Written by: Shana Perrucci, Ph.D. Family Counseling Associates of Andover
We’ve all had those days when our fuse is a little too short whether it’s with our kids, our partner, or the cashier who’s scanning just a little too slowly at Market Basket. As a clinical psychologist, one of my specialties is anger management. I have helped many people deal with this issue at Family Counseling Associates.
Anger is an emotion that everyone feels, and is caused by our perception of another person or situation. The key word is perception and this is good, because it means if you can change your perception, you can change your anger.
I’ll give you an example. Let’s say you have plans to meet your friend for lunch and she calls at the last minute and says she forgot. If you have the thought, “Oh no, she must be really stressed and overwhelmed,” it would lead you to feel concerned. However, if you have the thought, “She probably had better plans come up” or “She’s not a good friend,” you would probably feel angry. The idea is that our thoughts lead to how we feel, which is the basic tenet of cognitive behavioral therapy. If you can become aware of your thoughts and open to challenging them, then you will feel less angry.
Clients frequently tell me, “But he or she made me angry.” No one can make you feel angry. You are in control of how you perceive and respond to a person or situation. Once you realize that how you feel is in your control, it becomes easier to change. One thing I have found helpful is teaching clients that anger is a secondary emotion. This means there is usually another, more primary, feeling behind anger. If you can identify what that feeling is and communicate it to the person you are angry with, it is more effective. People get defensive when you express anger because they feel attacked. This is an evolutionary response based on a fight or flight mechanism if you want the nerdy neuroscience behind it.
Here is an example of identifying primary emotions. Imagine your preschooler won’t get dressed for school and you’ve asked her ten times. You notice that you are feeling angrier and angrier. But what are you really feeling? Probably some combination of frustration and anxiety that you’ll be late. Maybe even some guilt that you have to rush her, and that you’re not one of of those creative parents who can make up a song on the fly about putting your pants on. Another example I hear a lot from clients is anger toward one’s partner for not sharing household responsibilities. You can try to identify your primary emotion (perhaps it’s feeling disrespected or sad) and communicate those and work to find a compromise. Another option that most of my clients don’t like to hear is that you can always try to lower your expectations and embrace acceptance of others’ differences. This may sound like giving up, but if you are someone who struggles with anger frequently you would benefit from learning how to accept that some people or situations won’t or can’t change. Therefore your response has to in order for you to feel better.
It also helps to identify what type of communication style you have. We tend to think of people with anger management issues as aggressive communicators. People who yell, name call, hit a wall (or person), or break things are clearly aggressive. But the flip side also have difficulty managing anger and those are people who are passive aggressive. Passive aggressive people let feelings build up. Examples of passive aggression are using the silent treatment, frequent sarcasm, eye rolling, or just avoiding negative feelings in general. Both passive aggression and aggression are extremes that will not lead to effective communication with others, and therefore will rarely lead to conflict resolution. The sweet spot of communication is assertiveness. This is when you are able to identify and express your primary feelings in a calm tone. You are still expressing your own feelings and your own needs, but doing so in a way that will be more likely to resolve those issues with the other person.
The last factor in learning how to manage anger is behavioral, and for most of us that usually involves an increase in selfcare. Self-Care is therapist lingo for doing nice things for yourself to balance out all the stress we have each day. You can think of it as two bank accounts. One is stress and the other is self-care. If the stress bank account is high, the self-care account needs a deposit. The more deposits you put in the self-care account, the easier it will be to manage stress and anger. Exercise is the best type of self-care because it targets both physical and mental health. Another example is spending time by yourself, with your partner, or with friends, even if it’s just sitting in the bedroom reading alone for twenty minutes.
I meet a lot of adults who are reluctant to engage in self-care because they are either too busy or because they feel guilty taking time for themselves. It sounds cliche but you really can’t be a healthy parent or partner if you don’t balance your own needs as well. Taking breaks from the stress of life actually makes you more productive and happier overall. If you don’t have a lot of time, even simple deep breathing or imagining a peaceful scene can help calm your body when feeling angry. It is okay to feel angry as long as you can identify and resolve it. If your anger is frequent or intense in nature, using some of the skills I mentioned should help.
If you would like more information, I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.