Ever found yourself in a relationship with someone (say, a family member or coworker) that makes you wish you had a conveniently-placed pie handy to smush into their face? Me neither. Usually my “pie” vision is that of a boxing glove. Of course, one thing we know about anger management is that anger is an adaptive emotion that is often reacted to with maladaptive behaviour (think screaming matches with your significant other, road rage, breaking innocent dishes, and, for some, fights on the field/ice or in the bar). This post will not stop you from experiencing anger, but it will (hopefully) help you find more helpful ways of dealing with it (which can be pretty valuable for, oh, I don’t know, your job, relationship, team, clean criminal record…). It may also help you become more aware of “triggering” situations, and provide some ways of changing expectations in certain relationships so you’re not left feeling frustrated or angry.
1. Make sure it’s truly anger, and not anger to mask hurt
Once upon a time, I was a very bitter, angry teenager. Again, anyone who’s known me a long time will remember my passion for Eminem and the heavy bag in my basement (oh, the 20th century…). But underneath that embitterment and fury was pain. Heart-wrenching, crippling pain. I felt so hurt by my rocky relationship with my dad (which has since improved immensely), but I had learned that “Big girls don’t cry,” “Crying is a sign of weakness,” and “Being sad is pathetic and annoys people.” In our society and families, we often learn “rules” that shape whether or not it is OK to “feel” a certain way. So, because of this, when I felt hurt and sad, I felt ashamed and reacted with anger. This is especially common in men, who are socialized to suppress sadness with anger (or booze). If you think this might be what’s happening to you, try to remind yourself that your emotional policing is a result of our society, and it is both normal and necessary to express sadness. Confide in a person by whom you feel supported; listen to some validating music; express yourself through art or writing; just acknowledge that pain/sadness/hurt, because it’s there for a legitimate reason.
2. On that note, in the words of Madonna, Express Yourself
If it is, in fact, a form of anger that you are experiencing (I say “a form” because feeling rageful, livid, vengeful, betrayed, infuriated, annoyed, irked, pissed off, choked, cheated, provoked, etc. might more accurately describe it), it’s important to manage it in an adaptive way. One thing that’s really great about anger is we can “do” something with it–it’s a productive emotion. Whereas sadness is more of a “lingerer,” anger is ready to rock n’ roll. It wants you to git ‘er done. However, it’s kind of like that shit-disturber friend you had in highschool (or…Saturday night) that takes advantage of your impulsivity. It feels really, awesomely satisfying in the moment, but you wake Sunday morning tattooed and a few hundred dollars poorer than yesterday (again, I wouldn’t know anything waking up feeling regretful…). So how do we negotiate with that buddy that eggs you on? Acknowledge that he’s there and wants to satisfy his need for power, but lead him down a more legal path. Engage in physical activity that embodies “striking” motions (I personally enjoy kickboxing, tennis, and the driving range); write an angry letter and tear it up or burn it; listen to some angry music; get into your car and scream or swear (they’re fantastically sound-proof and harbour no judgement as far as I know…). Anger builds up energy, so it’s natural for us to want to let it out. But, it’s important that we do this in a way that doesn’t land us jobless, friendless, and in jail.
3. If you can’t change them, change yourself
I’ll never forget the day I sat in my therapist’s office, ranting about how I wanted my dad to change, when she responded with, “Well, what if he never changes? Then what? What are your options?” I was dumbfounded. Wasn’t this the person who was supposed to fix my problems? What a horrible therapist! Surely someone could change my dad. Well, yes, someone could, but that someone was himself. Too often we try desperately to change others’ behaviour; too often we hope for a different reaction; too often we feel offended by their unsurprising actions; too often, we are disappointed (and angry) because we created an expectation that was unlikely to be fulfilled. I often say to clients that disappointment is the gap between our expectations and our reality, so sometimes it’s not about meeting your unrealistic expectations, it’s about bringing them down to earth. Again, this is not to say stop setting goals or don’t express your desire for a behavioural change in someone important to you, but if you’ve tried unsuccessfully for 10 years to get someone to “see it your way,” chances are this will not be the one instance that they do. If you keep expecting that change to happen, it is you who suffers when anger strikes, not the person towards whom you’ve directed it. So, what can you accept, and what can you change? I frequently tell clients, “Pain x Struggle = Suffering” (I stole this from Buddhist philosophy). Being disappointed or hurt by someone’s behaviour is the pain, but the struggle is the frustration or anger that results from expecting something different. Difficult as it may be, try to see their actions as coming from a place of their own suffering, and replace that anger/frustration with compassion and sympathy for their struggle. Viktor Frankl was a Holocaust survivor (as well as an existential philosopher and Psychiatrist) who put forward that, even when the rest of our freedom has been taken from us (in his case, as a prisoner at Auschwitz), we still have the freedom of our attitude. You will be amazed at how liberating it can be to feel sorry for someone towards whom you once felt powerless.
Although, I do miss the days I could rap every Em lyric. Great party trick.