Thoughtful steps to move into acceptance
Anger. You Know The Feeling. Tight Chest, adrenaline rush, rapid heartbeat, uncontrolled thoughts. Dictionary.com defines anger as a strong feeling of displeasure and belligerence aroused by a wrong; wrath; ire. Boy, I know that feeling. Anger is a fundamental emotion and can be super helpful. It is triggered by a perceived or real threat, and our bodies respond with the fight, flight, or freeze response. The “threat” can be someone taking the parking spot for which you have been waiting, your child not doing his chores, or a colleague taking credit for your work. Anger can also signal when someone has crossed your boundary, a need of yours isn’t getting met, or when you see an injustice. Anger can inspire us to act, in either a constructive or destructive way. Here are a few different types of anger:
1. Destructive Anger
Suppressing anger is consciously or unconsciously covering up your anger. Many people, particularly women, have been taught that anger is unseemly, that expressing anger is wrong because it makes others uncomfortable. The results of suppressing anger can be debilitating:
- Physical: high blood pressure, increased heart disease, de-creased immunity, and ulcers.
- Emotional: anxiety and depression.
- Social: relationships suffer greatly from suppressed anger: passive-aggressive behavior, rage, misunderstanding, lack of growth, disconnection.
For example, I have a client, Amy, who was repeatedly told by her self-righteous cousin, Liz, the parenting mistakes Amy was making. Amy felt hurt and defeated, then started ignoring Liz’s calls. In her work with me, Amy realized that she was mad because Liz was crossing a boundary. Amy decided that her anger was justified. She bravely called Liz and told her she no longer wanted Liz’s parenting advice. Liz said she was only trying to help. On their next couple of phone calls, Amy had to interrupt Liz and remind her that she did not want parenting advice. Finally, Liz stopped telling Amy how to parent, and they returned to a positive, connected relationship. Amy felt strong having set her boundaries. Perhaps Liz learned something that will help her in other relationships. Amy, for sure, learned that setting boundaries in a calm, firm manner resulted in her having a better relationship with her cousin, and a stronger sense of self-respect.
Rage is an uncontrolled, intense expression of anger. Again, the result can be quite costly:
- Physical: “In the two hours after an angry outburst, the chance of having a heart attack doubles,” says Chris Aiken, MD, an instructor in clinical psychiatry at the Wake Forest University School of Medicine and director of the Mood Treatment Center in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. In addition, strokes have been linked to rage.
- Emotional: Uncontrolled venting to others about your feelings of rage and hostility can actually intensify the anger and create a loop of enraged thinking, resulting in a constant undercurrent of anger and obsessive thinking.
- Social: Rage can destroy relationships, whether intimate, familial, or professional
Sam’s marriage is an example of the effects of rage. Sam was a lovely, successful tech entrepreneur. Everyone thought of Sam as the quintessential nice guy. He was, except for when he wasn’t. Sam’s wife told him that if he didn’t get therapy, she would leave. She was tired of his intense yelling and blaming when milk spilled (literally), a phone broke, or the credit card bill was high. Although Sam didn’t get angry often, when he did the resulting anxiety and tension was too much for Sam’s wife. In therapy, I worked with Sam to help him learn the steps to manage his anger in a healthy way: leave the situation and calm himself. We dove deep into how he had learned to rage by experiencing his father’s uncontrolled anger. Sam learned to express his anger in a calm, constructive manner. And he saved his marriage.
Sometimes people get stuck in ongoing low-grade anger. The resentment may focus on a spouse, a friend, or a political issue. There is an old saying that comes from AA: Holding onto anger is like taking poison and expecting the other person to die. It doesn’t work.
- Physical: heart disease, exhaustion, headaches.
- Emotional: anxiety and depression.
- Social: isolation from friends, poor work relationships.
A client named Ellen is a great example of the cost of resentment. Ellen’s husband fell in love with another woman and left her. Terrible. Ellen got stuck in a spiral of obsessive thinking about her ex-husband and his affair. Was her anger justified? Yes. Did it serve her to hang on to that anger and carry her resentment into each moment of her life? Absolutely not. In therapy, Ellen had to learn how to forgive her ex-husband so that she could move on with her life. With time and new skills, Ellen began focusing on creating a new chapter in her life that didn’t include her past resentment.
