How to Process Anger Effectively
We can explore anger in various ways with either a positive or a negative outcome. It can cause healing and productive relationships, or the complete opposite with no hope for quality relationships and optimum health. The choice is ours. Some anger is inevitable and even healthful for a time. How we process it makes for a good or bad outcome. After recognizing the cause of our anger, we must choose our response wisely. This article explores factors that should influence our response.
First, we can ask ourselves questions when we get angry, and then get clarification as to what the best response would be. The answers to these questions enable us to handle our anger more effectively.
- How would another objective person view this?
- Is my assessment accurate?
- Is there another way to look at the situation or do I need to ask clarifying questions?
- Would I think differently after I go for a walk, sleep, or have a healthy meal?
- What exactly is making me angry? People do have a right to form opinions.
- Do I feel threatened or inferior by this person or incident? Is it acceptable for me to feel this way?
- Does a distorted thought pattern fuel my anger?
- What underlying fear does this anger reveal in me and in the offender?
- Is this offense truly a violation of principle?
- Is my anger justified or inappropriate?
- Did I do anything to contribute to the problem myself?
Distinguish Between Appropriate and Inappropriate Anger
A violation of a God-given right can lead both to appropriate and inappropriate anger. Appropriate anger can deteriorate into inappropriate anger if expressed in dangerous ways, or when cherished. Legitimate needs can also deteriorate into selfish demands when we are egocentric. Anger that results from abuse is appropriate. Not to be angry at such abuse indicates that we have some type of frontal lobotomy to our brain, in which case we cease to be fully human. We have become calloused in our quest to become inaccessible to pain. We do not feel emotions as much as we used to. Legitimate anger though, when not processed adequately, will pervert our judgment, enslave us, and greatly reduce our usefulness and enjoyment of life.
Person versus Ideas
Failure to differentiate between a person and his ideas is a frequent cause of inappropriate anger. How many lifelong friendships have been severed over politics for example? Sometimes we react angrily to another person’s supposed opinion. We may intensely dislike or reject another’s ideas or philosophy, but we could still enjoy the friendship or at least a civil relationship with him.
Our Own Inability
Then there is the inappropriate frustrated anger we may feel when we do not have the ability or resources to help someone else. Not only do we permit this self- directed anger, but frequently project it onto the person we would like to help. We are angry with him for presenting a problem we cannot solve.
Challenge Your Assessment
Our knowledge of any given situation is limited. Collect more information before making a decision! Cognitive distortions can fuel and exaggerate anger and depression. Are you focusing solely on the negatives to the exclusion of the positive? Are you reading another person’s mind or motives? Are you taking another person’s limitations of time, energy, or understanding personally? Do you set arbitrary, unrealistically requirements for others and then become upset when they do not measure up? Or feel that no one can do it better than you so that you must always be available? Everyone has cognitive distortions (including the author)! To manage anger successfully and dispose of it, we must recognize and refute any distorted thought pattern by logic, by prayer, counsel, or Scripture promises!
We differ so widely in disposition, habits, education, that our ways of looking at things, analyzing problems, and evaluating opportunities vary. We judge differently. Our understanding of truth, our ideas in regard to the conduct of life, are not in all respects the same.
Define the Real Problem
We need to find a clear understanding of the underlying problem or cause for our anger. In many situations, people have built up an emotional aura around the problem making it difficult to define it. Objective counsel can help penetrate this cloud and enable us to concentrate on the real occasion for our anger. It is also very healing to focus on the actual cause of our dilemma, and not prosecute the offender for his shortcomings, or project our emotional response onto him.
Three Steps (and Stories) to Resolve Anger Successfully
Recognize the Value of Conflict
We need to admit that we do harbor anger (if that is the case) and get rid of it in order to regain a positive perspective. Anger makes an excellent opportunity to reassess our values and priorities.
Choose your values before you become angry. Does self-protection outweigh honesty? Does being right usurp kindness? Do I prize power over others and position more than humility? We are not on vantage ground unless we act from previously chosen Biblical values in harmony with God.
Private Desmond Doss was recognized as a World War II hero for many decades because President Truman had awarded him the prestigious Medal of Honor. When he enlisted in the army as a non-combatant medic, his bunkmates treated badly. When Doss knelt down to pray, his fellow troops would mock him by throwing shoes at him, or making cruel remarks. Doss refused to carry a weapon and chose not to kill an enemy soldier. His commanding officer tried to get him court marshalled for keeping the Sabbath. Doss simply continued to perform his daily duties faithfully as he cared for the ailments of his fellow soldiers. Slowly, he gained the respect of some in his platoon. In the battle of Okinawa, Japan, under enemy fire, Doss crawled up a steep hill and rescued between fifty and a hundred men. He would help any wounded soldier he could, American or Japanese. At one point, multiple shrapnel entered his body and he could not walk anymore. While being carried out on a stretcher, he saw another wounded soldier who was worse off than he was. Doss ordered that his attendant take him off the stretcher and carry the more severely wounded solder out instead, while Doss waited for them to return. Doss finally managed to crawl to safety.1
Dealing with others’ anger or our own requires courage. Doss preached values of faith, kindness, unselfish service, and obedience to God. Those ideals enabled him to survive others’ rudeness. What values and priorities have you chosen?
