get defensive and try to explain yourself. Don’t interrupt. When they have felt heard by you they will calm down and then you can have your turn to explain. Sometimes there is nothing more to be said than just to apologise.
Sometimes you are not directly responsible for another person’s anger – but you trigger it off with some small thing. This is called ‘Excitation Transfer’. Excitation Transfer is the theory that emotional arousal in one situation can persist and intensify emotional reactions in later, unrelated situations.
Let me give you an example: You are driving to the airport and someone comes racing past you, swerves in front of you and nearly hits you. You are shaken. When you get to the airport, there is a delay at the security gate. Normally this would cause mild annoyance, but the arousal from your near miss in the traffic intensifies your reaction and you become enraged, rather than just annoyed.
If someone becomes angry with you as a result of Excitation Transfer, then you do not need to apologise - it is their reaction that is inappropriate. Don’t take it personally.
Diffuse the Situation
By diffusing the situation you may prevent the anger from spiralling out of control. But by ‘diffuse the situation’ we do NOT mean telling someone to ‘calm down’. There is nothing guaranteed to ignite more anger than telling an angry person to ‘calm down! Never do that.
There are four simple steps you can follow instead:
- Label the other person’s emotional state.
- Give yourself time to think before you react.
- Consciously choose to ‘assume control’ and not respond with anger.
- Engage with the other person constructively rather than with destructive talk or unhelpful arguments.
Start by labelling the other person’s emotional state. You could say something like, “I can see / hear that you are really angry”. Then wait for them to rant & rave. While they rant and rave, it gives you time to decide how to react and lets them give off steam. They will be more receptive to you after they have done so. All the time choose not to respond with anger, but stay with the facts, remain objective and don’t get ‘off track’ and into past grievances, petty arguments or hurtful comments.
Remove Yourself From the Situation
If you cannot diffuse the situation and it is getting nasty, remove yourself from the situation. BUT, and this is extremely important, NEVER just walk away. There is nothing guaranteed to make an angry person more angry than just walking away. After all, it is extremely rude and disrespectful.
So how do you remove yourself from the situation in a respectful way? Follow three simple steps:
- Explain what you are going to do and why.
- Explain when you will return.
- Return as promised.
For example, you could say something like: “I can see that we are both getting very angry and we are starting to say nasty things. I think it will be better if we stopped this argument for now, before we say things we will regret. I am going to go for a walk to cool down. I will be back in about an hour and we can continue our conversation then.”
“This argument is getting us nowhere. I think it will be best if I go home now before we hurt each other. I will come round tomorrow evening and we can pick up this conversation then.”
Generally a 24-hour ‘cool down’ period is acceptable.
Of course if you are in physical danger, please do not stop for explanations. Just get away… fast and immediately!
There is an old wives' tale that says: “You should never go to bed on an argument.” As a principle it is a good one, but please do not take it to heart. Sometimes it is better to stop the argument, get a good night’s sleep and then continue the conversation when you are both rested. You may find that it is not so bad the next day. Lack of sleep makes all of us more irritable and less rational.
“Anybody can become angry — that is easy,
but to be angry with the right person and to the right degree and at the right time and for the right purpose,
and in the right way — that is not within everybody's power and is not easy.”
~ Aristotle ~