Anger has gotten a bad reputation. As I always tell my patients who have trouble acknowledging their anger or expressing it in a healthy way, “Anger is a healthy response to being disrespected.” By suggesting tips to help you understand and handle your anger, I’m not at all saying that feeling anger is a bad thing. But acting out of anger often turns into a bad thing. These tips are to help you deal with anger in a healthier way, not to eliminate the feeling from your emotional repertoire. Anger about injustice has given birth to many a good cause. I’m sure Martin Luther King Jr. felt anger, but he didn’t act out of anger. As a peace-promoting man, he likely used any anger he felt over injustice to fuel his efforts. But I suspect his actual actions were guided more by conviction, a desire for peace and justice, and the knowledge that anger-fueled action often becomes violence. So please feel your anger and recognize that it is telling you something, namely, “There’s something going on here that I don’t like.” But don’t let anger rule your actions. Let your actions come from a more centered place.
1. Accept that you can’t control others
Plainly and simply put: Anger is your response to someone not being or doing as you want them to be or do. You feel angry when others don’t behave or respond as you want them to. But if we can’t control others, then fortunately for us, they can’t control us either. Trying to control another adult is so utterly disrespectful. Do you remember how you felt when someone tried to control you? I bet you were angry. Other people are as free to make their own choices as you are, even if their choices hurt you or don’t make sense to you. All you can do is feel your anger but let your response, whether it involves verbal or physical action, come from a clearer, more centered place. This is what Martin Luther King did when he responded to violence with non-violence.
2. Realize that it’s not personal
This one can save you from feeling anger over a lot of the silly, everyday nonsense. The best explanation of this comes from Don Miguel Ruiz in The Four Agreements. He states that he can see someone one day who says, “Miguel you are so wonderful!,” and he knows that the person is in a good mood. The next day the same person can say, “Miguel you are horrible!,” and he knows that the person is in a bad mood. Miguel hasn’t changed who he is overnight; the other person’s mood has changed overnight.
When you feel angry in response to someone’s actions, realize that their actions usually have nothing to do with you. If you think the customer service representative on the phone isn’t being helpful, then know that he is likely the same with everyone. It’s not personal. Is it frustrating? Yes. But is it personal? No. The person who is kind to you is kind to most people and the person who is rude to you is rude to most people. Even if a colleague does something that is deliberately aimed at you to make you look bad and him look good, let’s say to position himself for a promotion. Know that he would have done it to anyone whom he deemed a threat. That still doesn’t make it fair, but it does make it not personal.
3. Take a beat
It’s an important lesson to learn in life that things that are said can’t be taken back. Couples often tell me that they have said things in anger that they immediately regretted and even apologized for, but their partners never forgot it. In the heat of anger, you might verbally throw your partner’s weaknesses at him or her or threaten to leave. Those kinds of remarks are not forgotten and the more it happens the less safe your partner feels about you.
Take a moment before you respond, even if that moment lasts much longer than a beat. You can say something like, “I need a minute to think so that I say this clearly.” If you are so angry that you know you won’t be able to think clearly in a minute, say something like, “I have to clear my head a little. I’ll be back in ‘x amount of time’ when I’m calmer and we can talk about this more then.” But don’t leave without an explanation or just stomp out. To just walk out on someone is also disrespectful and then nothing gets solved. So do your best to calm down with the intention to get back to the topic a.s.a.p.
4. Learn what calms you down
You need to try different things to see what calms you down when you’re angry. Again, that doesn’t mean ignore your anger. It means feel it and then manage it so that it doesn’t overwhelm you. Maybe taking a few deep breaths, going for a quick walk, thinking of what you could potentially lose, or meditating will work for you. It may be that you already do or think certain things when you are anxious, such as, “Everything is going to be okay,” or “Things always work out well in the end.” Perhaps those same thoughts could help you with anger too. You need to be willing to try different things to see what works for you.
People say that they can’t control themselves in those moments of anger. But that is not true. You always have a choice; you always can take a beat. A split second before you say it, you know that what you are about to say will hurt your partner. If you think that you can’t control yourself in those moments, then that’s precisely what you have to learn and why you need to practice. Keep practicing; it will make you more mature and it will teach you self control. So if you do blurt something out, then try to do better the next time you’re angry. If you do stomp out, then apologize when you get back and pick up the discussion. Just keep trying to do better because we seldom get things perfect the first time around and life will certainly give you plenty of opportunities to get angry and practice some more.