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Western Counsellor

Caring guidance, empathic and non-judgemental approach

My Blog


5 Methods to Managing Anger

Posted on April 4, 2016 at 1:15 AM Comments comments (6)
The following is for people who are frequently angry at others when it may not be reasonable. If your anger has a valid reason some of the following may be helpful but it is also a good idea to try to problem-solve the situation. In other words, determine the reason for the anger and whether you can work with the other person to solve the problem.However, many people have problems managing their anger which can interfere with effective problem-solving.

Frequently, such people believe they don't have control over their emotions, especially anger. “It's how I feel! I can't help it!” And although this belief may be true in some ways, it is also very wrong.

Certainly, emotions are what they are. Emotions are reactions to events. However, our perceptions of events can change. I once worked with a man with serious road rage. If someone cut him off in traffic, he chased that person down and forced them to a stop. Fortunately, he was not physically aggressive against them although they didn't know that. However, he did get out of his car and start yelling at the person about their driving behavior. This was in the days before everyone carried cell phones, otherwise he may have gotten arrested for this. I asked him, “What is your purpose?” and he told me he wanted to let people know when they were wrong so they wouldn't do it again. I then asked, “Do you think your method of educating people is effective? Or, do you think that maybe people don't even hear what you are saying because they are terrified of this crazy man who chased them down?” He came to recognize that his behavior wasn't any better than theirs (and probably worse) and he wasn't achieving his goal of making the roads safer.

The point of this example is that he changed his perception of the situation, and as a result, was able to change his behavior. Now certainly, that doesn't mean he necessarily changed his emotion—perhaps he still became angry at people. But at least he didn't chase them down.

However, it is possible to change your perspective in such a way that you may not even feel angry. For instance, have you ever been angry about something and then realized you misinterpreted the situation or the intent? In such an instance, your anger may have disappeared once you realized you were wrong. In a similar way, we are capable of using the POSSIBILITY of misunderstanding to help change our perspective. In other words, we don't have to KNOW we are wrong. Instead, we can consider that we may be wrong and give the other person the benefit of the doubt.

Let's look at a simple example based upon the guy with road rage. If he thinks, “That person cut me off because they are inconsiderate and don't care about putting my life in danger” he is more likely to be angry. However, if he even considers the possibility that they just made a mistake he is less likely to be angry. “Maybe that person just didn't see me in their blind spot.” And if he considers that there could have been a valid reason for their behavior, he may not only not be angry but he find feel very different, “Maybe that person had to swerve over to avoid an accident that could have involved me.”

The point of this is that every one of the thoughts I just described are speculative including his original belief that the person was just rude and uncaring. In other words, he has no idea which one may be true. Or, if the truth may be totally different from any of these possibilities. This illustrates that much of the time when people become angry it is because of what they presume to be the truth. We don't always know what the truth is.

Therefore, the first step in managing anger is when you are not absolutely certain, without a doubt, that your perspective is correct, you need to redirect your thinking: “I don't know why that person cut me off. If I need to make an assumption, I can choose a positive one and believe that there was a good reason.” By changing your perspective in this way, you are likely to reduce your angry reaction.

This method works for all sorts of situations. No matter how well you know another person, you are not inside that person's head. You do not know all the reasons for another person's behavior unless they tell you. Most of the time you are making assumptions. And if you are making an assumption, you are choosing among many possibilities which assumption to believe. Thus, if you want to control your anger, you can begin by choosing a different assumption to believe.

For instance, my husband is usually late. When we were first together I assumed that he just didn't care about my feelings. However, I came to realize that he is a very social person who enjoys talking to people and loses track of time when he is socializing. And socializing to him can mean a conversation in the grocery store. Something that could take me 15 minutes to do might take him an hour or more. But it had nothing to do with how he felt about me! It was just his nature. By recognizing this I changed my perspective and was less likely to be angry. In addition, if it was something important that I needed him to be on time for I would let him know that.

To change your perspective, you need to examine other people's behavior from their point of view, not just your own. A concept in psychology that we call “projection” is the tendency to attribute to other people the reasons why we would do something. For example, a person who tends to be dishonest is more likely to believe that others are dishonest. And vice versa, those who are honest believe others are likely to be honest. Or, in my example about my husband, my original belief was based on my own behavior--the only reason I would be late is an emergency. Therefore, my original assumption was that if there is no emergency it is inconsiderate of my husband to be late.

