New Ways to think about Anger

Scenario: James watched as his son, a talented goalie, let in a goal that lost the game. Exasperated he let out a cry of disgust. As James and his son walked away from the hockey rink James berated him for not trying hard enough. His discouraged son emphatically tried to convince him that he had tried as hard as he could – to no avail. Both felt badly.

Anger is usually a secondary feeling.

Underlying the anger there is another feeling – a vulnerable feeling – that acts like an engine fueling the anger and driving the behavior. Any vulnerable feeling can fuel anger. Some people get angry when they feel hurt.  Some people get angry when they feel threatened. Anyone can get angry when they feel out of control. Some people get angry when they feel pressured. Most people get irritable when they are hungry or tired.  There are many vulnerable feelings: abandoned, put down, shamed, embarrassed, exposed, challenged, disappointed, hopeless, controlled, rejected, blocked, misunderstood, and more.
In James’ case, underneath his anger was disappointed. When his son did well he felt proud and important, almost as if he’d achieved it himself. He enjoyed the compliments from coaches and other parents. When his son did not do well he felt like a failure. He hated feeling like a failure so he shifted into anger and got on his son’s case.
Vulnerable feelings can range from slight to extreme. No one likes to feel vulnerable so most people behave in ways that attempt to avoid or deflect from the feeling. They may get busy talking about something else, they may focus on a task, they may worry about aches or pains they have or they may get angry.
Why get angry? When people shift into anger they stop feeling the vulnerable feeling. It does not go away; it just goes into the background. Feeling angry is better than feeling humiliated, rejected or some other vulnerable feeling. When people feel angry they feel powerful, not vulnerable. With anger it may be possible to change what is going on.

Anger has a purpose.

When people get angry it helps them make happen what they want to happen or to prevent or stop happening what they do not want to happen.
James needed his son to do well so that he felt good about himself. He got angry at his son to pressure him into trying harder. Most children feel uncomfortable when their parents are angry so they try to do whatever it is that will stop the anger, whether it is good for them or not. They become more focused on what their parents are feeling than on the activity. That makes it harder for them to do well.
What could James do to achieve his goals? First of all, James needs to be aware that he feels disappointed. He probably shifts into anger so quickly that he does not even realize it. Secondly, he needs to realize that his disappointed is about himself, not his son; he is trying to get his needs met vicariously through his son’s efforts and abilities. Once he is aware, he can 1) do things in his own life to achieve a sense of accomplishment and importance 2) give his son positive feedback about what he is doing well so his son stays focused on the sport. Then his son is more likely to enjoy the activity and perform at his best. Result? Both feel good – his son about himself, James about himself and his parenting.
When parents figure out the engine (vulnerable feeling) driving their anger they have more choices. They may continue to handle situations in the same way or they may find more effective ways, without getting angry, that are positive for everyone concerned.

Explore the feelings underlying your anger.  What did you feel just before you got angry?

What is the purpose of your anger?  Is there a better way to achieve it than getting angry?

Part 2

Scenario: Mary sighed. She’d blown her top – again. After the last time she’d promised herself that she would not do it anymore. It hadn’t happened in a long while, yet she’d just lost it again.

Mary had been cleaning the home for a couple of hours. Ralph had come home from soccer and was in the shower. She walked into the bedroom to get something and there on the floor was a pile of sweaty stinky clothes that he’d just stripped off.  Annoyed Mary swept up the clothes and put them where they should go. This is an ongoing struggle between them. Mary had asked him many times to put his dirty clothes in the clothes hamper. She got what she had come for and went back to cleaning the home. After half an hour later she walked into the bathroom and saw his wet towel lying on the bathroom floor. She lost it!  She went into a rage. She grabbed the towel and stomped off to find him.  He was resting on the patio drinking some water. Seeing him resting infuriated her even more. She threw the towel at him all the while screaming. She yelled obscenities at him. She assassinated his character. She said many hurtful things. Spittle flew from out of her mouth. Finally, she stomped off. Ralph sat there in shock and confusion wondering what had just happened.

Often there is a cycle to anger and peace. A person blow ups and then there is a period of peace. But life is life. Things happen. They often are not even big things. A small annoying event will happen and it will get dismissed. There is tension. Another irritating event happens – it gets pushed under the rug because the event is not considered significant enough to make a fuss about. Tension increases. Another frustrating event – anger is pushed aside. More tension. Another event – the anger is swallowed. Tension builds. After several more frustrating events, (none of which, in the whole scheme of things, is a big deal) a small event happens and a person blows up in rage. Usually there is confusion because the nature of the event did not warrant the intensity of the anger. How could you get so mad about that? However, the tension is released. Now there is peace again – at least for a while. The building process starts again. It’s like a stack of coins. Each coin is like a frustrating event. The stack gets high, then one more coin is put on the stack and the whole stack falls over.

