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Anger is a normal, natural emotion. When an animal gets angry, it prepares to attack. The purpose of anger is to keep the animal safe from threat. Humans are no different in that regard: when we feel angry, it is because we feel threatened somehow, even if the threat is not obvious. But what if you attach a negative moral judgement to anger? For example, it is common for a person to feel ashamed about expressing anger. He fears that he will make others angry if he becomes angry. He holds the belief that it is not OK for him to get angry, but that if others get angry with him, then it must be his fault for doing something wrong. He learns to avoid doing anything that he imagines might make someone angry. He wants to avoid feeling shame about being in the wrong. When he does get angry, he turns the anger in on himself, he becomes angry at himself for being angry, which compounds his problem. This is one cause behind low self-esteem or lacking confidence. It is a major problem because it keeps a great many people from realising their potential.
Conversely, when someone does not learn to moderate his anger, he routinely flies into a rage and he finds himself being shunned and feared by others. Ultimately, he might be doing this to keep people at arm’s length because, in truth, he is scared of revealing his vulnerable self to others.
Whether you bottle anger up or are prone to angry outbursts (or both), your relationships with others will suffer unless you can find a way to authentically express your anger. For example, if you do not express your anger for fear of offending others, you will continue to see others as a threat, rather than as real people. Conversely, angry outbursts make us see others as objects onto which we can discharge our anger. Neither of these approaches allows us to make genuine, empathic contact with the other.
To be empathic towards others when you are angry, you first need to develop empathy towards your angry self. That means being able to sense and acknowledge your anger before either suppressing it, or allowing it to explode. It can be hugely cathartic simply to acknowledge, “I’m angry right now and I don’t need to do anything about that just yet”. That’s not an easy thing to do, but it is necessary if you are to find a way to effectively express your anger. It can give you the internal space to be able to settle yourself and think more clearly. Pause and ask, “How much of this situation is my doing, and how much is caused by someone else?”
Anger can be expressed healthily through positive action (motivation to do something differently), or by talking to the person you are angry with, or perhaps by accepting that there is not much you can do about the situation at the moment and seeking support.
If you decide you want to talk your anger through with the person you are angry at, I offer the following suggestions:
Ask them to sit and listen without any distractions. Tell them it is because you have something important to say.
Take responsibility for your side of things. Where you have been wrong, apologise unconditionally, which means apologising without conditions attached. When your apology is conditional, it comes across as insincere. For example, when you say, “I’m sorry if I upset you”, what you are really saying is, “If you feel upset then I’m sorry, otherwise I’m not”. So you are apologising for the other person’s feelings, not for what you have done. It is much more authentic and helpful to say, simply, “I’m sorry for what I’ve done”.
1.Think about how you can do things differently in future. The best apology is the lived apology. For example, next time do not storm off in a huff. Or do not react in a victim-like way. Be prepared to stand your ground and also listen to the other person’s side of things.
2.Talk about your feelings using “I” language, not “you” language. For example, “When you shout, I find it hard to think”, is more impactful than “I want you to stop shouting at me”.
3.Do not make accusations, e.g. “You make me angry”, will be received as an attack. Remember: nobody can make you feel anything. Your feelings are your responsibility. It is more authentic to say something like, “I am angry right now and I want to work this out with you”.
4.Return the favour: once they have listened as you speak honestly, give them the time and space that they need to tell you their side of things. It can be very difficult to sit and listen, particularly when you hear things you do not like, but it will lead you to a greater understanding of each other’s perspective.
5.Know when to quit. If the other person will not engage in open communication with you, then it might be time to question your relationship with them – if they refuse do you the courtesy of listening when respectfully asked, perhaps it is time to give yourself some relational distance from that person.
It takes time and effort to get used to acknowledging your anger, and to develop a new way of communicating. Your early attempts may not go so well, but do not give up at the first hurdle. Stick with it, and you will find yourself developing greater confidence, more effective ways of communicating with people, and you will find your relationships becoming easier and more enjoyable. Remember that your anger is natural and normal and, rather than suppressing it or allowing it to overwhelm you, it can become a very useful tool to help you heal hurts, build bridges and become more confident.
8th March 2017