You’re Feeling Angry! Now What?

Anger is often thought to be one of our scariest emotions.  Being around someone who is venting their anger can be frightening. It’s often disconcerting and embarrassing for the person experiencing this powerful emotion–especially as they try to fix the fallout from their outburst.  For some people, they are so afraid of their anger that they bottle it up, only to cause harm to themselves or, like a shaken-up bottle of pop, experience a larger blow-up later.

Last week’s post was about the relationship between being “nice” and anger.  I noted then that a key to using anger wisely is being aware of when we become angry, pay attention to what it is trying to teach us, appropriately discuss the situation, and then release the energy that anger brings in a healthy way.

Meet Fred…

Fred is a 60 year old man with a short fuse.  If asked, Fred would describe himself as “sometimes frustrated, but not angry”. However, if you asked Fred’s wife (Lila) or son (Justin), they would be able to give you many examples of when his anger got the better of him and left a trail of destruction in it’s path.  Fred works for an on-line lighting distributor, where he has the reputation of being a “great guy”, hardworking and always ready to deal with the “difficult” situations.

One day, something happened to Fred.  It was a Friday, and he was looking forward to a quiet weekend.  The last few days had been challenging as customers were complaining that they hadn’t received their orders in the time-frame promised.  The shipping snafu wasn’t his fault, but as the Customer Service Manager, all complaints came to him.  When 5:30 p.m. arrived, he rushed out the door heading for home.

As Fred left the building he remembered that Lila had the car that day, and he would be taking public transit.  Furious, he walked to the subway, angry at Lila for needing the car, and himself for letting her use it. A large group of people were waiting on the platform.  An announcement informed riders that trains were late due to an accident on the tracks.  Because of  the crowds, Fred had to stand the entire trip–reluctantly giving his long-waited-for seat to an elderly woman who was weighted down with shopping bags.  When Fred finally walked in the door, he was angry, hungry, tired and stressed.  All that he wanted was to be left alone with his dinner.

Fred at Home…

When Fred arrived home he was greeted by the loud and excited voices of his two grandsons (ages 4 and 6) who had dropped in with their parents for a surprise visit. The young family had waited for him to get home so they could say hello.  GRANDPA!!! GRANDPA!!!  COME SEE THIS!!!  At that point, Fred could no longer control the anger that had been building up in him over the past few days. This wasn’t what he had expected!!! After his long week and difficult trip home, he deserved a quiet homecoming!!!  His generosity of sharing his car should be recognized by his wife having his dinner ready when he walked in the door!!!

His loud roar of “LEAVE ME ALONE!!!” shook the house.  His grandchildren, terrified and crying, ran to their parents for comfort.  The adults looked at Fred in horror.  While they were accustomed to his outbursts, he had never blown up with his grandchildren–whom he adored.  Fred stormed out of the room and went upstairs.  Justin and his wife quickly bundled up the children and left.

The next day, Justin informed his father that he wouldn’t be seeing his grandsons until he learned to control his anger.  His son refused to allow his own children to experience the fear and pain that he had experienced as a result of Fred’s unpredictable rage.  Lila blamed Fred for the newly created rift in the family and didn’t speak to him for days.

This was a wake-up call for Fred.  Lila (who usually didn’t react to his anger) wasn’t giving in.  He hadn’t realized that his son had such feelings regarding his childhood, and the thought of not seeing his grandsons was upsetting.

Anger Out of Control

While Fred’s story is fictional, his buildup and release of anger is common.  Fred is a “nice guy” out in the world–even giving his seat up on the subway despite wanting to keep the seat for himself. However at home, where he feels safe, Fred doesn’t feel the need to hide his frustration/anger and let’s it out whenever he wants to.  Fred’s family, either through habit or fear, allows him to carry on this way.  This is the way their family dynamics works.

If we look at behaviour change–either in what we want to do differently or behaviours that we will no longer tolerate from others–there is often a tipping point.  A place where the status quo is no longer acceptable. For Fred’s family, the tipping point came because of his grandsons.  Lila, Justin and his wife had decided that the family dynamics had to change.

Fred has to make a choice–between allowing his anger to control him and lose his grandchildren (and maybe other family members), or to learn to manage his anger and work towards healing his relationships with his wife and son.

Awareness of Anger In The Body

For most of us the first hint that we’re angry is the experience of emotion.  Sometimes we start yelling, other times we may get very quiet as we seethe and mutter under our breath. The first step in being able to express our anger in an appropriate way is to be aware of when it starts, and like most strong emotions, that is in our bodies.

While Fred appears to have a short fuse, I suggest that his fuse is long and slow-burning.  In fact, it can take days for him to blow.  If Fred was able to watch the connection between his emotions and body sensations, he may notice a slight restriction in his chest after he has dealt with the first few customer complaints.  As the day goes on, he may become aware of how his stomach is starting to ache or the place between his shoulder blades becoming hot and tense.  When he gave his seat to the woman on the train, he may have noticed the tightening of his neck muscles.  With practice, Fred will be able to recognize these body sensations as signs that he is becoming angry.

