Anger is often treated like a problem, despite it being one of our most basic and normal emotions. It is a secondary emotion, meaning that in order to feel anger, you must first experience another emotion. Think of anger like an iceberg. What people see is anger, but what other emotions are beneath the surface? Anger often serves as a protector of raw and vulnerable feelings such as hurt, embarrassment, grief, guilt, shame, overwhelm, anxiety, disappointment, loneliness, insecurity or worry. It protects others from hurting us and us from hurting others.
Feeling angry is never an issue, but your actions can be problematic. How we experience and express anger is shaped by our experiences from childhood to the present. Think of your own upbringing and cultural factors. Were you taught to process emotion or suppress it? Are certain emotions more appropriate to feel and express than others? Did your parents or caretakers tend to express anger over more vulnerable emotions? Whatever influences shaped how you experience and express anger, effectively managing it both on and off duty is essential to your well-being and relationships.
Imagine that anger is like hunger on a scale of 0 (not hungry) to 10 (“hangry”). If you are a little bit hungry (3–4), you can take the time to figure out what you are hungry for and what you would like to eat, and spend time preparing it. You can even postpone eating for a bit if the hunger comes at an inconvenient time. But if you wait until your hunger is extreme (8–10, aka “hangry”), you are likely to eat whatever is in the fridge, even if it is not good for you or not something you particularly like.
The first step toward effectively managing anger is to gain an understanding of what it looks and feels like for you. Anger can occur in many forms, from feeling annoyed or irritable to feeling irate or enraged. Start by making a list of your own signs of anger at various levels — mild (1–3), moderate (4–7) and extreme (8–10). When your anger number is 3 or higher, take a moment to see if you can identify the cause of your anger. Sometimes, the cause is obvious, but other times it can be more difficult to figure out. If this is the case, think back over the day (or last few days) and look for situations where you may have felt resentful, frustrated, disappointed or hurt. Many of us translate feelings of hurt or disappointment into anger.
Assertive expression of anger
Once you have identified why you feel angry, it is time to do something about it. Obviously, not every situation is “fixable” by a little assertive action. Sometimes you cannot do anything about the situation, or you may choose to not do anything about it (refer to anger control techniques). When and where to assertively express anger is a personal choice that takes into consideration the likelihood of success and the potential cost. When choosing to assertively express anger, the three-step rule is helpful — describe the behavior, describe what it felt like and suggest what change you would like to remedy the situation.
Step 1: Describe the behavior. Make the description as specific and concrete as possible. Address only one behavior at a time. Leave out personality words (e.g., “slob,” “nag,” etc.) and judgmental words (e.g., “stupidity,” “inconsiderately”). For example, “When you were five hours late last night and did not call me…”
Step 2: Describe the feeling. Make sure you own the feeling — “I felt angry” versus “You made me so mad.” Use “I” statements. For example, “I was worried that something happened to you and felt angry when I found out you forgot.”
Step 3: Suggest what change you would like made to remedy the situation. For example, “If you are going to be more than 45 minutes late, I would like you to give me a call.”
Anger control techniques
Anger control refers to how you manage anger if it is too intense to express, or if you have made the decision that the situation is one that you can do nothing about. The following are common anger control techniques:
- Exercise. Aerobic physical activity (jogging, bicycling, hitting a punching bag) helps break down the adrenaline released by the anger and gives you a physical release.
- Humor. Find something funny or ridiculous about the situation.
- Distraction. Do something that will take your mind off whatever you are angry about.
- Relaxation. Do something that will help you relax. You can meditate, do two to four minutes of relaxation breathing, take a hot shower or bath, stretch, read a book, etc.
- Journal. Write down how you feel about the situation.
- Talk. Talk to an uninvolved friend and vent a little about how angry you feel.
- Letter. Write an angry letter to the person you are angry with. You will not actually be sending the letter. Make the letter as direct and uncensored as you can. Afterward, discard the letter.
- Work off the anger. Find a menial task that you needed to do and do it with a vengeance. For example, weed the garden and imagine that each weed is something to do with the situation that made you angry. Or clean the garage and imagine that you are tossing out the situation or person with every piece of garbage in the trash.
Each person is unique, so you may need to experiment to see which of the above anger control techniques work. Most people find that some techniques work best when they are only mildly angry, others work with moderate anger and a select few techniques work with extreme anger. Writing down a plan to manage your anger is helpful and can keep you on track when a situation arises that triggers your anger. Whatever you do, try to avoid confronting somebody when your anger is at a 5 or higher. Also keep in mind that alcohol or other substances can loosen inhibitions and result in impulsive behavior that you will likely regret at a future date.