My grandparents were angry, my parents were angry, my ex-husband was angry, and I myself sometimes feel unreasonably and even uncontrollably angry. So I get angry people. You could say I’ve made a lifelong study of it. Here’s what I’ve learned.
Anger Has 3 Primary Expressions
To understand anger, it’s helpful to understand how differently people can express it. Anger can be expressed in any of these ways:
- Violent, externalized anger
This is what most people envision when they think about anger. This kind of anger may be characterized by yelling and screaming, maybe even hitting or verbal abuse. This kind of anger is the scariest and most upsetting, but what is really happening is that the angry person is unable to deal with whatever is troubling them, so they try to “get rid of” the bad feelings by directing them onto others.
- Passive-aggressive behavior
Passive-aggressive behavior is an expression of anger, except no yelling or arguing is involved. Instead, the passive-aggressive person gives the appearance of agreeing with what you say or what your stated goals are, but then they passively undermine you by consistently doing the opposite of what you want or thought you both had agreed upon.
Passive-aggressive behavior is the perfect mask for “stealth anger.” It is so effective that passive-aggressive people often believe—even insist—that they are not angry. They do not see their behavior for what it is and are typically unaware that they are doing it.
Depression is the opposite of #1, in that this form of anger is directed inward. Instead of directing their anger onto other people, the depressed person directs it onto themselves instead. By taking it all onto themselves, the depressed person may resent that they have effectively martyred themselves in this way (instead of communicating their anger to their loved ones in a healthy way), which may make them even more depressed over time.
Anger is Masking Deeper, Scarier Feelings
If you or someone you love frequently expresses anger in any of the ways listed above, please know that the anger itself isn’t the real problem. Anger is a symptom, which is why simply releasing the anger occasionally (by exploding, going into a dark depression, being more passive-aggressive) doesn’t work in the long run. In order for the anger to be managed, the underlying feelings have to be understood.
Anger is a defense mechanism, really. It’s an attempt to keep you emotionally and maybe even physically safe. This often doesn’t work very well, but if you approach it from that understanding, it begins to make sense. Your inner child is trying to protect you from feelings that, from his or her perspective, are even scarier than feeling angry.
So, what kinds of feelings might be behind the anger? Here are a few of them:
Some people are naturally anxious. It may be biology, it may be upbringing (perfectionist parents, for example), or it may be some of both. We live in an increasingly complex world, and a mundane task for one person may feel completely overwhelming to another. If someone feels like they “have to” do something that makes them anxious, anger is likely to make an appearance somewhere along the way.
A frustrated person is likely to feel angry: angry that they aren’t heard, angry that they “have to” do something that makes them uncomfortable, angry that they are faced with a scary challenge that they aren’t sure they can handle.
- Lack of Control
No one likes to feel like they are out of control, but of course, everyone is. Nevertheless, it’s a terribly scary feeling. Think of a child, raging against the forces trying to control or constrain his or her spirit. We all understand this, because we know somewhere inside that we are free, so what’s with all of this “behave” nonsense? The two-year-old child having a tantrum is really no different than a grown-up expressing their own frustration at being out of control.
Everyone does things they aren’t proud of, but one of the ways in which we protect ourselves is to avoid feelings of guilt for what we have done, because they make us feel bad about ourselves. Avoiding guilt doesn’t work, of course, so a guilty person will either start trying to give away their guilt to someone else in the form of anger, or they will stuff it inside and let it fester away as depression.
Everyone is afraid of something, but sometimes certain fears can rule our lives. For example, the fear of failing or the fear of appearing “stupid” can make people behave in angry ways. What are you most afraid of? Be honest with yourself, and ask your inner child. He or she knows the answers.
Anger Isn’t “Bad”
Part of what makes anger so difficult to understand is the huge amount of judgment that surrounds it. People who “get angry” are judged to be “bad people.” Now, it is true that angry people sometimes do bad things. Anger puts blinders on good judgment. But many people assume that someone who is really angry has no right to be, which is the same thing as saying, “You shouldn’t feel that.” This is like telling someone whose parent just died that they shouldn’t feel sad.
All feelings are messengers, and anger is no exception. What is your anger trying to tell you? What are the underlying issues behind your anger? Discover and begin to deal with those, and you will have begun your healing.
The goal in life is not “never be angry.” This is unrealistic. You are going to be angry. Some days, you might even be really angry. It’s just a feeling. What’s important is how you deal with and express this feeling.
Learning New Ways to Cope
If anger has been the first emotional door that you open, then it’s going to take time to learn to open other doors. There are a number of strategies you can adopt to help you along the way. Knowing what lies behind your anger will help you find the right strategies for you. For example, I gradually came to understand that I’m not an angry person—I’m an anxious person. Stressful situations make me very touchy because I’m having a hard time coping. Once I understood this, I could take steps to lighten my own load. Below are some ideas for helping you manage your anger.