For Mary, it was not just the wet towel on the bathroom floor.  It was the many wet towels left on the bathroom floor or the bedroom floor, the dirty socks on the floor, the jacket hung over the back of the kitchen chair instead of hung up in the closet, the newspapers scattered on the floor by the couch, the scattered shoes at the door, dirty dishes on the coffee table, the cleaning she’d just done all morning while he was playing soccer, all of her efforts to keep a tidy home that did not seem to matter to Ralph.

Underneath the anger Mary felt out of control and unappreciated.  She tried everything she could think of to get Ralph’s cooperation in keeping their home clean and tidy.  When the home was in order Mary felt calm inside.  She could relax.  If there was something that needed doing she could not rest.  She wanted a pleasant environment that they all could enjoy.  She felt resentment that Ralph was ‘playing’ while she was working. It seemed to her that she did the major share of keeping the home in order.  Finally, she snapped and went into a rant.

Blow ups happen because of ongoing difficulties that are not resolved. There is a buildup of tension that is not released.  At some point, the buildup gets so intense that it cannot be contained.  Mount St. Helen’s erupts.

How to make change.

Make change by interrupting the cycle at some point.  Bring up unresolved issues during the phase when  tension is building.

Mary could feel her annoyance and frustration building.  She did not want to get angry.  She did not want to blow up.  She did not like herself when she acted like that.  But each incident seemed so trivial and she told herself other people handle these things easily, so she could too.  Besides, she did not want to break the peace.

Finally, she realized that if she did not address this with Ralph she was going to blow up again.  She could feel the tension building. She asked him to set a time when could talk.  Together they picked a time both were available. Mary felt less frustrated just knowing that the problem was going to be addressed.  When the time came, they sat down together and explored the issue.  They did not come with solutions before they figured out what the real problem was between them.  This helped them feel connected to each other.  Once connected emotionally, they came up with solutions to experiment with.  Each felt better about the other.  (Ralph could have initiated the discussion with Mary.)

Each partner has a part in the cycle.

No one person is at fault. Whatever is going on between them is co-created by the two of them.  Each needs to take responsibility for his/her part in the negative cycle.

When issues have been discussed unsuccessfully before, couples need to change how they address issues.  The exercise “Sooner Rather than Later” is a useful tool that gives couples a protocol to follow when addressing and resolving issues.

Part 3

Anger is energy.

It is healthy to channel your anger in constructive and productive ways.

Anger expressed positively can convince a lover or a child that he or she is loved. It can help you get a job done when you’re tired.  It can be motivating. Tiger Woods, one of the top golfers, says, “I sometimes lose my temper on purpose to fire myself up.”

Anger expressed negatively can devastate a child of any age, but especially when they are tiny. Anger can destroy relationships and ruin things of value. People often hurt themselves when they get angry.

There are times when it is appropriate and productive to get angry. But often getting angry can be dangerous, even embarrassing. It is helpful to know the difference and have the impulse control to carry out the choice. Most important of all is how a person acts when angry.

Scenario:

Lesley pulled into her garage after a long hectic day at work. As she got out of her car she heard glass breaking. She went around the corner of her home and saw the shattered living room window. Her son and his friends stood on the street frozen. One of the boys had hit the baseball through the window. Lesley was enraged! Last time it was the neighbor’s bedroom window. She’d told them many times to practice in the school yard nearby.She wanted to scream at them and slap them silly, every one of them!

Lesley knew that she was too angry to deal with the boys right then and she told them so. She sent her son to his room and his friends home. She changed into her jeans and a T-shirt, went out into the back yard and chopped some wood. As she chopped, her rage dissipated. She was still angry but not enraged. She then got her son to help her put some plywood over the broken window. Later that evening she and her husband sat down with their son to deal with the problem.

Lesley did not blow up, nor did she block her anger. She allowed her muscles to do what they needed to do – attack. But she did not attack her son or his friends, she attacked the wood. She actually destroyed something and created something simultaneously.

When people get angry, their bodies pump adrenalin into the bloodstream, preparing their muscles for fight or flight. Their muscles are primed to act and as they do the adrenalin is processed. However, if the anger is blocked then the muscles do not do what they naturally do. The adrenalin stays in the muscles often causing side effects, such as shakiness, until it is eventually processed. Blocked or unexpressed anger builds up over time. The brain and the body need to deal with it in some way. Some people blow up because they can no longer tolerate the tension. Others suppress and repress their anger which can lead to physical and emotional illnesses. Depression is often the symptom of repressed anger. Neither is healthy and both can cause a lot of harm.

It is not very easy to find wood to chop but there are lots of other ways to express anger constructively and productively.

Next blog post – Ideas for channeling anger.

Part 4

It’s OK to be angry.

What is important is WHEN and HOW to be angry.

Scenario: Jack was furious at his boss for undermining his authority yet again. He wanted to quit! He felt powerless.  He met with a business colleague and was telling him about what had happened. The business colleague had offered him a job before and told him the offer was still open. Jack was interested. That would serve his boss right if he quit. Still furious Jack said he’d like to think about it and get back to him.

