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Anger Management

Anger is a natural and inevitable human emotion. Yet, many people have a complicated relationship with it. They may struggle with any stage of processing, coping with, or expressing their anger. As a result, they develop conflicted feelings and unhealthy patterns around this heated emotion.

Because anger often gets confused with aggression, people tend to think of it as something toxic that they should avoid. Yet, failing to face and accept our anger can lead to a series of maladaptations and take a toll on our physical and mental health.

In order to find healthier ways to cope with anger, we have to change our relationship with it. This means challenging our existing ideas about what it is and finding more adaptive, nonreactive, and nonjudgmental ways of approaching it. Here are some helpful principles to adopt that can transform the way we deal with our anger.

1. Don’t ignore it.

Despite our best efforts to deny or gloss over emotion, it still tends to affect us. The only difference is we drift further and further from consciously processing or making sense of it, which leads to more confusion around how we feel in general.

Failure to process our anger, as well as outright attempts to suppress it, can have negative effects on us mentally and physically. When we’re not honest about what we’re feeling, our anger can wind up being misplaced. We may turn the feeling against ourselves, or it may seep out in passive aggression, cynicism, irritability, or hostility.

2. Remember, anger doesn’t have to be rational.

Thoughts are not the same as actions. Every feeling we have is acceptable and is not damning or determinant of who we are. Taking a nonjudgmental approach to our feelings means we can allow them to be there without getting too attached to them. We can take what Dr Daniel Siegel calls a “COAL” approach to our anger, which means we’re Curious, Open, Accepting, and Loving toward ourselves and what we’re experiencing, even when it feels unacceptable to us. As relationship expert and educator Dr Pat Love puts it, we can always “feel the feeling, but do the right thing.”

3. Avoid building a case.

Allowing ourselves to acknowledge and accept our anger doesn’t mean we should get carried away in the details or an effort to rationalize what we’re feeling. Remember, an angry feeling doesn’t have to make perfect sense to us at the moment we’re experiencing it. It’s often a natural, instinctive response that we can be curious about, but we don’t need to let it hijack our thinking. When we fester in the process of building a case, we tend to hurt ourselves or others and are more likely to engage in destructive actions.

Distinguish adaptive from maladaptive anger.

Any emotion can offer us clues into who we are and what affects us. “Another controversial idea is that anger can be adaptive and healthy,” Many people think that anger is always dysfunctional, that it’s maladaptive, but – handled well – anger can be a very healthy emotion.”

Greenberg distinguishes primary emotions, a person’s “most fundamental, direct initial reactions to a situation,” such as anger at a loss, from their secondary emotions, responses to one’s thoughts or feelings

rather than to the situation itself. For example, a person may feel angry in response to feeling hurt or feel fearful or guilty in response to their anger.

When anger is understood as a primary response to something, perhaps mistreatment or injustice, it can be helpful. Greenberg breaks down how emotions that are “assessed for their useful information” can be valuable to us, and accessing them can even lead to relief. However, maladaptive emotions are old, familiar feelings that occur repeatedly and neither change in response to changing circumstances nor provide adaptive directions for solving problems when they’re experienced and need more work to resolve. “Primary emotions need to be accessed for their adaptive information and capacity to organize action, whereas maladaptive emotions need to be accessed and regulated to be transformed,” wrote Greenberg.

Greenberg explains that when one experiences anger as a maladaptive secondary emotion, it’s helpful to dig deeper into that core or primary trigger to get through the feeling. Big emotions often have to do with our past. For example, a person might feel angry that their partner came home late. They may then be compelled to punish their partner by stonewalling them. However, if they look at that first, immediate emotional reaction they had before they felt angry and punished, they may realize the primary emotion they felt was shame. Perhaps, they hold core sadness around feeling rejected or let down. When they surface this primary emotion, they can feel for themselves and communicate their wants and needs more directly with their partner.

5. Pay attention to your critical inner voice.

When exploring our anger, one thing to be mindful of is any excessively critical thoughts that are coming up around that anger. Every one of us has an inner critic that is shaped by our early experiences, which can feed us destructive thoughts that turn us against ourselves and others. This critic may inspire paranoia, assume others are against us, or simply make us feel bad about ourselves, even telling us how to mean we are to feel any anger at all.

A good way to tell when this “voice” is drowning out our real point of view is if we start to feel increasingly agitated. Are we having lots of thoughts about our anger? Building a case? Bombarding ourselves with all kinds of defining statements? Are we assuming what another person thinks or feels? These can all be signs that our critical inner voice has taken the wheel and is leading us down a destructive path.

6. Give yourself what you need to calm down.

The best way to deal with anger is cleanly and truthfully. It’s okay to be angry. It’s okay to explore where our anger comes from and what it triggers in us. It’s okay to let any feeling wash over us, and it’s okay to be kind to ourselves when we do.

However, we can also help ourselves calm down by giving ourselves the time and space we need to get through any intense emotion.


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