Be the One
Anger also challenges us to be bold and not allow others to define us. It was late in the evening and I was the only recovering patient waiting to go home. Glancing at the nametag of my nurse, I inquired, “So, Jenifer, what led you to enter the noble profession of nursing?” Jenifer responded without hesitation, “I have always been a caring person. When I had my first baby, the nurses treated me so gruffly. I decided no human being should receive that type of treatment. I would be one of the nurses who genuinely cared for the sick and make a difference.” I think of Jenifer’s response when I am tempted to sulk and complain after a lack of communication or a nasty remark. It reminds me that I can chose to not let another’s rudeness or mistreatment define me. I can seize the opportunity with the response that makes this world a better place.
See Humility as a Virtue
You would have admired ten-year-old Valerie even if she was a stunted child with multiple deformities. Though she moved awkwardly due to her disabilities, Valerie possessed a very winsome smile that lit up the hospital ward where she stayed. Shuffling around the ward, she helped other children. Her father called her “Beautiful” when he often visited her. Her mother rarely ventured to call. When some rude person blurted out the question, “What’s wrong with you?’’ she replied, “I’d be glad to tell you if you have all day. But if you only have a few minutes, I will tell you what is beautiful about me!”2
Humility causes us to acknowledge our weakness and rejection. Equally important, humility enables to focus on our strengths and find acceptable service that we can actually do.
Psychologist Les Carter has observed that in order for us to forgive, we must appreciate humility as a virtue and not a weakness. To be humble is not to surrender our rights, but it is the preservation of self-control under provocation. Humility is others focused but also acknowledges one’s needs, shortcomings, and strengths. When we speak assertively but sweetly, it will be with the understanding that others still may choose to disagree. We commit to lifelong improvement while realizing that we will never have a problem free life. We see our unhealthy anger for what it is: self-destructive and harmful to others.
Avoid Five Pitfalls in Processing Anger
Benevolent lying (such as saying that we do not mind lending our rototiller to someone when we really do) can lead us into having inappropriate anger. A wife silently tolerates her workaholic husband’s absence at supper. He does not detect the flatness in her “ok” when he calls home the fourth time in one week, telling her he has to finish a report. She adopts a defeated attitude when she could say something like, “Ok dear, but how about our date that we had planned for tonight?”
Aggression is never a good response to anger, since it damages relationships. Its intent is to inflict pain or put pressure on others. The blunt, forceful, loud voice of direct aggression reveals that I too am contributing to the problem. I am overlooking others’ feelings as I rage, blame, bicker, criticize, or explode. Lambasting tragically alienates friends and would-be friends, thus limiting precious insights and information that could be shared.
In passive aggressive anger, the angry person gets revenge in passive or indirect ways that will probably not be recognized by the person at whom the anger is directed. We might gossip about a problem, or procrastinate doing a project that affects the offender, refuse to cooperate, or ‘accidentally’ slam doors. Mind reading is a cognitive distortion that fuels passive aggressive behavior. The passive aggressive person becomes even more resentful because his clues are not interpreted well. (Indeed it might be that his clues are hard to be read.) Real dialogue becomes sabotaged because the reasons for our anger are not clearly expressed.
Keeping anger inside (suppressed anger) does strike at any genuine, honest relationship. It does not eliminate anger, but only hides it. Individuals who suppress anger this way are usually very conscientious or preoccupied with their image. Suppressed anger is not controlled anger. Healing always requires honesty on our part. Both unconscious repression and purposeful suppression intensify pain and do not allow the possibility of exploring a solution. It is always wise to give ourselves some time to process anger. That processing should not go on indefinitely though.
It is never healthy to stockpile anger. Stockpiling only aggravates pain and delays healing.
Six Powerful Responses
Next, we want to consider healthy responses to anger. Psychologist David Augsburger depicts five responses we can have when we feel angry.3 Emotional maturity will utilize the best option for all involved in a conflict, knowing that each alternative can be appropriate in various occasions. Unfortunately, each option can also be dangerous at times.
“I’ll get out.” This is appropriate under constant physical or verbal abuse. But indulged too much, it promotes an attitude that avoids all obstacles. This response throws away the potential insights that we can share with others. It also builds barriers of isolation instead of bridges of warm understanding.
