Dealing with anger
Feeling angry is OK. It’s a commonly held view that anger is something we should try to suppress, or avoid feeling altogether, but it’s a normal emotion. Problems arise when we ‘act out’ externally, or – at the opposite end of the spectrum – try to ignore our anger and leave it to fester. Neither is helpful: acting out can come across as aggressive and leave us feeling ashamed and guilty, while gritting our teeth and pretending everything is fine can take its toll on our mental health. Both responses can damage our relationships with others.
Why do we feel angry? Often, feelings of anger come up when we feel something is unjust or unfair, or if someone has failed to meet our expectations or broken one of our ‘rules for living’. For instance, if we pride ourselves on always being on time, and believe it’s important not to keep people waiting, we may find ourselves fuming when a friend routinely arrives half an hour late.
We all have different levels of tolerance, and some of us simply have a shorter fuse than others. Sometimes people have particular sensitivities – noise, for instance – or become deeply annoyed by things others don’t even notice, such as someone pronouncing ‘turmeric’ wrongly on MasterChef!
Anger can also be a symptom of depression or an anxiety disorder, or hormonal changes. Some people find they become more irritable when they’re stressed.
Often, it’s not just one big event that triggers us – small irritations can build up until there’s a ‘last straw’. To the people around us, our response will probably seem out of proportion or irrational.
Blowing up or squashing down? If we react to our feelings of anger by yelling or raging, this can be aggressive or intimidating. It might well upset people, lead to more problems, or cause a difficult situation to escalate, especially if the other person responds in a similar way. It’s likely we’ll feel embarrassed and regretful when we’ve calmed down.
If we keep our feelings deep inside, however, we can end up ruminating or dwelling on them. This can result in frustration, or feeling down or depressed, and make us more likely to notice the problem that triggers our anger. We might also behave passive aggressively – avoiding contact with our frequently late friend, for example, or speaking in a snappy or sarcastic tone. They would probably not have a clue why!
It may feel in the heat of the moment like we ‘just flip’ when we get angry, and that there’s no opportunity to pause and think about our response, but there are a number of approaches we can try to deal with the emotion in a more constructive way.
Recognise your triggers. This will help you notice when you’re getting angry before you act out. The next time you feel angry, be forensic! Ask yourself “What caused that?”. Then rate your emotion: are you mildly irritated? Furious? How did this change second by second? What thoughts went through your mind? Greater awareness of our anger response makes it easier to understand and control it.
Take a look at your expectations. If you have really high standards, and you expect others to meet them, you might be expecting too much. In reality, people are imperfect, they have other stuff going on, and they’ll slip up. Cultivating empathy can help make us less angry when they do. You could try softening your rules – for example, changing ‘I am always on time, and I expect everyone else to be too’ to ‘I always aim to be on time, and I trust my friends do the same, but I realise some find this harder than others’.
Acknowledge that we can’t change other people. It’s useful to recognise what we have power over, and what we don’t: often we can only control our response to something, not the event or behaviour that makes us angry.
Challenge your thoughts. If your friend is late yet again, you might think this is because they don’t respect you. Examine the evidence for this. Does your friend treat you with a lack of respect in other ways? Or do they show you that you matter to them? Are they late because they don’t feel you’re important? Or is it more likely that they’re trying to do too many things at once?
Be assertive where appropriate. If someone’s behaviour is causing you problems, helping them to understand the impact it has on you – calmly and firmly – can help to prevent the problem becoming worse and clear the air.
First, explain how you feel, owning the emotion by using ‘I’. For example: “When you’re late I feel angry and let down because it tells me you don’t care.” When they respond, listen and reflect back what they say, even if you don’t agree. Finally, tell them what you’d like to happen, whether that’s simply an apology or for them to do something different.
If you can’t shake it…try to let go. If you’re still seething about something that happened weeks, months or even years ago, try listing the pros and cons of staying angry. Is it getting you anywhere? Is it actually making you feel worse? You could also try writing an honest angry letter to the person who has upset you, which you could choose to keep or to shred, whatever makes you feel better.
If you’d like to explore some CBT-based techniques for managing anger, this article from the Beck Institute might be helpful. You can also find out more about how CBT works here.