Anger is energy.
Anger expressed positively can convince a lover or a child that he or she is loved. It can help you get a job done when you’re tired. It can be motivating. Tiger Woods, one of the top golfers, says, “I sometimes lose my temper on purpose to fire myself up.”
Anger expressed negatively can devastate a child of any age, but especially when they are tiny. Anger can destroy relationships and ruin things of value. People can hurt others when they get angry but they often hurt themselves.
There are times when it is appropriate and productive to get angry. But often getting angry can be dangerous, even embarrassing. It is helpful to know the difference and have the impulse control to carry out the choice. Most important of all is how a person acts when angry.
Lesley pulled into her garage after a long hectic day at work. As she got out of her car she heard glass breaking. She went around the corner of her home and saw the shattered living room window. Her son and his friends stood on the street frozen. One of the boys had hit the baseball through the window. Lesley was enraged! Last time it was the neighbor’s bedroom window. She’d told them many times to practice in the school yard nearby. She wanted to scream at them and slap them silly, every one of them!
Lesley knew that she was too angry to deal with the boys right then and she told them so. She sent her son to his room and sent his friends home. She changed into her jeans and a T-shirt, went out into the back yard and chopped some wood. As she chopped, her rage dissipated. She was still angry but not enraged. Then she got her son to help her put some plywood over the broken window. Later that evening she and her husband sat down with their son to deal with the problem.
Lesley did not blow up, nor did she block her anger. She allowed her muscles to do what they needed to do – attack. But she did not attack her son or his friends, she attacked the wood. She actually destroyed something and created something simultaneously.
When people get angry, their bodies pump adrenalin into the bloodstream, preparing their muscles for fight or flight. Their muscles are primed to act and as they do the adrenalin is processed. However, if the anger is blocked then the muscles do not do what they naturally do. The adrenalin stays in the muscles often causing side effects, such as shakiness, until it is eventually processed. Blocked or unexpressed anger builds up over time. The brain and the body need to deal with it in some way. Some people blow up because they can no longer tolerate the tension. Others suppress and repress their anger, which can lead to physical and emotional illnesses. Depression is often the symptom of repressed anger. Neither is healthy and both can cause a lot of harm.
It is not very easy to find wood to chop but there are lots of other ways to express anger constructively and productively.
With care and concern,
Scenario: Mary sighed. She’d blown her top – again. After the last time she’d promised herself that she would not do it anymore. It hadn’t happened in a long while, yet she’d just lost it again.
Mary had been cleaning the home for a couple of hours. Ralph had come home from soccer and was in the shower. She walked into the bedroom to get something and there on the floor was a pile of sweaty stinky clothes that he’d just stripped off. Annoyed Mary swept up the clothes and put them where they should go. This is an ongoing struggle between them. Mary had asked him many times to put his dirty clothes in the clothes hamper. She got what she had come for and went back to cleaning the home. Half an hour later she walked into the bathroom and saw his wet towel lying on the bathroom floor. She lost it! She went into a rage. She grabbed the towel and stomped off to find him. He was resting on the patio drinking some water. Seeing him resting infuriated her even more. She threw the towel at him all the while screaming. She yelled obscenities at him. She assassinated his character. She said many hurtful things. Spittle flew from out of her mouth. Finally, she stomped off. Ralph sat there in shock and confusion wondering what had just happened.
Often there is a cycle to anger and peace. A person blow-ups and then there is a period of peace. But life is life. Things happen. They often are not even big things. A small annoying event will happen and it will get dismissed. There is tension. Another irritating event happens – it gets pushed under the rug because the event is not considered significant enough to make a fuss about. Tension increases. Another frustrating event – anger is pushed aside. More tension. Another event – the anger is swallowed. Tension builds. After several more frustrating events, (none of which, in the whole scheme of things, is a big deal) another small event happens and a person blows up in rage. Usually there is confusion because the nature of the event did not warrant the intensity of the anger. Others will ask, “How could you get so mad about that?” However, the tension is released. Now there is peace again – at least for a while. The building process starts again. It’s like a stack of coins. Each coin is like a frustrating event. The stack gets high, then one more coin is put on the stack and the whole stack falls over.
For Mary, it was not just the wet towel on the bathroom floor. It was the many wet towels left on the bathroom floor or the bedroom floor, the dirty socks on the floor, the jacket hung over the back of the kitchen chair instead of hung up in the closet, the newspapers scattered on the floor by the couch, the scattered shoes at the door, dirty dishes on the coffee table, the cleaning she’d just done all morning while he was playing soccer, all of her efforts to keep a tidy home that did not seem to matter to Ralph.
