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Finding Your Way Through Difficult Emotions
By Silas S. Henderson
Abbey PressCopyright © 2015 Saint Meinrad Archabbey
All rights reserved.
Dealing With Anger
By Louisa Rogers
Anger. The very word makes us pause. Yet to be human is to know anger. Anger helps us to defend our rights and protect our freedoms — as individuals and as a society. For all the positive aspects of anger, though, we know only too well the destructive forms it can also take: physical and emotional violence, depression, even illness.
We face the challenge of harnessing the energy of anger without ruining our relationships, our health, and our very lives. To do this, we need to understand what anger is. Many people confuse anger with acts of aggression. But anger is not aggression. Anger is something we feel; aggression is something we do. As an emotion, anger can be expressed in many ways, constructively or destructively.
Working your way through
We can learn to transform our anger from a weapon that wounds ourselves and others to a tool that promotes understanding and healthy change in our relationships.
Identify destructive expressions of anger. In their book, Inner Joy, Dr. Harold Bloomfield and Robert Kory state that the constructive expression of anger has four goals: 1) to communicate feelings of hurt; 2) to change the hurtful situation; 3) to prevent recurrence of the same hurt; and 4) to improve the relationship and increase communication. But many people express anger in ways that do not adhere to these goals:
Passive anger. Some people don't admit to anger in the first place. They act like martyrs, breeding guilt in those around them. "Oh, don't worry about me," a widow might say to her grown children who are considering going out of town for a holiday. "I'll just eat a TV dinner, and I'm sure I'll find something to do by myself."
Aggressive anger. Aggressive anger can be physical: hitting, slamming doors, throwing things; or verbal: yelling, name-calling, attacking below-the-belt, blaming, being sarcastic.
Passive-aggressive anger. Passive-aggressive anger is anger that looks passive on the surface, but is, in fact, aggressive. Expressed in hidden, underhanded ways, passive-aggressive anger causes hurt and humiliation. Jean doesn't want to cook dinner, but instead of saying so, she manages to "accidentally" burn it. Chronic lateness, overspending, unsafe driving, and other habits that disrupt the lives of other people are often examples of this kind of "I'll-get-you" anger.
Indirect anger. Indirect anger is anger expressed circuitously — through hinting, placating, or avoiding responsibility. A very common form of indirect anger is the use of "triangles." Instead of leveling with the person we're angry at, we talk to a third party instead. At their worst, triangles pull in other members of the family, often unsuspecting children.
Express your anger assertively. When we express anger assertively, we state clearly and firmly what is upsetting us, without attacking the other person. Assertive anger sets limits and expresses needs, using "I" rather than "you" statements. Assertive anger is neither milky nor macho. "I do not like it when I feel ignored" and "I am very angry — I expected a call" are both examples of assertive anger.
Assertive anger is the one method that communicates our needs and feelings without violating the integrity of others.
"Whatever is not openly expressed in a relationship becomes a subtle form of destruction."
— John S. Powell and Loretta Brady, Will the Real Me Please Stand Up?
Clarify the real issue. A fight about which sofa to buy is probably not a fight about furniture. More likely, it is about who makes the decisions or whose preferences are more important. If we make the mistake of thinking the fight is about furniture, we'll just have the same fight next week about dining room chairs.
Finding out what your anger is really about requires digging. One way to do that is to stop, take a deep breath, and ask yourself, "What am I thinking and feeling?" "What about this situation makes me angry?" "What am I really angry about?"
Give yourself time. Slow down! In the midst of anger, we often speak impulsively. Everything seems very urgent. Yet very few situations demand a decision or a resolution this moment. Slowing down helps us to disengage and stay calm.
For people raised in families where anger was forbidden, and who now may enjoy the belated freedom of expressing it, the idea of cooling down may sound like a backward step. Yet it's important to distinguish between recognizing anger and venting it. Recognizing anger is always useful. Expressing it may or may not be. Simply venting anger for its own sake rarely brings about lasting change. Remaining calm, while continuing to assert your needs, is more likely to bring about long-term change.
Practice detachment. Detachment doesn't mean being cold or unfeeling, but rather recognizing that you and the person you're angry with are two separate individuals entitled to different feelings and needs. The more you remember this, the easier it will be to remain calm and maintain respect for the other person. In the early years of my marriage, I used to get annoyed at my husband when he talked about his fears. I would accuse him of overreacting and being alarmist. I realize now that I responded that way because I lacked a strong, separate sense of self. His fears became my fears; his insecurities made me insecure. My choices, as I saw them, were either to deny him his fears by getting irritated at him — or adopt his fears wholesale. Because I lacked detachment, I couldn't listen to him and allow him to have his feelings.
