Taking Charge of Anger
Six Steps to Asserting Yourself without Losing Control
By W. Robert Nay
The Guilford Press Copyright © 2012 The Guilford Press
All rights reserved.
The Faces of Anger
Whom Do You See in the Mirror?
Marcy is hard to figure. Well liked by friends and colleagues at work and in a long-term relationship with her husband, Frank, Marcy seems to have an evil twin. Things are "right with the world" when her two children get off to school without a fuss, when the traffic is smooth, and when others do what they have agreed, quickly and "competently." The problem is that people often fall short of Marcy's expectations, and she gets "aggravated" and so verbally intense that others often avoid her. Lately, with more responsibilities at work, Marcy's anger is creating problems with the very people who are usually her greatest fans. When confronted by her most recent outbursts, Marcy becomes defensive: "Why can't you realize I'm under a lot of stress lately? Get over it."
Samuel gets angry as often as Marcy but expresses it differently. Rather than becoming intense or loud, he withdraws when angry, often for hours and even days at a time. He is described by a coworker as "passive–aggressive" when he fails to follow company policy he disagrees with, yet denies his omission is intentional. His fiancée knows when Samuel is angry because he goes to bed early, as if punishing her, and vents through sarcastic remarks, protesting "You're too sensitive" when she complains. Samuel's more passive and indirect approach to his anger frustrates others, not because he "loses" his temper. In fact, Samuel denies his anger is a problem. Those who have to interact with him would disagree.
What do Marcy and Samuel have in common? Anger has become a daily visitor in their lives, even if expressed in very different ways, and others are beginning to complain. Yet both would prefer to evade the whole issue. Either it's not a problem or it's someone else's problem.
Why is it so hard for these two bright and otherwise insightful people to see that their anger has become a problem? I guess none of us likes to admit to a loss of control, even if only occasionally. Depending on how we were raised, getting angry might feel like a character flaw. I have found that most of us are uncomfortable admitting we are angry when it starts to create problems.
In actuality, anger is a valuable emotion that tells us we need to address an issue. For some of us, it's heard as a soft tone in the background, signaling that all is not right. Others don't hear this signal that change is needed until it becomes a loud alarm bell. Either way, when recognized and understood, anger can be the first step toward problem resolution, providing us with the energy to right a wrong, stand up for an issue we believe in, or stay the course of managing conflict. Unfortunately, many of us, like Marcy and Samuel, don't use our anger for problem resolution. We simply don't—or won't—see that we're angry or that the way we are expressing this feeling has become a problem in itself.
How can you know when your anger is no longer a valuable prelude to change but is becoming a problem that needs to be addressed in its own right?
HOW IS ANGER A PROBLEM?
Anger becomes a problem when it has certain effects on you and your life. The questions that follow will help you identify the ways in which anger may be a problem for you.
"Does My Anger Negatively Impact Others?"
While Marcy felt her anger was "just occasional, no big problem," this was far from the view of her family and coworkers. Her husband resented having to take over all parental responsibilities in the morning to protect the children from Marcy's frequent outbursts, triggered when her son "dawdled" in getting dressed for school. At work, her secretary asked to be transferred to another position, knowing Marcy was not approachable about her temper and intensity. Similarly, Samuel's withholding of affection and withdrawal into himself was beginning to wear down his fiancée's patience. Increasingly, she was not seeking him out to offer the apology he seemed to demand and they were becoming more distant as they often slept and ate apart.
Neither Marcy nor Samuel saw this problem building, perhaps because they both had found their anger useful in dealing with others in the past. You may have had the same experience. Maybe it worked when you withdrew from the situation to underscore a point. Or perhaps you got in someone's face to make him or her see your position, even if the other person was a little intimidated by you. It worked. Your anger may have made you feel on top of things. You could rely on its energy to push you into asserting your opinions and righting a wrong. But now your anger may be a problem, perhaps because times have changed. Your current supervisor, your present spouse or friends, or the culture of your current job does not seem to react positively to what worked before.
Have you experienced any of these telltale signs that others are having a problem with the way you express anger?
1. Others comment on your reaction to a stressful situation or criticize your behavior. Remember, most people will not readily discuss their feelings about your actions, so when they do it usually means the problem is relatively serious.
2. You feel embarrassed following an anger outburst. Don't ignore your inner feelings that you may have stepped over the line. They may be valid.
3. A relationship you value is strained or lost. Another person may seek you out less or even cut off a friendship or family tie. Have you explored why the relationship is cooling?
