Do you ever have trouble figuring out why you’re angry or where it came from? You thought you were doing fine just minutes ago and then something provokes you and you maybe lash out, attack back, get snide or sarcastic, lecture somebody, insult them, grumble and gossip, plot revenge, or even fume or pout quietly. Anger has many looks and shades to it, doesn’t it? How are you at even identifying when you are angry? I ask because it is quite difficult to sort out the causes and meanings of our anger if we aren’t able to be aware of when we are experiencing it.
Step one: Identifying Anger
Maybe I have trouble identifying anger because I don’t want to believe I am getting angry, or I really don’t want to see how often I do. Maybe I believe that anger is bad or wrong? Some people do. Maybe I deny my anger because I am afraid of my anger or what I may do, or what people will think of me? Also common. Maybe I see it as embarrassing or losing self control? Maybe I had experienced being on the receiving end of anger and I told myself that I would never be angry like that? And so, what do I do? I either justify it or re-label it. Meaning I either focus on the external cause and blame my poor reaction on that, or I find a way to make it something else, something more acceptable. I may convert my anger into passive aggression, grudge holding and revenge, or with women in particular, maybe convert anger into tears. Another way we may convert our anger is to somaticize our emotions, which means converting them into physical symptoms, such as muscle tension, digestive problems, high blood pressure, or fatigue.
But re-labeling or converting my anger into something else and avoiding it only exacerbates the problem and doesn’t help me to learn about the source of my anger and how to address it and manage my emotions in healthy ways. Step one means that I simply need to sift through my methods of avoidance and be willing to say – “I am angry”. Becoming a less angry person sometimes actually involves a process in which you first get more angry. You’re not really getting more angry, but it will seem that way as you become more aware of the anger you already have. The idea is to be able to do this without recriminations. I may feel guilty about how I reacted, and if I threw someone under the bus, and was unfair, then that would be appropriate. But, the reality of feeling anger and owning it is the goal here.
Step Two: Getting Underneath My Anger
Anger is considered a secondary emotion. What that means is that anger usually is representative of another emotion behind and underneath it. Now that I’ve identified that I am angry, I want to follow the trail back to the source, the root. I remind myself that my anger is telling me something about what is going on inside of me emotionally. My attitude is to play detective. Why? Why not just squash this unwanted emotion? Simply put, to the degree that I don’t understand the roots or meanings of my anger is the degree to which I will be unhappy and disgruntled throughout my life. I realize that this can be hard work, but it really will be worth it to you.
How do I do this?
Ask yourself good questions about the meanings of your anger. What is it about what that person said or did? Seek descriptive words or metaphors to parse out your feelings.
Think back through your thoughts or perceptions concerning the event. How did I interpret the situation? Did I perceive an attack, or a slight? Did I feel rejected or misunderstood? Did I begin to go through worst case scenarios in my mind?
Try to recall times when you felt similarly to help you identify the meaning.
If you get stuck or come up blank, seek out a safe, trusted friend to help you talk it out and ask you probing questions.
Two common links to anger are hurt and disappointment. But since these are perceived as vulnerable or weak feelings, we are conditioned in our society to hide such feelings. One such way to hide them is to convert them into anger.
Step Three: Live Authentically
In Brene’ Brown’s Book, The Gifts of Imperfection, she refers to courage, and she explains that the word originally meant to “speak one’s mind by telling all one’s heart.” 1 The author goes on to describe elements that are so important to becoming more authentic and emotionally healthy, and this notion of courageously being vulnerable leads the way. See, now that I have delved in and found out that there is something underneath my anger, something that’s often more vulnerable – something like disappointment or loss or hurt – now I don’t like that much. Now, I’m rather mad at that guy who wrote that article about anger! Although now I get why I gravitate to anger! Anger feels safer and less painful than feeling my vulnerability. But, the cat is now officially out of the bag. You can either move forward and address the underneath stuff, or you could go back and keep utilizing anger to cover up those things. One way leads to reduced anger and irritability and resentment and a better you. You already know which one is which.
Funny thing, but just acknowledging your underneath stuff actually helps. Just by being honest with yourself about your hurts is the beginning to healing them. Honesty matters. It means I am valuing my heart. Next comes daring to value and honor my heart with others. Yeah, it is risky. But learning that not everyone will respect your vulnerably also I think means finding out that some people will. And living authentically with those who respect you – that brings healing to our hurts and losses.
The Wrap Up
None of the steps are easy. If they were, we wouldn’t be such an angry, disgruntled culture. That culture does present a challenge that you’ll need to swim upstream against. There are plenty of folks who don’t like someone being vulnerable. And I’ll tell you the real reason why. It’s not because vulnerable people are weak and so looked down upon and deserve to be trampled by the strong. Oh no. Sadly, reality is the opposite. It is true strength to be vulnerable and those without it fear it because it exposes them and shows what real strength and courage is. So it is mocked and referred to as weakness. You know, it’s kind of like a dictator fearing that the people will figure out that if they rise up they would have more power than him. Personal maturity, emotion health, spiritual maturity are not lifted up by the world in general. God tells us not to be surprised by this in the Biblical book of I Peter. Jesus himself was not respected by the masses. But those who chose to get to know you will appreciate it. And you will be freer and more patient and more at peace. And you in the end just may discover that becoming less angry may make you less popular (only to some, mind you), and still happier and more content.
If you would like to make a counseling appointment with Matt, call 407-647-7005.
1. Brown, Brene’, The Gifts of Imperfection (Center City, MN. Hazelden, 2010), 12.
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