Teaspoon of HappyThe Good FightSarah May Bates

How do you deal with anger? It’s one of the hardest things to react to properly. Most people’s reaction is to A: let it cause an explosion, B: stuff it deep and pretend it’s not there, letting it squeak out in passive aggressive ways or C: direct it outwards at someone that perhaps didn’t deserve it. It’s like spreading a nasty virus – and often just as accidental, because anger has the tendency to render rational thinking useless. The goal then becomes finding a way to address your feelings with the appropriate actions.

Fighting and conflict isn’t necessarily a sign that something is wrong. Sometimes we just don’t agree and conflict will arise despite the fact that everyone is doing their best. However, it’s easy to misdirect and put the blame for our anger on a person that is not the total cause, because at the time you don’t have a whole lot of control and you also don’t care. You’re angry. It’s a mean and careless emotion! But it doesn’t have to burn so much down in its path. It can be extinguished much more painlessly if we can just hold onto the goal that we wish to let it go. It’s easy to decide to be angry and stay angry, fueling a desire to make others as upset as we might be; so that someone might understand the degree to which we are upset. In our rational minds we would never want this, for ourselves or anyone else. Being angry is terrible and it makes us into monsters. Let the goal be in the back of your mind, to find a way back to peace.  In the face of a spark of anger, often all we can do is rely on our most basic and easily recalled tools. I really only have one, and that’s “stop”. If I am really mad, I try and tell myself to stop immediately. Don’t say anything, don’t do anything. Just wait until I am “sober” from the anger to see it objectively. Otherwise, I know I’m going to make a mess that didn’t need to be made.

If you do blow up at someone, give yourself a break, but try to think back about how you could have vented it to them sooner from a less super-angry place. It’s important to vent anger, otherwise it stews and becomes increasingly toxic inside your body, polluting your behavior and your perception. Unventilated anger also, interestingly, converts into depression over time. Altogether, not something you want inside. The hard part is always going to be figuring how to best accomplish that.

A simple rule of thumb when you’re angry is count to ten before saying anything. If you’re really angry, count higher and picture the numbers clearly in your head. Focus on the shapes. This might not go far enough in most cases but it’s something we can recollect while blinded by rage. If you are in a state of mind that’s definitely too emotional, wait until the next day. I am writing this in part to myself because I fail to listen to my better judgment the most often when I am angry. It takes discipline and maturity at a time when you couldn’t care less about “what you should do”.

One anger tool that’s good for cohabitation is to have an “emergency phrase” that has been fully defined in the severity of its implications. It’s like an anger alarm / emergency cord. Like “Really, really bad traffic” or “Code orange”. This tells another person, “I am not myself right now – make way or I might bite your head off.” That person can then know, “Oh, it’s not me. They are in crazy mode right now.” I like to think of anger as a match thrown into a pile of dry kindling, and it needs to be put into an incinerator so that it can burn up entirely with the right ventilation. My solution is usually the treadmill, or cooking from a cookbook (because it turns off my brain). Yours might be car-singing or whacking a golf ball. Whatever it is, respect the chemicals of rage and medicate them as best as you can, as soon as you can.

If you are angry at something someone does or doesn’t do, tell them. Express what it is you wanted them to do in as objective of verbiage as possible. Don’t coat it with broken glass on the way out. Deliver a clear communication of your needs and how they were not met, and also an acknowledgement that you are angry. This at least gives the other person a clear understanding of what has caused you to be upset. It’s much better than the infamous, “Are you mad?” “Not at all. Why don’t you just go on doing that thing that you were so insensitively doing?” This type of behavior is also crazy making because you are sending opposite messages. It also might cause that person to take you at face value and continue said insensitive act, causing you to bubble hotter and hotter in your now re-justified resent.

Another no-no of venting anger is bundling your objective communication with a painful dash of personal attack. “I am mad at you for being selfish”. That is not objective. That is a grenade thrown at someone’s character and an invitation to war. If your goal is truly to communicate so that you can solve your conflict and let this crappy angry feeling go, let your fights be about that one thing that they’re about. “I am angry because you only got food for yourself even though I always get food for you.” (Or whatever else you might be fighting about that’s less trivial.) When you stick to the facts, often they can inform real differences of understanding and interpretation and with that release a whole lot of misguided fury. If you do throw that grenade you might end up inflicting unintended harm on someone you care about, and that’s something you can’t take back.

On occasion, you might find that another person is mad at the simple fact that you are mad, which is fine – frustrating yes, but not yours to dismiss and also not your fault. Your anger exists whether they or you want it to or not. Think of it as you’re both in the same boat. Best to start bailing.

Venting anger will always be challenging and most likely ungraceful, because it’s uncomfortable to be in any conflict. It probably won’t come out the way you intended, period, but try and let it be what it is and don’t let it build into something greater, causing more injury to your relationships. Through conflict can come a greater insight into who we are and what we need from one another. It can show us how much another cares about our intentions. It can define boundaries and values, to even ourselves and bring them into sharper focus. There will always be conflict. What matters is the shared goal of resolution. We can never be perfect, but we can always be loving.

Happy Sunday, and love to you all. xox Sarah

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  1. great piece as usual Sarah. That’s funny that you posted this because during that time of the month I am overly emotional and sometimes it gets the best of me. I am not myself and I’m extra sensitive. I had this convo with my bf and he advised me to pick my battles. Sometimes I create battles based on nothing because If eel i need to open and honest about everything even if it may or may not create an argument. I really like the counting method you suggested because I tend to act out of impulse resulting to something things that I may regret later. Ugh I hate fighting but sometimes like you mentioned it does strengthen the relationship because you learn from it. thanks again.