“I’ll give in.” This is helpful and even healing where only tastes and inclinations are involved. This response can convey, “I really do care enough to sacrifice my preferences for the unity that we are trying to achieve.” However, if this approach is used consistently, we end up being doormats.
“I’ll meet you halfway.” Compromise can either be creative or disastrous. Win-win responses are often helpful. “Here again we must clarify the issues involved in the compromise, whether pride, time, tastes, or principle and God-given directions. It is good to compromise the former, but never the latter. As Augsburger observes: “When we begin with a decision to compromise, we run the risk that my half of the truth added to your half may not give us the whole truth and nothing but the truth. We may have two half-truths or the combination may produce a whole untruth. An elephant is more than four legs, a trunk, and a tail! Only when we care enough to tussle with the truth can we test, retest, refine, and perhaps find more of it through our working at it seriously.”
We might occasionally pass over the transgression. Not everything has to be corrected all the time.
Distance May Help
I would like to add another option. Sometimes physical and/or psychological distance from the offender allows us to regain our equilibrium and composure. It may also help us take an objective look. Suppose for the sake of illustration, your psyche is like a southern mansion with large, fenced acreage. Some people you would not allow onto your property. Others you might allow on the porch. A few you would allow inside the living room, and even fewer into the kitchen. The intimacy between two members of the human race is dependent upon each other’s responses. Trust awakens trust. Any close, honest, and intimate relationship is going to last if two people are able to forgive each other and are good at forgiving. To a certain extent, you get to choose the degree of intimacy you desire with a friend. At times, you may also forgive, relinquish, or downgrade the intimacy of the relationship.
Confronting Versus Caring
Augsberger suggests that we do more than confront. “I care enough to confront,” is saying, “I care about our relationship. I feel deeply about the issues and the friendship at stake. I want to hear your view and be able to clearly express mine. I trust you in sharing my honest feelings. I want you to trust me with yours.”
Care is based on two necessary ingredients for any meaningful relationship: respect and honesty. Care invites change but does not demand it. It offers care, empathy, and support while sharing constructive criticism. Through care I assess the other’s strengths as well as recognize his defects and shortcomings.
By confronting because I care about the other person, I recognize my strengths and weaknesses and am open when I clarify my own insights, realizing my lapses in communication and my ulterior motive. I see myself as well as the other person with the opportunity to grow more fully. I am willing to share my observations and invite him to share his too. After we dialogue, perhaps I can come to a final conclusion.
Because I care I will try to schedule this opportunity at a mutually convenient time, when we both are alert, relaxed, and at our best. I will limit the session to only one area of concern, so as to avoid a tit-for-tat exchange. I will focus the conversation on the action that offended me and on ideas, information, and alternatives that will promote mutual understanding and problem solving, rather than assigning blame. I can accept that the offender might be at a different stage of growth than I currently am and will try to appreciate him and reaffirm his worth despite that.
The Healing Potential of Forgiveness
There is one last significant thing we need to consider: The healing power of forgiveness. Forgiveness says: “You have hurt me deeply. I believe you have damaged yourself too with your bad behavior. But I love you, and am putting this matter aside. I will not bear a grudge or try to get even. I wish you well and pray for your well-being. I will go forward with my free will and choose to forgive you. I hope that you can forgive yourself too.”
Forgiveness leaves us peaceful, calm, and positive. It benefits our health too. Holding a grudge affects the cardiovascular and nervous systems negatively. In one study, people who focused on a personal grudge had elevated blood pressure and heart rates, as well as increased muscle tension, and feelings of being less in control. When asked to imagine forgiving the person who had hurt them, the participants said they felt more positive and relaxed.4
Forgiveness does not necessarily imply that we must, in every situation, trust again or permit circumstances that will provide for the continuation or repetition of dishonest or abusive behavior.
Occasions for angry responses of varying severity are the experience of all, but they can become stepping-stones to a clearer understanding of ourselves and others, improved relationships, and a more noble character.
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Disclaimer: The information in this article is educational and general in nature. Neither Wildwood Lifestyle Center, its entities, nor author intend this article as a substitute for medical diagnosis, counsel, or treatment by a qualified health professional.
- Kruk, Ronald. Hackwaw Ridge: The True Story of Desmond Doss. CreateSpace Publishers. May 2017.
- Millard, Arthur. “Beautiful Upon the Mountains” in Joe L. Wheeler’s My Favorite Courage Stories. Pacific Press. 2017
- Augsburger, David. Caring Enough to Confront. Regal Book Ventura, California, , 1981.
- Mayo Clinic. “Learning To Forgive May Improve Well-Being.”. ScienceDaily, 4 January 2008.www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/01/080104122807.htm.