If you know or suspect that your anger is a problem for significant others, it's a problem you will eventually have to deal with. To get an idea of how your anger may be affecting a loved one, have this person fill out the Relationship Anger Profile (RAP) in Appendix 5 of this book, score it, and then review the results together. If you and your partner or others you care about agree that your relationship is being compromised, you both will probably want to go on to read my book Overcoming Anger in Your Relationship (see Suggested Resources), where the RAP first appeared.
"Is Anger Affecting My Efficiency and Performance?"
Marcy found it hard to concentrate on work when she was irritated, causing her to fall behind. Her team's performance was set back when two key employees decided they could not work with her due to her outbursts. At home, her increasing aggravation with her "poor playing" caused her to give up the tennis lessons that used to be relaxing. Samuel found that his withdrawal from his coworkers made it hard for him to keep up with new developments at work. As others felt distant from him, they were less likely to open up or invite him to be a part of team meetings.
Research shows that when your stress rises beyond a moderate level, performance deteriorates rapidly. Think about times when stress might have negatively affected an exam in college, a presentation at work, or a physical activity like golf or tennis. Unresolved anger is a silent brake on your efforts, taking a toll you may not even be aware of.
"Is My Health or Quality of Life Suffering Because of My Anger?"
As will be illustrated further in Chapter 2, anger is associated with a variety of physical symptoms we experience when under stress. Marcy's daily tension headaches, fueled by tight shoulder and neck muscles, made it hard to concentrate. Ruminating about her aggravating day, she often found it hard to fall asleep, making her even more irritable in the morning. For Samuel, the quality of his life suffered as he held on to his resentments and withdrew from the people who really mattered. Unhappy and disillusioned, he was not sure how to break out of this pattern.
Do you notice any of the following signs that anger may be affecting your health or level of comfort?
1. Your energy level, physical comfort, or sense of satisfaction is not what it used to be.
2. A health problem has been aggravated lately or flares up when you feel particularly "stressed" or irritated.
3. You find it harder to relax, let your hair down, and have fun. Others have commented on your being too serious or preoccupied. Everything seems like a chore.
4. You avoid activities with people, hobbies, or sports because they now seem too much of a hassle or aggravate you.
Before the quality of your life and health deteriorates further, it's time to stand back and examine how anger is robbing you of enjoyment, the rewards of your work.
WHEN IS ANGER A PROBLEM?
Each of us has no doubt apologized and been forgiven for an occasional temper outburst or loss of decorum. Our work and play may have suffered, or we may have consumed a few more antacids than usual after a fruitless day at work or an aggravating afternoon of holiday shopping. Such is life.
But when these episodes of anger begin occurring more often and taking up more time, we may not be able to view them as forgivable flukes anymore. Anger as a frequent intruder can be exhausting and may cause you enough discomfort to consider the possibility that you need to make a change. Ask yourself the following questions.
"How Often Do I Experience Anger?"
When Marcy first came to work, her quick wit and clear ability won everyone over. So what if she was intense and occasionally lost her cool? But for some reason, unknown to them and baffling to her husband, Marcy's anger evolved into a daily event to be avoided at all costs. At that point, it was not only less forgivable but also a source of stress for those who caught her wrath. Noticing more of these outbursts, her husband tried to talk with Marcy, but she deflected all discussion with the vague "I'm just stressed out lately."
Any behavior that serves a normal function in life, including anger, is likely to have a negative impact on you and others when its frequency becomes too high or too low. Whether it's eating, sleeping, working, or playing, too much or too little threatens your physical, emotional, and mental balance. Anger is no exception. Imagine your concern if a friend couldn't get angry, even when directly provoked or abused. In contrast, there is someone like Marcy, who was angry so often that others could no longer tolerate it, even though they liked her and wished things could be different.
"How Intense Is My Anger and How Long Does It Last?"
Marcy's upset at her son's slow progress in the morning did not blow away easily. She often left the house so irritated that her drive to work was an ordeal of cursing and gesticulating at "hopelessly slow and out-to-lunch" drivers, which set the stage for her first encounter at the office. Her secretary dreaded the forceful barrage of questions and obvious frustration that pervaded Marcy's mood. Once triggered, her anger was very intense, long-lasting, and difficult to quell.
Similarly, Samuel's withdrawal from his fiancée was hard to turn off. He would avoid speaking to her for long periods and seemed unable to move quickly beyond whatever had angered him in the first place. In evaluating your own anger, consider how intense it becomes and how long it lasts. Others likely will be noticing.
IS ANGER A PROBLEM FOR YOU?