When you can, avoid the things that make you feel really anxious. If you can’t avoid some of them, then at least try to minimize how many of them you have to deal with at one time. Ask for and accept help. Lighten your load! Give a voice to your anxiety. Treat yourself to some “me time.” Give yourself a gift every day. It doesn’t have to be a big thing. It could be a walk, a cup of coffee, a few minutes with a video game. Just whatever makes you feel happy and relaxed.
If too many things are making you anxious, talk to your doctor. Homeopathic solutions may help, or you may need a prescription for an anti-anxiety medication. There is no failure in getting help.
Say and act what you feel
This is a two-part solution. Part one is to understand how you really feel—not how you’re supposed to feel, not how you should feel, or not how you’d like to feel. How you really feel. You may not be accustomed to knowing. It’s time to find out. If no one had any expectations of you, if you had no obligations whatsoever, how would you feel about a given situation?
The second part is to speak what you feel, and wherever possible, act what you feel. In life, there may be some constraints on what you can do. You might like to take a trip around the world, but your family might need you to keep drawing a paycheck and take junior to soccer practice. Life is compromise, after all. But if you say “no” too often when you feel “yes,” or you say “yes” too often when you feel “no,” then you are making yourself miserable and breeding resentment, which makes you angry.
Make healthy changes, slowly
Make a list of the things that cause you stress, that you don’t enjoy, or that you may resent in some way. Look at the list and pick one easy thing you can change or get rid of altogether. Maybe someone else would like to pick up the gauntlet. Or maybe the world won’t end if you stop doing it. Let it go, and remove it from your to-do list.
After a few weeks, come back to this list and see if there’s something else you can change or offload. Try to work with the easy things first. Over time, you may discover that you have made incremental positive changes that make you feel happier and less stressed. By doing this slowly, you also give yourself a chance to adapt to change, which can be stress-inducing in itself. Life isn’t a contest. You don’t have to change everything overnight, and you shouldn’t try.
Take responsibility for your feelings
No one else is “making you angry.” That’s a cop out. Other people may inadvertently do things that just happen to trigger your anger, and all of the feelings underlying it, but no one else is making you angry. You are choosing to react angrily to the input or actions of others, and you’ve been doing it for so long that it’s a habit, which means it doesn’t feel like a conscious choice to you. Nevertheless, you are the one who is choosing to respond with anger. Own it.
Switching gears from anger may seem impossible at first, but it can be done. Once you realize that you are being triggered by something that makes you feel a) anxious, b) frustrated, c) controlled, d) guilty, e) fearful, f) all of the above, then you can name that trigger and you can name your historic response to it. And then you can change it.
Let’s say you your spouse asks you to do something, and you feel angry as a result. What is the real reason you are angry? Do you feel controlled? Does it feel stressful because it’s “one more thing” you have to do? Are you afraid that you won’t be able to do it well? When you can identify what’s really going on, you can give a voice to that and respond in another way.
Don’t live in the past
No doubt people in your past have betrayed you, wronged you, or even egregiously hurt you. But when you think about those events, you are effectively reliving them, which means you are reliving the pain. This only harms you, not the person who wronged you.
Holding onto anger is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.
When these memories and feelings come up, gently release them. Resolve to live today, in the present moment. The memories of past pain cannot harm you anymore if you do not want them to.
Forgive yourself and others
You know this already. I barely need to say it. But so often, we hear this, and we secretly think, That’s too hard, or even, That’s impossible. It is neither of these, but if you believe it is, then it will be so for you. There is huge power in simply stating to yourself that you have decided to forgive yourself and others. Just saying, “I am deciding to forgive” is huge. It may not really feel complete in a day, a month, or even a year, but it will put you much farther down the road than you think.
So much of anger is resentment. You may resent others for controlling you or putting constraints on you or even doing actual harm to you. You may also resent yourself—what else is guilt?—for something you have done or something you are. Resentment becomes hatred and hatred bubbles out in anger at some point. Let go of all resentments and guilt. If you do this, you will magically transform your relationships with others, and with yourself. You can do this. I believe in you.
Find and accept help
You do not have to heal on your own. In fact, having a catalyst will help you heal much faster. This person could be a therapist, a counselor, or a close friend. Whoever it is, it should be someone with whom you feel completely safe, and with whom you can be completely honest. A good catalyst will tell you the truth, gently, and listen with understanding and compassion.
Life is a journey, and so is healing. There is no perfect way to do either, except for the way you are doing it. Whatever path you feel you may be stumbling along is the perfect path for you. And that’s okay!