In one of the processes I take my clients through to uncover hidden values, I ask them about the last three times they got angry. Some clients can quickly identify those occasions, and some cannot. For those who can’t they share that they are rarely angry. They go on to disclose that they rarely yell, scream, hit or exhibit hostile behaviours towards others. Those are examples of aggression, not anger.
Anger is a normal human emotion that we all experience from time to time. And like other emotions it has a purpose, and as a result we can express it in a variety of different ways. Anger is an intense feeling of displeasure. It ranges from feeling annoyed about not being able to find your car keys when you are running late to feeling betrayed by someone you trusted. It is also an emotion you can feel when you observe an injustice or identify someone you love is being treated unfairly.
Like all emotions it is characterized by a suite of behaviours, somatic responses and predictable thoughts. When we feel angry whether we recognize it or not our body responds with a faster heart rate and muscle tension, our thoughts turn to blaming and ideas of revenge, and our primitive desire is to behave in a way that lashes out and removes or lessens the source of the anger. Fortunately many of us, who may have a desire to lash out in that way, manage to find a more socially acceptable way to express our anger; either by pouting, crying, ruminating or by taking a deep breath. These are all ways to express anger in a non-violent way and could explain why some people don’t recognize it as anger.
Anger emerges as a result of three interconnecting factors; provocative event; a person’s interpretation of the event; and their mood at the time. For example: “I got angry this morning because someone jumped the coffee queue when I had been waiting for ages for them to take my order”. The event that provoked anger was someone queue jumping. The interpretation that was made was that the queue jumper was disrespectful to others waiting to order. The individual’s mood at the time was a little anxious because they were likely to be late for work. Chances are they wouldn’t have got angry if they had plenty of time on their hands.
We are likely to experience anger when our goals are blocked or their achievement is slowed down, for example, getting to work on time or completing a project. We are also likely to experience anger when we perceive an injustice or unfairness has taken place. An example of this is when we are given feedback by a colleague. As we receive the feedback, we determine whether it is fair, and if we don’t think it is, we are likely to start feeling angry. To cope with the anger, we evaluate the importance of it i.e. that person provides the same feedback to everyone, so it’s not a big deal alleviating the anger or we may determine the feedback is valid and we get angry with ourselves because of the possible negative impact to our reputation.
The thoughts that arise out of our perception of the feedback can then make you angrier, if anger is building. For example you may catastrophize (blow it out of proportion), over-generalize (apply the feedback to everything you’ve done) or attribute an inflammatory label to the feedback provider.
The mood we are in, when we appraise the situation can also determine the likelihood of an anger response when we are provoked. This is known as the ‘pre-anger state’. Those moods are hungry, tired, stressed or bored. This explains why on some days an action provokes anger and other days it does not.
Getting familiar with how you feel, will help you to understand your anger, better manage it and enable you to use it to be more productive. Holding on to unresolved anger takes up precious energy that you could otherwise be putting to good use.
Here are some tips that may help reduce anger before it gets out of hand.
1. Leave. Remove yourself from the person or situation that is causing the anger. Giving yourself distance will give you time to cool off, so go for a short walk, or just go somewhere quiet while you compose yourself. Chances are once you return to the situation things will be a lot calmer.
2. Count to 10 while taking deep breaths. This is a tried and tested method of mindfulness. Taking a few deep breaths while counting to 10 will give you a few moments to reflect on the situation and decide to respond instead of reacting.
3. Talk to someone you trust. Simply telling someone what has happened will help take the emotion out of it and put things into perspective. If it is a work colleague, they will understand the office dynamics and will be able to see your point of view. They may also be able to offer other perspectives and suggest some alternative solutions that you may not have thought of.
4. Write down how you feel. Rather than losing your temper and exploding at someone, rather walk away and write down how you are feeling. Just ensure that you don’t send the email, message, or letter to anyone. When you’re feeling a calmer, you may want to reread the letter and then destroy it.
5. Get some emotional support. If you’re feeling pressure at work or home, tell your loved ones or close colleagues about it. They may be able to help. When you feel wronged, a trusted colleague or loved one can uplift you and help you feel valued. If you don't have anyone to talk to about the situation you may want to engage a professional to help you process the situation.
6. Reflect and recognize your triggers. What is it about the provocative event that causes you to get angry? Once you recognize your own personal triggers, then you can learn when to take a step back before your emotions overcome you.
7. Practice self-care. Eat regularly so that you don’t become overly hungry. Prioritise sleep so that you are well rested and able to stay calm in stressful environments and challenge yourself to find even the most boring activity, interesting.
8. Give yourself a reward. If you keep your calm during a particular situation where you would normally get angry, then reward yourself. This is a mental reminder that good behaviour will be rewarded.
Put these tips to good use. Practice them every chance you get and soon, your anger will become a force for good. When we can effectively minimize the impacts of the ‘pre-anger states’ we are better able to use anger as a fuel us to address legitimate instances of unfairness and injustice. It can then be used to identify solutions and motivate us to take action.