When you think about anger, many people imagine the pain of an out-of-control parent or partner who couldn’t handle their emotions and spewed them out on everyone else. What I want to say is that anger is not the problem. How a person deals with anger is the problem. We can use anger as an important reaction to our physical, emotional or spiritual boundaries being breached. When this happens we should feel anger. We should expect to get upset. How can we do this in a healthy way?
I want to give six points of how to express healthy anger.
Number One: Slow down.
This is probably the most important point. Anger is hot and fuming. It can take someone over very quickly. People who express anger in a healthy way are able to feel the anger and still manage to moderate their inner experience. Once you get a little bit of distance from the anger, through your awareness, you can then start to operate from your higher mind rather than your reptilian brain. Viktor Frankl said it best: “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
Slowing down is the attempt to develop the freedom to respond.
Number Two: Make sure the person actually did something wrong.
Many times we can get triggered into anger by something a person does, which is eliciting a painful memory from childhood or a past relationship. Think through what just happened. If you could imagine this happening to someone else and them not getting upset then you are probably the one creating the problem.
This doesn’t mean your anger has no validity. It just means that it is important to tell the person you are dealing with why you are angry. For example, maybe your co-worker told you he couldn’t meet for lunch today and you suddenly started to fume. As you slow down and feel the anger you may notice the memory of a partner several years ago who always changed plans at the last minute.
Maybe this relationship was very painful. Now you are responding to your co-worker through this memory and not through the present moment. As you see this you could communicate to your co-worker that changing plans at the last minute brings up these painful memories and you would like them to be a more certain in the future when they make plans with you. Your co-worker may not be able to do this and it is a fair need to communicate.
Number Three: Take responsibility for your anger.
Although someone may have done something to you that is hurtful it is still your anger. You are getting angry to protect yourself and not to hurt someone else. Using “I” statements is one of the best ways to communicate your pain without having to hurt the person in front of you. For example, “when you told me you didn’t care about my important presentation today, I felt really hurt.” This is a statement of what happened and not an attempt to punish the other person for their insensitivity.
Number Four: Stay away from blaming language.
People who express anger in a healthy way don’t go into blaming language. They stay with what happened and how it made them feel. Although you may have lots of reasons to blame the other person for what happened if you want the person to hear your side of the story this kind of language often times shuts the other person down. When you express the vulnerability of being hurt it is much more likely that the other person is going to hear you and actually want to change their behavior in the future.
Number Five: Know when to take a break.
If your anger is really hot and you feel unable to slow down it may be a good time to take a walk for a few minutes. If you can’t walk just say you need a minute before you begin to talk about this. This is a great way to help slow yourself down. I also suggest trying to stay in your body. Notice the sensations (tight chest, shaky arms) that are happening and try and stay with them.
The awareness of our emotional sensations actually helps them move through our system much faster. It can be good to even name them, “feeling a restricted throat,” either in your head or out loud. Once the break is up you will be in a much better position to communicate to the person who may have offended you.
Number Six: Willingness to repair
Once the anger has passed through you it is then possible to take time to repair any damage that may have happened while you were expressing your anger. In many cases people who have been hurt come to a self-righteous place. “Why should I play nice, this person hurt me?” Although it is reasonable to have these thoughts, people who handle anger well take the higher road. They are willing to stay in relationship even when they are hurt. This is hard to do and it may take a few days to get to a place where you can actually approach someone about what happened. Know that the repair can be a wonderful process of growth for the relationship and a chance to heal any painful misunderstandings.
I realize that doing these is not easy.
In my personal life I find it really difficult to do any of the above things. I fail constantly. I don’t see this list as something people will suddenly start doing but as more of a practice. Start by being intentional about how you handle anger. Make it a daily practice to re-read these ideas. Commit yourself to becoming a person who can handle anger in a healthy way. I made this commitment several years ago not because I was lashing out at people but because I was stuffing my anger. After years of practicing healthy anger I’m much better at it. Now I don’t run from my anger, I welcome it in.