The following is an example of how to transform destructive anger. Susan contacted me because her anger at her ex-husband was manifesting in restless sleep, headaches, and difficulty concentrating. Anger overwhelmed her. Susan complained that her ex-husband, John, thwarted her attempts to take their 6-year-old son out of state, declining permission for Susan to take their son on an “amazing” trip filled with adventure. The trip was arranged to be as COVID-safe as possible. Susan’s ex-husband had taken their son out of state the month prior on a trip that Susan had approved … and yet … and yet, he refused to sign off on the trip.
Susan was furious. Her heart raced, she felt incredibly tense. Her neck felt as tight as steel and her whole body, including her brain, felt “inflamed.” Susan contacted me for a Zoom session.
As I asked Susan questions about the situation that was making her angry—her ex-husband’s refusal to give her permission to take their son out-of-state—Susan’s anger was triggered. Her face flushed and her voice rose in pitch and volume. Before Susan could access her intellect to help her manage her anger, she needed to calm herself down to a state where she could think clearly. We did a quick and simple Heartmath® exercise to engage her parasympathetic nervous system to calm her breathing, heartrate, thinking, and blood pressure.
Once Susan was in a better, calmer state, she could talk about her frustration. Susan described John’s history of not allowing her to take their son on most out-of-state trips, and admitted a legal agreement supported his right to do that. I asked Susan what reasonable action she could take to deal with this situation. She answered that her ex-husband could be more mature and not take out his anger about the divorce on their son. Well, that was not one of her options; it was John’s. She could not control what John chose to do. She could only control what she thought about the situation with John and what she decided to do.
Noted Author Byron Katie says, “When I argue with reality, I lose—but only 100% of the time.” It’s best to stop arguing with reality, be it a simple traffic jam or a complex relationship with a co-parent.
Rather than wasting her energy venting about John and trying to change him, Susan changed her thought from what John “should” do to what she could do. She changed her thought to “I can give my son a big life in California.” Her legal agreement with her son’s father stated that she could take their son anywhere in California. With California’s wealth of experiences, geographies, and cultures to explore, Susan could easily give her son the “big life” she cherishes. She could give her son almost any experience within the state, from skiing to surfing and everything in between. She could expose her son to all sorts of food and art. They could explore different landscapes. Susan could certainly give her son a “big life.”
After Susan accepted her situation and focused on what she could control—giving her son a wealth of experiences in California—she felt a sense of relief. Susan and her son are enjoying their big life in California!
The next time you feel angry, go through the above five steps to determine if changing your thought or taking constructive action is the best way to deal with the cause. Oh, and as always, don’t forget to breathe deeply!
MANAGING YOUR ANGER
To deal with anger in a healthy, constructive way, use the following steps:
1. Name It: ecognize that you are experiencing anger. We cannot process emotions if we don’t identify them. Physical manifestations of anger include stomach pain, tight shoulders, back pain, headache, increased heart rate, and rapid thoughts of anger. “Seeing red” is a common description of how it feels to be angry.
2. Take a time-out: Stop what you are doing and remove yourself from the person or situation that is triggering your anger.
3. Breathe in deeply: Take in some deep breathes. Imagine a beautiful scene in nature that makes you feel peaceful. These actions will calm your nervous system, and you will be able to think more clearly.
4. Examine your thoughts: Identify what thought is causing you to feel angry. Yes, your thoughts cause you to be angry, not the person or circumstances. Decide if the thought that triggers your anger is reasonable and serves you. Anger about the COVID-19 quarantine or a traffic jam probably doesn’t serve you. Change your thought about the situation and work towards acceptance.
5. Devise a constructive solution: f you determine that the thought that creates your anger is reasonable, decide upon your best response to the situation. The other day, a friend of mine witnessed someone repeatedly hitting his dog. She yelled at the man to stop hitting his dog. He stopped hitting his poor dog, got into his car, and drove away. She recorded his license plate and reported him to animal control. Justified anger against an injustice. Constructive solution.
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