Updated: Oct 16, 2019
Anger is one of the most unpleasant feelings for people to experience—either in themselves or in others. If you’ve ever been around a raging child, an angsty teen, or a loved one unable to cope with life’s circumstances, you probably experienced first-hand the tornado of anger. Maybe, you’ve been that tornado yourself, and keep getting swept away despite your best efforts.
Unfortunately, we can’t flip off the anger switch in our brains. It goes with us everywhere, and is ready to come out under the right conditions. Potentially, this is even an appropriate thing. Anger, is a natural and God given human emotion. God directs us to have it.
“Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger.” Ephesians 4:26 English Standard Version (ESV)
So anger is a legitimate feeling, and yet we find few people that can wield this emotion well. We are often nervous of its destructive power and hurt by it. I’d like to go over a few common mistakes that people make when dealing with anger, as well as some tools that can help you address anger in yourself or a loved one.
Note: Some of the below examples are not intended to apply to abusive or violent situations.
1. People stay in it too long.
One of the big mistakes I see people making in my practice is this: Staying in a situation they know will illicit anger or staying in a situation when they are angry, well beyond the point where they can function appropriately. If we’re honest, we have all said and done things we would never normally do when we are angry. Anger directs brain power away from the thinking parts of our brains, and into the areas associated with action/reaction. In these situations, I ask people to put their thoughts, feelings, beliefs, and plans to act on hold. I ask them to calm their emotions in what ever way works for them. Then when they are calm and can think more clearly they can assess if their angry episode still holds weight. It might. I think there are good reasons for people to be angry, and we don’t always perceive situations well or have a good plan of action if the anger is justified. Take time to go through the practice of, “is my anger actually warranted… if so, how do I address the situation in a way that would keep me from regretting my actions?”
2. People give consequences during an angry episode.
Often when interacting with anger, people are emotionally maxed out. When consequences are threatened or given in the middle of an episode, it can have the opposite effect we are looking for. Meaning, consequences may escalate the anger further. I like to think of it in a working out metaphor. If I’m bench pressing and doing a weight where I can only get 1-3 reps, I’m close to my body’s current limits. If someone were to come over and jump on the bar in the middle of me benching, I would likely fail to lift the bar off my chest. Similarly, when we start handing out consequences to a person who is maxed out emotionally, they will likely fail to respond favorably to the added load of consequences. Consequences on a good day are frustrating and taxing. I don’t know about you, but I’ve never been thrilled about a speeding ticket.
Rather than giving consequences in the middle of an angry episode, focus on calming. This doesn’t mean to forget what happened. It’s important to calm first so everyone can think clearly. Then, set up a time to talk about what happened, along with consequences when everyone is calm and you have the time to honor each other in conversation.
3. People focus on problem solving rather than getting calm.
People tend to get caught up in solving a problem in order to get emotional relief or fix the situation. We forget that the rising anger is robbing us of critical thinking skills, and the ability to learn new things, and be mentally/emotionally flexible. We are much more likely to come up with good solutions when everyone is calm. Admittedly, many adults (myself included) fall into this category. We, well-meaning, strive to address an issue and unintentionally set ourselves up for a more difficult situation. When we notice the anger rising, our focus should shift to calming or making sure we are in what’s called “the window of tolerance.” This is a stressful place where we are being tested, becoming frustrated, and yet still able to function appropriately. We want to be able to access both emotion and reasoning in order to solve problems. Some people are able to handle more than others and it’s important to know where your own line is.
Due to the intensity of anger and lack of good role models on how to deal with it, people often find themselves avoiding anger after multiple failed attempts to have a situation go well. We get overwhelmed, become hopeless, and in our desperation for peace and sanity we avoid steering into the anger situation and hope it goes better next time. Unfortunately if nothing changes, nothing changes. It’s difficult to come back from this situation once it’s been going on for a while. Rather than jumping in and trying skills in the moment, practice the anger management skills when things are calm. You can use situations that have already been resolved as practice material. Come up with a game plan for the anger, everyone can live with, when everyone is calm and there is no issue. This creates some emotional distance that can make it easier for everyone to manage their avoidance and give the situations the care and attention they need. You might start by saying something like, “I’ve noticed these situations don’t go well for us. I’d like to come up with a plan for those situations while we are both calm and we aren’t in it. I care for you and really want us to have those times go well so we both feel good when it happens again. We can practice and go over our plan after an episode to see what worked and what didn’t and try again next time.”
5. Anger is often acted out and not talked out.
Lastly, we often fail to give anger the dignity it deserves and allow it to speak. Whether we don’t have the vocabulary to give it a voice, or we’d rather not talk about it, we keep it silenced and in the dark. This tends to have negative consequences. We ignore a part of our humanity and our experience. When we do this, anger often finds a way to manifest behaviorally. Brené Brown, in her book Daring Greatly, states that men, “normally respond [to shame] with anger and/or by completely shutting off.”
It’s important to develop a language for anger. Why do we get angry? Under what circumstances is anger good or the wrong tool for the situation? It’s also vital to give our loved ones a resilient ear and ask them about their anger. Where is this coming from? Help me understand. Giving anger a language and an ear can aid in calming, finding out how to solve the problem, and creating a deeper connection with the person you are with.
It takes courage to address difficult emotions like anger, but it is well worth it—for yourself and for your relationships.
“Be strong. Take courage. Don’t be intimidated. Don’t give them a second thought because God, your God, is striding ahead of you. He’s right there with you. He won’t let you down; he won’t leave you.” Deuteronomy 31:6 (The Message)