Jack went home. He rolled up a newspaper and put duct tape around it. After making four more paper bats he went down into his basement. He found a pole and wailed on the pole until all five of the paper bats were in shreds. He was exhausted. His anger was gone. As he rested he realized that he did not want to leave his current job. He realized that besides liking the job, he valued the people he worked with and would miss them. He decided that he would find a way to address his issues with his boss.

When people are angry they want to attack or defend – anger has a purpose – make something happen or stop something from happening.  There are many ways to express anger constructively and productively.

Allow your body to do what it needs to do.

Four rules:

1.       Do not hurt anyone else.

2.       Do not hurt yourself.

3.       Do not damage or destroy anything of value.

4.       Do this alone only if you are confident that you can control your impulses.  If you are not sure, seek out one or more people you trust to act as monitors for you. Or, seek professional help.

Types of attacking motions:

Slapping, hitting, pounding, chopping, stomping, swatting, poking, throwing, smashing, slamming, grabbing, kneading, kicking, shoving, squeezing, pushing, pinching, pulling, screaming, ripping, tearing, cutting (with knives, scissors).

Sports

Many sports provide us with outlets for anger by doing attacking motions. Hockey, soccer, tennis. Racquetball, badminton, football, volleyball, basketball, boxing, wrestling, archery, darts and more.

Martial Arts provide excellent ways to do attacking motions.

[Many of these sports involved running or skating yet those activities are not attacking motions, they are fleeing motions.]

Attacking motions that can be done at home.

Roll up a magazine or newspaper and put tape around it. Pound the kitchen counter with it.

Punch or kick pillows, throw rolls of toilet paper at the bathroom wall, throw a rug over a railing and pound it with a broom. Tear or cut up an old bed sheet. Rip up a phone book. Stomp on bubble packing material or up and down stairs.

Household chores: Scrub the floor. While making bread, knead the dough.

Gardening: pull weeds, dig, prune trees and shrubs, etc.

Workshop: pound nails into wood, sawing, hammering, pulling nails out of wood, grinding, chiseling, etc.

Express anger and clear your mind.

By doing attacking motions anger is dissipated and does not build up. Afterwords, people may still be angry yet no longer want to attack. They think more clearly. They are better able to access the underlying vulnerable feelings that are generating the anger. They are better able to deal effectively with whomever or whatever is making them angry.

Because the anger is not building up it is easy to manage. Now, when an upsetting event happens there is a response rather than a reaction. Small events generate small responses and more serious events generate larger responses. That is, the response fits the event.

Part 5:

The healthy Way to Smash Stuff

The urge to smash something is a common reaction people have when they are angry.  Many people, men and women, have smashed their phones, landline and cell phones, when they hear what they don’t want to hear.  This can be expensive, not to mention inconvenient.

In the movie, The Godfather, Michael Corleone’s pregnant sister smashes many dishes as her husband, for sinister reasons of his own, provokes her into a nasty fight.

In the February 2009 issue of Psychology Today there is an article about a smashing business in San Diego, called the Smash Shack, started by Sarah Lavely.  While going through a difficult divorce she found smashing items on her driveway helped her to deal with her frustrations.  Now, her business provides a safe outlet for others to handle their frustrations and let go of anger and rage.

Many years ago I saw a documentary done in Japan that showed people going to places where they could break three foot high ceramic vases as well as plates and other dishes.  I saw men hitting old TV’s with sledgehammers.  (I do not remember the name of the program.  If anyone knows of it please tell me.  It certainly impressed me at the time.)

I believe there is something about smashing that allows the cells of the muscles to release.  It is both the action of smashing as well as the sound of smashing that creates the release.  When the cells release anger dissipates.  Then people are able to let go of their anger rather than hang on to it. Note: if you do fear going completely out of control, do not attempt this. Seek professional help.

One time I was working with a police officer who was containing a lot of rage and feared ‘losing it’ on the job.  We got a large garbage can, lots of bottles, stones and protective eye wear.  The officer found it difficult to started smashing, but once he began, he found it easy to continue.  He experienced the exercise as very therapeutic.

Another time I worked with a woman who was having images of holding a hammer over her finance’s head.  Acting violent was totally out of character for her.  She was horrified that she was having such images and feared she was going crazy . She told me she was frustrated because her finance was taking so long ending his previous relationship.  But when she was with him she wanted their time together to be good so she did not express her frustration to him. She did not realize that she was enraged at him.  Once she acknowledged her anger and found a safe constructive way to express it, the disturbing images went away.

Act rather react.

If you feel anger building up inside you or are having disturbing images then deliberately plan a way to allow yourself to smash or do other attacking motions. Have one or more people with you to act as a container.  Just their presence will allow you to express anger without going out of control.  Letting yourself express anger is like preventative medicine.   You are much less likely to spontaneously ‘lose it’ during the day-to-day problems of your life because the anger will not be building up.

Check out the rules for expressing anger and rage.

With care and concern,

Dr. Bea.

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