Anger as a Teacher

Once Fred is able to notice the physical warning signs, he is ready to take the next step…look at the events and thoughts that occurred leading up to his body sensations. Anger is a wonderful teacher. It arrives when one of our key boundaries or values have been crossed.  Sometimes we don’t even know what these are, but anger shows us.

When we look at the situations in the story when Fred became angry, there is a theme of ‘loss of control’–he didn’t have his car (when he wanted it), he had to give up his seat on the bus (due to public perception and societal norms), and he had expectations of how he would spend his time when he returned home (which didn’t happen due to the spontaneous family visit).  Is being in control a boundary or value for Fred?

If Fred was working with a therapist, they may explore what control means to Fred.  His history with control or loss of control.  How does this fit in with Fred’s role as Customer Service Manager–where he is expected to fix issues not of his own making?

Releasing Anger

Like all emotions, anger is energy–not good or bad–just energy.  There are two parts to releasing the energy of anger in an appropriate way–the physical and emotional.  It’s often useful to release the physical energy first, so that you’re in a calmer place to release the emotional energy.

Ways to release anger energy:

  • Breath or count before saying anything.  This idea has been around for decades…because it works!
  • Exercise. Go for a walk or run.  Walk up flights of stairs. Do jumping jacks.  Anything to get your body moving.
  • Walk away.  If possible, take a break.  If not possible, breath or count.
  • Write a letter and then destroy it. The idea is to get the angry ideas out of your head and onto paper.  Many people have found this exercise to be emotionally cathartic, not just for anger, but other strong emotions as well.
Rebuilding Relationships

We’re human and all make mistakes.  As much as we want to be able to control our strong emotions, no one is able to do it all of the time.  Therefore, it’s important that we make the effort to fix what we broke.  One of the best ways to rebuild a relationship is an honest apology.

How do we apologize when we’ve made a big mess?  When?  I suggest that a heartfelt apology can only come after we have calmed down and processed ourselves (or with a trusted person) about what happened.

Steps of an apology.

  • Make a statement of what we are sorry for.  For Fred, this could be saying he was sorry to his wife, son, daughter-in-law and grandchildren for yelling at them.  He would need to come up with an age-appropriate statement for his grandchildren.
  • Describe what caused the reaction in the first place.  Fred may have realized that his outburst was a result of having to be on the receiving end of numerous customer complaints that he was powerless to prevent.
  • Outline what we will do differently in the future. While none of us are perfect, or have a crystal ball, we can problem solve for the future. Fred could agree to look at ways to manage his anger using the suggestions noted above.  He may agree to see a therapist to further look at his tendency to have temper tantrums.

Fred and his family have some work ahead of them.  Not only does Fred need to learn about his anger and how to manage it in order to make changes; ideally, he and his family will be able to forgive him for his past behaviour and how it has affected their lives.

And now…here’s some wisdom that doesn’t get old…enjoy!

All I Really Need To Know
I Learned In Kindergarten

by Robert Fulghum

All I really need to know I learned in kindergarten.
ALL I REALLY NEED TO KNOW about how to live and what to do and how to be I learned in kindergarten. Wisdom was not at the top of the graduate-school mountain, but there in the sandpile at Sunday School.

These are the things I learned:

Share everything.

Play fair.

Don’t hit people.

Put things back where you found them.

Clean up your own mess.

Don’t take things that aren’t yours.

Say you’re sorry when you hurt somebody.

Wash your hands before you eat.

Flush.

Warm cookies and cold milk are good for you.

Live a balanced life – learn some and think some
and draw and paint and sing and dance and play
and work every day some.

Take a nap every afternoon.

When you go out into the world, watch out for traffic,
hold hands, and stick together.

Be aware of wonder.
Remember the little seed in the styrofoam cup:
The roots go down and the plant goes up and nobody
really knows how or why, but we are all like that.

Goldfish and hamsters and white mice and even
the little seed in the Styrofoam cup – they all die.
So do we.

And then remember the Dick-and-Jane books
and the first word you learned – the biggest
word of all – LOOK.

Everything you need to know is in there somewhere.
The Golden Rule and love and basic sanitation.
Ecology and politics and equality and sane living.

Take any of those items and extrapolate it into
sophisticated adult terms and apply it to your
family life or your work or your government or
your world and it holds true and clear and firm.
Think what a better world it would be if
all – the whole world – had cookies and milk about
three o’clock every afternoon and then lay down with
our blankies for a nap. Or if all governments
had a basic policy to always put thing back where
they found them and to clean up their own mess.

And it is still true, no matter how old you
are – when you go out into the world, it is best
to hold hands and stick together.

© Robert Fulghum, 1990.
Found in Robert Fulghum, All I Really Need To Know I Learned In Kindergarten, Villard Books: New York, 1990, page 6-7.