“Let me tell you how angry I was. I went off!!!”
I don’t think a day goes by when I don’t encounter someone using similar words: my clients, people I pass on the street, somebody in the media. It seems like a lot of people have something to be angry about and feel justified in making sure everybody else knows.
But let’s be honest. Who doesn’t get mad sometimes?
Anger is an emotion, and like any emotion, you can only hold it inside for so long. Sooner or later it gets expressed, for better or worse, and the longer you hold it in, the more likely it will come out at the wrong time, and with much more force than you intended. We’ve all been there.
Anger can be a positive emotion – it can motivate you to cry out against injustice, protect someone in need, and change your life for the better. So I am not suggesting that you shouldn’t get mad. But expressing anger, as well as holding it in, can drive a wedge between you and the people you care about. And anger releases stress chemicals that can have a negative impact on your health. Not always sure what to do with your anger? The next time you find your anger about to boil over, here is an approach to consider:
Breathe! Listen to yourself as you inhale and exhale a few times. Breathing helps you to regain your rational mind when you about to be overwhelmed with the rush of emotions. Breathing can have a great calming effect.
Turn on the camera. Mentally take yourself out of the action for a moment and imagine that you are watching yourself in a movie. How is your acting? You may be right in sync with the other actors, or you may be chewing up the scenery when a calmer response, or no response at all, might be called for. And by the way, you know yourself better than anybody. Are you acting in or out of character?
Ask yourself: Have I been here before? Chances are, you have. Last week, last year, 20 years ago. That time you were disrespected, or punished unfairly, or bullied, or your needs weren’t met. And you couldn’t do anything to protect yourself. How did you feel? While you’re safely behind the camera, ask yourself: Did somebody just push a button that brought all those feelings back to me?
Lean into the angry feelings and get out of the story. This is the hard part. Stop telling yourself the story – he should have done this, I should do that back – and let yourself feel your emotions. All of them. Identify them as they come up. While it probably feels a whole lot better to be empowered and energized by rage (therapists love that word), your anger may be covering up uncomfortable feelings like sadness, fear, disappointment. Or, the anger you’re feeling right now may be a stand-in for a pain in your past that you’re still angry about, but can’t go back and fix. In other words, the real battle may be the one inside of you.
Jump back into the action with a new perspective. Yes, I understand that, in the midst of a tense situation, it seems impossible to going into observer mode. But what about those times when you could – but don’t – stop yourself from firing off an angry email or call someone up and unleash the demons? Through practice, you can train your mind to think – and get perspective on a situation – before you react, or not even feel the need to react at all. It’s worth a try.
And as you look at your anger, don’t be afraid to reach out for help in getting a new perspective on the old issues and feelings that keep popping up. Open up to what’s possible in the here and now.