Ever find yourself ranting at other drivers when your children are in the car?
Are you unable to control those reactions or curb your temper?
That’s what one of my clients, Cecily, came to see me about recently. She knew her temper was exacerbating her high blood pressure, and it wasn’t the kind of behaviour she wanted her children to see.
But the only way she could articulate her angry feelings was to yell, regardless of who was in the car with her or the consequences.
Shouting was something she’d grown up with (and sometimes hitting, too) which is why she thought this was a natural way to express anger.
From an emotion science standpoint, however, ‘anger’ is a core emotion, an internal experience which biologically alerts us.
When your family yelled at you or hit out, they were acting out their anger. This is very different from experiencing it. Distinguishing between experiencing anger and acting out is an important one for us all to understand.
Anger is feared by many people because it is associated with painful, frightening and damaging actions. And it’s understandable, because anger is such a fast reaction, that the internal experience, and the actions which follow seem to be one and the same.
Anger can be slowed down, though
Slowing down the ‘angry’ experience into two steps helps us gain awareness before we react. It will take a little practice but it can be done.
Step 1 is your internal experience.
Step 2 is how you express that anger.
Let’s look at it in more detail.
Step 1: What does it mean to experience anger?
Firstly, we need to notice and validate that we are angry. This may have physical symptoms – such as a contorted face, or clenching your jaw. It may be a rush of energy or even a jolt to your body. When you are conscious of this, your thoughts might be something like:
“I am so angry with my colleague for ignoring me!!”
Secondly, by slowing down and sensing the physical sensations of our anger we can begin to describe them. And this is how I helped Cecily. I asked her to notice what was happening to her physically; which sensations felt anger-generated? Where anger manifests in her body and could she describe it.
Thirdly, anger has wired-in impulses. By their very nature, the impulse of anger is aggressive; it wants to be hurtful, even though part of us may want to be nice. But when we stop and notice our impulses (like feeling the urge to shout at other drivers) the chance of reacting diminishes.
It can be a huge challenge to stay with the whole ‘anger’ experience and that’s why many people discharge by yelling. We act out automatically to get rid of the bad/painful/scary/angry feelings inside, to get temporary relief.
But acting out usually has negative consequences.
One such consequence, known as ‘acting in’ means we turn the anger inwards, against our ‘self’. This can range from self-harm, starving, bingeing, doing drugs, or blocking our anger with depression, anxiety, guilt, and shame.
So, if we aspire to thrive in life, we need to learn to experience our anger internally and have control over whether we communicate it externally.
When someone annoys us, we need to slow down, tune into our physical reactions, acknowledge to our self that we are angry and listen to our impulses.
The final step is to think about a constructive course of action; an action that is aligned with our values and long-term goals for wellness and health.
Step 2: What are constructive actions?
Asserting our needs. By being clear about what we want and sharing this in a calm and measured way, we will get our message across.
Setting boundaries.I If someone criticises you, tell them that you don’t like it. Stay firm and repeat your statement until you are heard.
Address those childhood wounds. Blocked anger from our childhood can filter out into the present, and if you suspect you have unaddressed anger that affects your life today, a trained therapist can help you release anger in a safe way.
Not taking any action at all. Sometimes, nothing can be done to change the situation that angered us – like Cecily’s road rage. In which case, no action is the best action. If Cecily had resisted the urge to lash out, her self-talk may have sounded like this:
“That driver was totally in the wrong. It is ok that I am angry. Screaming will scare the kids and make me feel bad about myself later, so I am going to control myself. It’s really hard to feel this way but I’m not going to take action. I am just going to breathe deeply, imagine something calming, and treat myself to something nice later as a reward for controlling my reactions.”
Working on your anger doesn’t require endless therapy sessions. By following the steps in this article you can hone your awareness of your internal experience and keep practicing your whole life!
By avoiding the negative consequences and guilt that so often come with acting out our anger, we automatically create a more positive environment for ourselves and those around us.
Based in New York Hilary is a trauma and emotion-centered psychotherapist. Hilary is passionate about helping people become their authentic selves. She does this work using “The Change Triangle -” a sort of map to finding the true Self. It helps people become reacquainted with core feelings like anger, sadness, fear, joy, and excitement.