Keeping in mind what you have just learned about anger, do you think you have a problem with your own anger expression? I have developed a brief assessment that should help you decide and also reveal how you tend to express your anger. For example, when you think of "anger," do you associate it with loud, intense talk or some outward act of aggression? Many people do. Maybe that's why we're so uncomfortable admitting to it. In fact, anger is expressed in a variety of ways we will call "faces of anger" that include not only these intense and highly visible actions but also more passive and indirect behaviors. Recall how Samuel expressed his anger by withholding what others wanted or by using a sarcastic tone of voice, actions that can create problems to the same degree as their more intense cousins. By better understanding your mode of anger expression, you can answer the questions about how anger is affecting your life with more precision.
I encourage you to take a few minutes to complete the following questionnaire, which will help you assess your own anger.
"WHERE DO I STAND IN MY RELATIONSHIP WITH ANGER?"
So, what do you think? After reviewing the SAQ and thinking about how anger has impacted your life, what have you concluded about your relationship with anger?
Can you identify with one or more of the dysfunctional faces of anger? Which one(s)?
How is your anger expression affecting others who are important to you, even if you are okay with it?
Is it affecting your enjoyment or performance at work, at home, or at play?
Is your health, sense of wellness, or the quality of your life suffering as a result of your anger?
How often do you get angry in the ways you've identified through the questionnaire?
How intense is your anger, and how long does it last?
Still have doubts that your anger is a problem for you? You're not alone. Anger by nature usually comes with a sense of righteousness; we're angry because we've been wronged, and expressing that anger is a vehicle for getting the wrong righted. What would we do without it?
I'm not suggesting that you do without it. But if, like many of the people I have worked with over the years, you have opened this book at the urging of someone who cares about you, you're apparently willing to entertain the possibility that anger is standing in your way. So, rather than answering the question "Is anger a problem for me?" with a strict yes or no, think of the possible answers as ranging from "not at all" to "yes, definitely." If you are somewhere in between, this book can help you improve the quality of your life and relationships.
CHARTING A NEW COURSE
My job is not to eliminate anger from your emotional repertoire but to guide you on a journey that will change your relationship with anger. If I am successful, your anger will retain its role as a valuable signal that you need to change something and provide you with the energy to stay the course. Your anger will be expressed in a way that does not make problems worse but leads to calm resolution. Your relationships as well as your ability to get things done and to feel more in control of your life will be enhanced.
Afraid you can't change entrenched habits? Ask yourself this: Are you the same person you were even 10 years ago? Some of us are moving from the self-focused behaviors of early adulthood to the committed "settling" into a marriage or a first significant relationship. Others are having children and learning how to be parents, while still others are transitioning from the world of work to retirement. It doesn't matter what age you are or what your background is. You have faced choices throughout your life, and you have made changes. The critical issue is your personal motivation to change.
If you decide to read on, the next chapter will help you recognize your anger, what triggers it, sustains it, and directs how you express it to others. Once you are able to understand and recognize the "anatomy" of your anger, later chapters will help you direct your anger in ways that better meet your needs.
Behind the Mask
Understanding Anger and Its Expression
Lately Jonathan has noticed tightness in his shoulders and neck and now feels another headache coming on. Reaching for the Tylenol, he shakes his head over the amount of stress his sales management job is causing. His secretary informs him that one of his best accounts has been calling for the last two days. "Can't you see I'm completely swamped?" he yells. "Tell them I'll call when I have time. That's it. There's nothing I can do about it right now. Can't you see that?"
Feeling angry and guilty at the same time, Jonathan sits staring at the pile of work and unanswered pink telephone slips on his desk. Unsure whether he wants to cry, shove everything off his desk, or just walk out of the building, he wonders why he took it out on his secretary, who has been so loyal to him. Jonathan's life seems overwhelming and out of his control.
When he arrives home, his wife, Sean, immediately senses his mood when Jonathan yells at her to keep their two preschool sons quiet so he can "unwind" in peace. Sean appreciates his stress at work but can't help being irritated that he loses his temper so often at home. Uncomfortable confronting him, she finds herself withdrawing more each day.
Jonathan didn't plan to get angry at home any more than he had planned to get angry at work. Now he feels guilty again, this time for having "lost it" with Sean. In fact, however, anger often occurs when we least expect it and for reasons that sometimes seem unpredictable. Among the many hundreds of people who have shared their anger experience with me, I often hear statements like these:
"I just found myself completely enraged and saying things to my boss I now wish I could take back."
"Suddenly I just see red and seem to go from 0 to 60! Why is it that I can control my anger sometimes and then, pow, I just go off for a trivial thing? I don't get it."
"It's kind of confusing, because I'm generally a fair person. But when angry I just want to punish him by withholding anything he really wants." (Continues...)
Excerpted from Taking Charge of Anger by W. Robert Nay. Copyright © 2012 The Guilford Press. Excerpted by permission of The Guilford Press.
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