    Anonymous | 4/02/2012 09:04 am
    • :D thanks dude. We all do it.. It’s tough to know when you’re not sure if it’s worth it or not but with a little bit of time I find it all becomes much clearer. x

  2. So great, Sarah. You’re so right – anger towards inward becomes depression. Also, I was raised that being angry was not necessarily acceptable when it’s a PERFECTLY acceptable emotion to have. We don’t need to judge ourselves for feeling angry. You’ve given a lot of really, really good examples in your post (you are so awesome!), and I love the code word thing. One of the things I’ve found helpful in conveying exactly what I mean (so I don’t end up with built-up anger), is using the formula “When you (blank), it makes me feel (blank). In the future, it would be helpful if you (blank).” It seems so weird, but it works.

    Thanks again for my Sunday therapy session!

    • Totally!!! That’s a super communication tool right there — It makes it clear as day. Love that!! Thank you for sharing – throwing that one in my toolbox for future use. xox

  3. thank you so much! i need it. your A.B.C anger reaction. i have shown all of them. especially A and C. it is really hard to control anger. it always took so much energy from me. life is long ahead and i will try to learn and be better aat it. happy sunday to you too, Sarah!

    • Thank you Jing!! I think the most important part of any change is knowing what you want to change at all. And I also think everything gets easier when we accept that we will stumble along the way. You sound very self-aware and thoughtful as a person. Thank you for your comment! :)

  4. Ironically the emotion anger is an abject connotation of the emotion love. It’s much more common to get extremely angry at someone or something where there has already been a relationship established. Anger is certainly possible in other venues but extreme anger is more often reserved for people whom we normally care for. The police call that every officer fears is one of domestic violence where extreme love had been replaced with extreme anger or hate. It’s in these situation where logical thought has been replaced with a form of instinctual reaction. Anger is merely an adrenaline release. The more adrenaline released the more out of control we can become. Nobody is immune but some are prone. It’s a normal bodily behavior but where and how it is focused will generally determine the outcome’s severity.

    • Yeah I hear you, I know a few people that have some uncontrollable anger issues and despite it they are very good people. It just happens to scare the living daylights out of everyone they interact with. I can’t help but wonder if it’s some bad muscle-memory from childhood bottling? Thanks for your as-always thought-inspiring comment. :)

  5. Hi Sarah,
    Once again, you’ve written an article that displays your usual keen perception and one from which everyone can learn something. I was guilty of “B: stuff it deep and pretend it’s not there, letting it squeak out in passive aggressive ways.” In my case, it wasn’t a matter of being wary of exploding all over my significant other. It was just me not knowing how to state my feelings constructively! After a lot of self-exploration, observation & good old-fashioned reading, I’ve gotten reasonably good at expressing myself, even if the situation is becoming increasingly volatile. Of course, if the other person isn’t willing to engage cooperatively or, at least, learn how to engage cooperatively, there is little hope of a good resolution. That’s what doomed my last relationship. But, even through all that unpleasantness, I learned something I can use the rest of my life.
    Thank for all you efforts, Sarah. They are very much appreciated.

    • Thank you Andy! I know what you mean. It takes two to tango, but man it feels great to know that you were true to yourself and said everything you had to to honor your person. I enjoy the self-honoring part most about this practice and I notice that it has taken me to new and better things in my life in the process. :) xo

  6. Another great article.. as usual ladies @ hello gigs!!

  7. April Fools’ Day would probably be the LAST day one might expect to find a column on anger helpful. (It’s such a harmless day, right?) Maybe not. I’ve actually needed this particular reminder a huge amount today – thanks so much, Sarah. I wonder if you realise how much of a difference you make to the lives of so many different people, all over the world, simply by writing this column every Sunday? It’s so appreciated.

    I’m certainly one of the B-type people when it comes to emotions – I bottle them up for such a long time that I then can’t have a constructive discussion because I just weep. I need to breathe and let go. I know this, but frequently forget.

    Thanks, and love from ‘across the pond’, Jessi xx

    • Awe you made me gasp aloud! thank you Jessi :) You are very kind. I hear you – I can relate, and man how that bottle fills up. Take it a step at a time and one day you’ll be farther along then you even realized. That’s how I learned to voice my feelings. It is scary, but as soon as you accept that part it feels pretty natural. :) xo

  8. Excellent piece! Excellent! Seriously, the Teaspoon of Happy column is one of the best things I’ve had the pleasure to discover on the Internet! It really helps a lot! Thank you, Sarah :)
    I have a really hard time communicating my emotions, or to be more precise, my negative emotions. I can’t handle conflict. When something upsets me, I can’t seem to tell the person ‘responsible’ and rule that out. I don’t think I’ve ever begun a fight, although I’ve had reasons to. This is very wrong and unhealthy because in the end, it consumes me. I guess I’m afraid of what will happen, how I will be able to get over the fight, I often doubt that I was right and think that I might have been exaggerating or that the other person might get mad at me, and I won’t know how to deal with that. Mental?

    • Thank you Amalia! I totally know how you feel – It’s tough to make waves when you’d rather avoid it. I definitely had to make an agreement with myself to start voicing things instead of stuffing them because it literally made me sick. It will get more comfortable as you go on – just take it a tiny step at a time, like bring things up when you’ve built up the courage to and set up to that person just how hard it is for you to confront them. At the end of the day there’s no such thing as “right or wrong” in that department. Think of it as you are both right so you can get to the solving part. :) xo