Usually, when I stop for coffee in the morning I needed to be at work 5 minutes ago. You would think that I would learn to get up earlier, schedule my first appointment for later, or—gasp—actually prepare myself for the day the night before. Honestly, I will probably never do any of that stuff successfully. (Don’t tell—we therapists often like to pretend like we’re above that kind of thing.) So there I am, sitting in bumper to bumper traffic, fighting mad with anyone who gets in my way. This might sound like the start to a treatise about stress management through better time management. But it’s not. It’s about one of the calling cards of stress of any kind—anger.
There is a generally accepted notion in the psychological community that anger is a secondary emotion. That means it never rides in on its white horse alone. In fact, it’s never even at the head of the calvary. It’s actually somewhere near the back holding the flag and lookin’ tough. But, the big, flashy banner means you’ll sure notice it .You might even think the army is bigger than it really is. In your body, you notice anger by the “banner” physical symptoms of stress gone wild. Your fists might tighten, your face becomes red. You feel like hitting that guy right in the face, and then drawing back and doing it one more time. That’s not to mention your poor shoulder muscles holding on to the tension, your palms that are slick with sweat, or the curse words that keep on rolling off your tongue. So if anger isn’t first, what is? Fear. (Stay with me now, this is going to get deep.) If anger is the car, fear is the fuel that runs it. This is complicated by the fact that fear has many faces like: shame, low self-esteem, and a terror of abandonment. I once had a very intelligent and well-respect colleague who quickly became overwhelmed and verbally aggressive each time someone asked her even a simple question about the way she managed her staff. Was she angry at being questioned? Of course—we all get a little self-righteous sometimes. But what she was really afraid of was looking stupid and inept, or the rest of the team ganging up on her. She didn’t want to be ashamed or alone.
These very same themes play out all the time in intimate and parental relationships. They show up as an abuser isolating a domestic violence victim. They are there when a drug addict has to be committed against her will to save her life. Fear. Anger. In small, manageable doses, anger is catalytic. It causes change and change is very often good. It only becomes a problem when it is expressed by violence or emotional terrorism. Rage is particularly virulent when it is allowed to make its bearer physically, mentally, or spiritually ill.
Fortunately, there are many ways to give anger a run for its money. Here are a few:
1) Become Assertive: I put this one first because it sounds almost counter-intuitive. But, anger can arise out of feelings of being misunderstood or stymied in interpersonal communications. Yelling, threatening, or intimidating usually only reward you with a form of coerced cooperation. They do not help you solve problems that you could otherwise address with conversational tools that make a space for collaboration. And, reacting in an aggressive manner almost guarantees that you are teaching people to handle you with kid gloves—a recipe for feeling left out and abandoned. Guess what feelings of abandonment (sometimes experienced as being “not important enough” to treat well) lead to? That’s right—anger. It’s always interesting to meet people who get angry lots and lots because other people just don’t “get” them. If you’re finding that you’re one of those mysterious people, come down from your high horse and slowly back away. People don’t “get” you because you’re not giving them any help in understanding you. Focus on learning some skills that will help you get what you want by asking for it in appropriate and palatable ways.
2) Deep Breathing: I can hear the sigh of “yeah, right,” across the miles. But, if you allow yourself to continue to breathe shallowly and rapidly, you are continuing to tell your body that this is a danger situation. Your body will respond really effectively with increased symptoms of anxiety. When you take a few seconds to breathe deeply from your diaphragm, you are alerting your whole system that physical reactivity is not required. If you are able to make your mental state and physical state more congruent, it will be easier to calm down and communicate well.
3) Walk Away: This one is kind of a “duh” suggestion. But, you will be surprised by how many people sit in my office and have an “ah-ha” moment around learning to disengage. Your past relationships may have taught you that it is bad, cowardly, or even mean to walk away from confrontation. You can usually tell if you are one of these people because the folks around you often say, “Why can’t you just let it go?” If this is the case, you need to take a good look at how that belief system emerged in your life. If you can’t see the pattern, you won’t have any good starting place for changing it.
4) Develop a Sense of Humor: There is a book that I almost always lend to clients who come to me because their anger is getting the best of them. It’s called, rather simply, “Anger,” and is by a guy named Thich Nhat Hanh. I give this book to even the baddest of the bad because it teaches you how to have a sense of humor about the ways you let yourself get really knotted up in rage. It usually doesn’t come back to me (you know who you are) because folks find it so helpful they just keep it. It is one of my greatest joys to see clients experience themselves as fallible, funny, and altogether interesting creatures.
5) Exercise: If you read these newsletters with any regularity, you’ll remember that I am forever recommending this. You don’t have to be preparing for the next Victoria’s Secret runway show. But, you do have to give your body an outlet for all the stuff you ask it to manage for you during the day. Even if you do nothing more than walk Fido around the block or do a Yoga tape after the kids go to bed, do something.
Your Partner in Healing, Holly
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