Underneath the anger Mary felt out of control and unappreciated. She tried everything she could think of to get Ralph’s cooperation in keeping their home clean and tidy. When the home was in order, Mary felt calm inside. She could relax. If there was something that needed doing she could not rest. She wanted a pleasant environment that they all could enjoy. She felt resentment that Ralph was playing while she was working. It seemed to her that she did the major share of keeping the home in order. Finally, she snapped and went into a rant.
Blow-ups happen because of ongoing difficulties that are not resolved. There is a buildup of tension that is not released. At some point, the buildup gets so intense that it cannot be contained. Mount St. Helen’s erupts.
How to make change.
Make change by interrupting the cycle at some point. Bring up unresolved issues during the phase when tension is building.
Mary could feel her annoyance and frustration building. She did not want to get angry. She did not want to blow up. She did not like herself when she acted like that. But each incident seemed so trivial. She told herself other people handle these things easily, so she could too. Besides, she did not want to break the peace.
Finally, she realized that if she did not address this with Ralph she was going to blow-up again. She could feel the tension building. She asked him to set a time when they could talk. Together they picked a time both were available. Mary felt less frustrated just knowing that the problem was going to be addressed. When the time came, they sat down together and explored the issue. They did not come with solutions before they figured out what the real problem was between them. This helped them feel connected to each other. Once connected emotionally, they came up with solutions to experiment with. Each felt better about the other.
Ralph too could have initiated the discussion with Mary. After she calmed down he could have asked her for a time to talk.
Each partner has a part in the cycle.
No one person is at fault. Whatever is going on between them is co-created by the two of them. Each needs to take responsibility for his/her part in the negative cycle.
When issues have been discussed unsuccessfully before, couples need to change how they address issues. The exercise “Sooner Rather than Later” is a useful tool that gives couples a protocol to follow when addressing and resolving issues.
With care and concern,
Scenario: James watched as his son, a talented goalie, let in a goal that lost the game. Exasperated he let out a cry of disgust. As James and his son walked away from the hockey rink, James berated him for not trying hard enough. His discouraged son emphatically tried to convince him that he had tried as hard as he could – to no avail. Both felt badly.
Underlying the anger there is another feeling – a vulnerable feeling – that acts like an engine fueling the anger and driving the behavior. Any vulnerable feeling can fuel anger. Some people get angry when they feel hurt. Some people get angry when they feel threatened. Anyone can get angry when they feel out of control. Some people get angry when they feel pressured. Most people get irritable when they are hungry or tired. There are many vulnerable feelings: abandoned, put down, shamed, embarrassed, exposed, challenged, disappointed, hopeless, controlled, rejected, blocked, misunderstood, and more. In James’ case, underneath his anger was disappointed. When his son did well he felt proud and important, almost as if he’d achieved it himself. He enjoyed the compliments from coaches and other parents. When his son did not do well he felt like a failure. He hated feeling like a failure so he shifted into anger and got on his son’s case. Vulnerable feelings can range from slight to extreme. No one likes to feel vulnerable so most people behave in ways that attempt to avoid or deflect from the feeling. They may get busy talking about something else, they may focus on a task, they may worry about aches or pains they have or they may get angry. Why get angry? When people shift into anger they stop feeling the vulnerable feeling. It does not go away; it just goes into the background. Feeling angry is better than feeling humiliated, rejected or some other vulnerable feeling. When people feel angry they feel powerful, not vulnerable. With anger it may be possible to change what is going on.
Anger has a purpose.
When people get angry it helps them make happen what they want to happen or to prevent or stop happening what they do not want to happen. James needed his son to do well so that he felt good about himself. He got angry at his son to pressure him into trying harder. Most children feel uncomfortable when their parents are angry so they try to do whatever it is that will stop the anger, whether it is good for them or not. They become more focused on what their parents are feeling than on the activity. That makes it harder for them to do well. What could James do to achieve his goals? First of all, James needs to be aware that he feels disappointed. He probably shifts into anger so quickly that he does not even realize it. Secondly, he needs to realize that his disappointed is about himself, not his son; he is trying to get his needs met vicariously through his son’s efforts and abilities.
Once he is aware, he can
1) do things in his own life to achieve a sense of accomplishment and importance.
2) give his son positive feedback about what he is doing well so his son stays focused on the sport. Then his son is more likely to enjoy the activity and perform at his best.
Result? Both feel good – his son feel good about himself, James feels good about himself and his parenting. When parents figure out the engine (vulnerable feeling) driving their anger, they have more choices. They may continue to handle situations in the same way or they may find more effective ways, without getting angry, that are positive for everyone concerned.
Explore the feelings underlying your anger. What did you feel just before you got angry?
What is the purpose of your anger? Is there a better way to achieve it than getting angry?
With care and concern,