Projection is a natural tendency—a way to understand other people's behavior. However, it can very often be wrong. Other people don't behave for the same reasons we do. So, unless you want to be wrong in your assumptions, you need to look at other people's behavior from their perspective. The same behavior can mean different things to different people.

So the first step in managing your anger is asking yourself if there could be other reasons for a person's behavior. Ideally, you may be able to brainstorm some possibilities. But even if you are not able to do that, at least tell yourself, “My assumption may be wrong. There could be other reasons for this behavior.”

Sometimes the first step is enough to dissipate the anger. However, if it is not, you may need to take other steps. It can be very helpful, for instance, to learn relaxation methods so that you can calm yourself when you are angry. It is very difficult to be fully relaxed and angry at the same time because those two emotional states are opposites. The more you can relax yourself, the more clearly you will be able to examine the situation.

The next step if you are still uncertain and angry is to check out with the other person the reasons for their behavior. For some situations in which you may not have any further contact with someone such as the example of someone's driving behavior, you may not be able to check out your assumption. But if it is possible, you may want to ask the person about their reasons.

Therefore, check out assumptions and try to do it before you have built up resentment and start interpreting all of the person's behavior accordingly. Emotions reinforced over time are more difficult to change, even emotions based on inaccurate assumptions. This doesn't mean you can't change those emotions, it's just that you have to put more effort into it than simply redefining your perspective or checking out your assumption when a situation occurs.

What can you do about long-term resentments that may be based on inaccurate assumptions? It is still helpful to check out the assumption if you can. If not, at least try to determine if there are other possibilities for the person's behavior. You can even check with other people you trust to get their perspective. As a therapist, this is often a big part of my job when I am working with people who are overly sensitive to others' comments and behavior. I help people recognize that there could be other reasons so as to give them a different perspective.

In addition, if you have built up negative emotions about someone, you may need to deliberately create positive emotions. It is very difficult to genuinely wish positive things for someone else and to be angry at the same time. Those are different parts of our brain that don't interact well together. We can be angry or we can be loving but it is difficult for both at the same time. 

Finally, another aspect of managing anger is managing what we call displacement of anger. For some people, when they are angry or stressed they will take out these emotions on an innocent person who did not cause the problem. For example, a boss berates an employee and then that person lashes out at an assistant. I was bad at taking my stress home and being irritable with my husband. One way I managed this displacement was to stop at my front door and ask myself, “Am I going to take my stress in with me or leave it out here? I can walk in with a smile on my face or I can be irritable. What is my choice?”

Simply recognizing displacement and seeing it as a choice can make a big difference in how we act. When we take responsibility for our emotions we are more likely to take control of them. Instead of saying “I can't help it—it's how I feel” making a choice creates the awareness in us that it is under our control. It is very difficult to recognize the choice and choose to be angry at an innocent person anyway. For most of us that would create what we call cognitive dissonance which is the discomfort caused by believing one thing but acting in another way. In this situation, believing we have a choice and still hurting an innocent person means we have to recognize that we are being mean to someone who doesn't deserve it. For most of us, that is unacceptable. Therefore, recognizing the choice means we are more likely to not displace our anger onto an innocent person.

Usually the reason we take anger out on another person is because it is a powerful release of the pent-up emotion. Instead, find another physical release of your anger such as punching a bag, screaming in a secluded place, or intense exercise. By doing so you can release the anger safely without hurting someone else.

In summary, there are five things you can do to manage anger:

1. Change your perspective and your assumptions. Try to look at the situation from the other person's point of view or get assistance in examining your assumptions.

2. Learn relaxation methods. Practice the deep relaxation so that you can effectively calm yourself with the Quick Stress Relief methods when you need to.

3. Check out your assumptions. If possible, check with the other person to determine the accuracy of your assumptions.

4. Change your emotions towards the person. Take a different emotional attitude towards the person.

5. Recognize displacement. Try to be fully aware of when you are taking your anger out on someone who is innocent and make a choice not to do so. Find some other way to release your emotions.

Learning to control your anger takes effort time. It is necessary to practice these methods until you are able to use them in the moment.