Ilene Dillon, a California psychotherapist, recommends saying to yourself in the middle of a fight: "That is your opinion. You are over there in that body sharing your opinions with me. I am over here in this body listening to your opinion. You are separate from me." These kinds of thoughts permit healthy distance.
Keep information flowing. In conflict situations some people tend to shut down. Withdrawing, pretending nothing is wrong, walking out of the room, inviting distractions, and using "silent treatment" are scenarios where the amount of information exchanged decreases or disappears altogether. Unfortunately, shutting down or leaving the scene only escalates the anger.
If possible, agree to stay open and continue to engage. If it appears that the anger is intensifying, you can jointly call time out, but agree on a time when you will return to the topic. Another way to keep information flowing when tension is high is to communicate feelings on paper rather than in person.
Learn how to use degrees of anger. Anger ranges on a long continuum from mild annoyance at one extreme to rage at the other. Because many of us weren't brought up to express anger at all, we often don't know how to use the lower intensities of anger. We use a sledgehammer when we could use a feather.
If you're at a movie, and you're annoyed because someone behind you is making a lot of noise, an appropriate expression of anger might be the message, "Please be quiet. I can't hear." If the noise continues, you could up the message a level by using stronger wording, tone of voice, and facial expression: "Be quiet!" If the noise still continues, you could back up your message with a consequence: "If you don't stop talking, I'm going to get the usher." And, finally, if nothing changes, you could deliver on your promise by getting the usher.
Rarely do we need to use this last level of anger. But since many people are afraid of expressing any anger at all, they avoid the lower levels, hoping the problem will go away. When it doesn't, they get frustrated and jump several octaves at once, leaving others puzzled or hurt by the intensity of their outburst.
Let go of anger in situations you can't control. Trying to change another person or circumstances over which you have no control leaves you frustrated and with reduced energy to exercise the power you do have.
Like people, styles of anger vary. Some resolve anger through a noisy, energetic argument. Others resolve it through a calm and thoughtful discussion. Not enough of us, probably, resolve anger through humor and gentle laughter. Whatever your style, anger at its best is a dialogue. Through anger, you can touch another and you can be touched, bridging the solitudes of two unique persons with healing love.CHAPTER 2
Easing the Burden of Stress
By Wayne Oates
Your boss tells you that the company needs to see higher profits this quarter — or heads will roll. The muscles in your throat tense, and you have trouble breathing.
You're in a traffic jam, late picking up your youngest child from day care, wondering if there's anything at home for dinner, when your phone rings. Your high-schooler has gotten into a fight and the principal wants to see you — now. Your heart begins to race as you look at the endless stream of cars.
Stress: Our lives are getting faster, fuller, more demanding. And we are feeling the effects. Much of our stress is job-related. A study some years ago concluded that Americans are working on average over 150 hours more per year than we were in the 1960s. Stress is also on the rise because of growing concerns about family, money, health, and personal safety.
Working your way through
Healthy stress is a natural part of life. We need a certain level of stimulation to perform daily tasks and achieve goals. Austrian doctor Hans Seyle, considered the founder of stress awareness, pointed out in the 1950s that stress is good — when it fuels performance on a deadline, juices creativity, and creates adrenaline rushes that allow for people to perform beyond their normal capacities during emergencies.
But when stress is excessive, extended, and unfocused, it becomes distress, and can cause real damage. Over a long period of time, high levels of stress take a serious toll on our health and well-being.
While we can't completely avoid stress, we can take some sensible precautions so that life's challenges won't send us into a tailspin. We may even find that some of our stress points can be opportunities for making midcourse corrections in our lives. Here are some suggestions for managing stress and minimizing its negative effects.
Understand the sources of stress. Don Hauck, a former minister who offers counseling, says that stress is "an effect of the fight within ourselves over who we are, the values we have, how we think about ourselves."
Any major life passage or change — whether positive or negative — will bring on stress. Life's most stressful events include the death of a family member or close friend; separation or divorce; personal injury or illness; marriage; job loss; change in work conditions; retirement; pregnancy; financial reversal; a change in job, school, or residence; vacations and holidays; a child leaving home; trouble with the law; family reunions.
Working with this list, write down the stresses that have happened to you and your loved ones in the last year, or that seem destined to happen in the coming year. Targeting specific stress points so that you can deal with them can relieve unfocused anxiety.
