Anger is a perfectly OK emotion. A natural reaction to feeling threatened, the expression of anger, especially for women, has been given a bad rap. While growing up, I was encouraged to deny my anger, to feel somehow guilty or apologetic for it. Angry women are called bitches, harpies, out of control. We’re told to “calm down” which just makes us more angry.
Not to say that men have had it all that easy either. Men were encouraged to either numb their anger with alcohol, drugs or express it through brutal contact sports or let it loose in verbal, or physically abusive rants. Men too often are stuck between redirecting the anger or holding it in until it builds up to a point that it explodes leaving destruction in its wake. So let’s be clear, none of it is good!
How to express anger in a healthy way hasn’t been at the top of the child-rearing priority list since, ever. Which is too bad because I really do believe a lot of anxiety and depression would be less severe if we felt safe with our anger.
The “discovery” of emotional intelligence, or EQ, was a game-changer. Someone finally came up with a smartness scorecard that was more than your SAT score. If you could demonstrate empathy, compassion, articulate your feelings and listen with attention, well that makes you pretty damn smart as well.
It used to be said that IQ was assigned to you at birth and no matter how hard you tried you could never change that. You were either smart or not – deal with it. Then Kaplan came along and showed us how we could actually change our SAT scores significantly if we studied and learned the tricks of the exam. Anyhoo… The truth is that while there are some limits to how agile our brains are, there is always the opportunity to learn and improve. Same with emotional intelligence.
The focus is on anger today because anger is seen as the most destructive emotion. We tend to be most afraid of our anger. A whole life coaching industry has emerged to address anger management. But sometimes life coaching isn’t enough.
So here are some steps for you to improve your Emotional Intelligence Quotient and feel better about your relationship with anger.
Step 1. To manage anger soothe your body first.
Anger management starts with the answer to this question: How do you handle your flight/fight response? As you know, the fight/flight response is how our hard-wired nervous system responds to a perceived threat. We physically and emotionally react to the threat when it is embodied, takes tangible form, as anger. Anger becomes a problem when it slips out of our control. To get control back in the moment, just breathe.
Use the same method used by the Marines to keep the fight/flight response in control: four-square breathing.
- Breathe in deeply for a count of four,
- hold it, four,
- breathe out, four,
- and pause the breath at the bottom, four.
This kind of breathing is known by many names,
- and more…
Deep, full, mindful breathing like this is the universal cornerstone to self-soothing when our body is freaking out.
Then there’s maintenance for the long haul. To keep the flight/fight response regulated like a well-oiled machine so that we can smooth out our ruffled feathers and engage our frontal lobes with greater ease, it helps to build and maintain an internal psychological cushion.
Think of this cushion as your emotional immune system.
The healthier, the thicker and more resilient our cushion is, the better it can keep us from losing it when we’re stressed. We do that through holistic healthy habits. Say that real fast five times!
All that means is we do our best to watch what we put in our bodies, how we rest and move.
- How is our nutrition? What and how often are we drinking (more water, less alcohol, and caffeine, for example).
- How do we rest when our bodies need rest? Deep sleep is the Holy Grail but naps are good, too, or just lying down with our eyes closed, work breaks and mindful meditation.
- Are we moving? Whether it’s a yoga class at your favorite wellness center or a pick-up basketball game or dancing in your living room… move that booty.
Watch this trifecta of holistic health and your emotional immune system will have a fighting chance to take care of you when you need it as a result.
Step 2. Find compassion.
Recognize that anger may hide something deeper.
“Anger is a secondary emotion, the expression of another primary emotion, such as fear.”– Attributed to Elizabeth Kubler-Ross
When I came across this quote my mind was blown.
The concept that anger actually hid another more primal emotion explained so much!
- My elderly father lashing out at me when I was trying so hard to take care of him.
- My patient who was beyond furious when she discovered her husband had been cheating on her for years.
- My mild-mannered friend, so angry, when she suddenly found herself immobilized by the pain of a broken leg.
In all of these situations, there was a clear object for the anger. My Dad was mad at me, obviously. My patient, her husband. And my friend, her landlord for not salting an icy walkway. Kubler-Ross’s insight made me look at the direction of the anger from another point of view.
