Yesterday a loved one asked me about dealing with anger — he lashed out at someone he loves in a way that hurt her and filled him with shame and regret.
I think we can all relate to this — most of us have lashed out in anger and regretted it later.
We all get angry, but we often deal with it in different ways. Some people constantly lash out in frustration at others, or stew about it and complain about it to people they talk to. Some people repress their anger, with the idea that they should never feel anger, that anger is not safe for others or themselves. Others seethe and seethe quietly, until finally they explode. Some of us do all three.
We all get angry. The question is, how do we get better at dealing with anger?
I’m going to share some strategies that have worked for me. I have purposely tried to get better at dealing with anger, and while I am not perfect, I’ve come a long way. I don’t often yell at my kids anymore, for example, even though I used to yell at them in anger and even spank them. Now I can catch the frustration much sooner, and have found strategies that help me calm down, find compassion, even talk to them with understanding and love.
Before we get into the strategies, let’s understand what’s happening when we get angry.
What’s Going on When We’re Angry
When we get angry, it’s usually because someone else behaved in a way we don’t like. (It could also be our own actions, or just the situation in general, that we don’t like.)
This is what happens:
- We don’t like the way the person behaved.
- We feel a momentary moment of aversion to their behavior, and this causes a moment of pain — we’re hurt that they acted that way. This might only last half an instant.
- We then react to that hurt with a feeling of anger (or frustration, irritation).
- Then we start telling ourselves a story about the other person (or ourselves or the situation). It’s our narrative of what’s happening.
- The story keeps us angry, even if the initial pain goes away, because it keeps making the wound fresh. And then we keep spinning the story around in our heads.
So the initial aversion and pain are unavoidable, and even the anger, frustration and irritation are pretty unavoidable (though you can learn to catch them earlier). It’s human. The part we can work on is noticing the story and not spinning it around in our heads to prolong and even increase the anger.
Understanding the Story
The story that we spin around in our heads is a natural thing for humans — we create stories to understand the world around us, or to put things in some kind of order we can work with.
In these types of situations, the story might be, “She’s always (doing something), I don’t know why she has to keep doing that, etc etc.” Or, “I don’t know why he has to criticize me, I was just trying to (insert some kind of justified action).” We’ve all done this, even if we’re not always aware we’re doing it.
The story is not that useful most of the time. It actually makes us angrier, and separates us from people we care about. It makes us unhappy, traps us in an emotion that isn’t helpful, and worsens our relationships.
Once we’re hooked by the story, it can spin around in our heads for a long time. Hours sometimes. Even days. It just keeps freshening our wound.
You can start to notice the story the next time you’re frustrated, hurt, angry, irritated, resentful, stressed. Just listen to what you’re saying about the other person or the situation you’re in. Just start to become aware of this story you keep replaying.