Confront major stresses in your life. Some stressful events just happen. Others are the result of choices and can be regulated. For example, if you are finishing school, getting married, and moving all in the same month, slow things down. Spread these events over a wider time span. Schedule the most important events first; delay others.
"Stress, when properly regulated and channeled, is one of life's most positive energies."
Some stresses can't be deferred, but they can be interrupted. If you have the around-the-clock responsibility of caring for an aging parent, for instance, you need some respite. Perhaps a relative can share the responsibilities, or several families in your community who care for aging parents can employ a caretaker to give you each a break one day a week.
You may also need to confront some serious and persistent stresses in your life. Perhaps you feel weighed down by impossible job demands, a demoralizing relationship, or a troubling family situation. Seek counseling, if necessary, to sort through the issues, and summon the courage you need to improve the situation.
Manage daily stress. You can alleviate some daily stresses by saying no when others make unfair demands on you. Above all, don't add to your stress by putting unrealistic expectations on yourself. When you face a difficult day, prioritize your duties, tackle the top of the list first, and reward yourself in healthy ways for tasks accomplished. Remind yourself that you are responsible only for doing the best you can under the circumstances.
If you find your day filled with nonstop activity, schedule five-minute "mental vacations." Find a quiet space, close your eyes, and bring to mind your favorite vacation spot. Now take a deep breath to relax. Continue to focus on your calm breathing, peaceful mental picture, and relaxed state. (If you have trouble relaxing, consult some of the many books and tapes available on relaxation techniques.)
Meditation, prayer, and simple quiet time are essential antidotes for stress overload. Take advantage of any time alone — including time spent commuting, riding an elevator, or standing in line — to bring calming images to mind. Use quiet moments at the beginning or end of the day to restore a sense of calm to your life. You may want to listen to calming music before retiring or upon waking.
Take good care of yourself — body, mind, and spirit. Eating a balanced, nutritious diet will help fortify you against stress, as will adequate rest and exercise. "Almost all of us are sleep-deprived," says Dr. Martin Scharf, a sleep disorders specialist. "The average American gets two hours less sleep today than he or she did in past generations." Examine your sleep patterns. Too often we cheat ourselves of the essential, renewing effects of sleep.
Regular exercise is also a great stress-buster. Exercise releases calming chemicals, relieves built-up stress, increases self-esteem, and facilitates relaxation. Consider joining a health club or teaming up with a friend to reinforce your decision to get a regular workout. A brief, brisk walk, taking the stairs instead of the elevator at work, spending time in the garden — all are gentle, inexpensive ways of giving your body the care it needs.
While alcohol may seem like a quick fix for stress symptoms, it often compounds the problem. And medications such as sleeping pills or tranquilizers require much caution and the direction of a trusted physician.
A healthy spirituality is also a key to handling distress. Sharing your faith with others brings bonds of friendship and support, and puts you in touch with God's healing nurturance. If you feel spiritually empty, it may be a sign that stress is taking its toll on your soul. Make time for a retreat or a day away to get back in touch with the divine presence within you and around you. Try to find an appropriate way to express your spirituality in your daily life, through quiet time for reading and reflection, prayer, or community service.
Learn new skills. Many of us enter into life's most stress-filled adventures, such as marriage, parenthood, or a new job, with little or no training. We may have the best of intentions, but we need more than good intentions to successfully negotiate these challenges and keep our stress manageable.
Seek out the training you need. Your public library is an excellent place to start. So is the Internet, if it's available to you. You might also look into counseling services, support groups, and volunteer agencies that can help give you the tools to cope with whatever challenges you face. Take an evening class or call a toll-free hotline; the key is to be open to new information that can help you. Remember the adage, "Don't work harder, work smarter." It applies to all areas of life.
Facing the inevitable stresses of life sensibly and courageously can help you clarify your values and set new directions for yourself, releasing creative energy for personal growth and service to others. You will begin to see stress as less of a burden and more of a blessing — a catalyst toward living a life that is full, healthy, and whole.
Excerpted from Finding Your Way Through Difficult Emotions by Silas S. Henderson. Copyright © 2015 Saint Meinrad Archabbey. Excerpted by permission of Abbey Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
ContentsI. Dealing With Anger,
II. Easing the Burden of Stress,
III. Finding a Way to Forgive,
IV. Letting Tears Bring Healing and Renewal,
V. Finding Peace in the Present Moment,
About the Authors,