My father’s anger, for instance. What if my Dad wasn’t mad at me? Rather, what if his anger at me really covered up something else that he couldn’t see? That was so intense, primal, raw, that he couldn’t admit it, even to himself? What if he was scared?
This made sense. His wife, my mother, nine years younger than him, died before he did. That was so not the plan. The degree of his dependence on his wife was suddenly revealed in her absence. Control of where he lived and how even the distribution of his medications was not his anymore. Who wouldn’t be scared in his circumstances?
His fury at me provoked awful anger in me towards him. This is a common pattern in fights. With the insight given to me by Dr. Kubler-Ross I could find compassion which broke the pattern. Try feeling compassion and anger at the same time. Not easy.
Fear is not the only primary emotion that anger covers up. Pain, whether emotional, psychological or physical can also be expressed as anger. My patient was deeply hurt by her husband’s betrayal, my friend was miserable with physical pain. It was easier, and perhaps even better for them to be angry than depressed.
When we feel anger, it’s important to honor that emotion. Anger can be righteous. Let your anger flag fly when that is so. I just ask that you keep in mind self-compassion when you think maybe the anger is about feeling scared or hurt. It’s important to honor that, too.
Step 3. Create a space.
“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.”– Viktor Frankl
No, Dr. Frankl was not a mindfulness counselor. He was a survivor of the horrors of the Holocaust, a neurologist, psychiatrist, and author of Man’s Search for Meaning. In the slave labor camps of Poland and Germany, Dr. Frankl learned more of the human need for internal space than any mindfulness retreat could teach.
By taking a beat between whatever set off your anger and reacting to it, we give the more sophisticated part of our brains, the frontal lobes, a chance to ponder. What do you want to happen now? In the long run? Besides wanting to smack this person hard, what do you want them to understand? To hear?
Lessons from Abraham Lincon
Abraham Lincoln was a man known for his great passion. In his reactive youth, Lincoln learned the hard way not to give in to the impulsive need to punch his opponent’s lights out. By the time he was president, he developed this habit. When he learned there was someone trying to undermine him, he would sit down and write that person a letter. In that letter was all the vitriol he wanted so badly to pour out on his enemy’s head. Then he put that letter in a drawer.
The next day he took the letter out, read it, tore it up and wrote a new one. The new letter still made clear the President’s displeasure but with the subtlety of a stiletto, not the violence of a machete. He could also outline a reasonable path forward which he found nearly impossible to do without that space of time.
Lincoln was a genius, I think we can agree on that.
Strong emotion does not need to be expressed at the top of your lungs, despite what the producers of “reality” television seem to think. I am here to say that a whispered, “I am very angry right now,” can be twice as scary to the object of your wrath as when it’s screamed at ear-splitting decibels. And even scarier can be a well-regulated, “This isn’t over. I need to think about this. I suggest you do, too. We’ll talk later.”
The space we choose to create may be different from Lincoln’s. It might be literally sleeping on it like he did, or taking another form of “time out”: a walk around the block, a snack if our blood sugar is low, a venting talk with a good friend. Sometimes all it takes is a pause, a beat that allows us to see the situation from outside of it, settle the body, engage the frontal lobes. That’s where we find our power.
About Dr Aletta
Elvira G. Aletta, PhD, Founder & CEO
Life gave Dr. Aletta the opportunity to know what it’s like to hurt physically and emotionally. After an episode of serious depression in her mid-twenties, Dr. Aletta was diagnosed with a rare kidney disease that relapsed throughout her adulthood. While treatable, the cure was often as hard to bear as the disease. Later she was diagnosed with scleroderma, another chronic illness.
Throughout, Dr. Aletta battled with anxiety. Despite all this, Dr. Aletta wants you to know, you can learn to engage in life again on your terms.
Good therapy helped Dr. Aletta. She knows good therapy can help you. That’s why she created Explore What’s Next.
Today Dr. Aletta enjoys mentoring the EWN therapists, focusing on coaching and psychotherapy clients, writing and speaking. She is proud and confident that Explore What’s Next can provide you with therapists who will help you regain a sense of safety, control and joy.
716.634.2600 | firstname.lastname@example.org
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