One afternoon, I was having quiet time at a coffee shop close to work, and could not help but overhear the conversation taking place between two women beside me.
“My husband has a short fuse. It’s like he has a perennial black cloud hovering about him, and the children and I feel like we always have to tiptoe around him because he lashes out at the slightest provocation,” the harried young woman told her friend.
“Pagpasensyahan mo na, maybe he’s just tired from work,” her friend replied. “Tired? Even on a Sunday?! He’s like a snapping turtle. Masungit all the time! To me, the kids and the house help…”
It was a familiar story I had heard countless times. Anger that seethes and boils over like a volcano—affecting not just men but women as well.
Studies have shown that anger management issues often find their roots in childhood experiences. If your role models, meaning your parents, expressed anger by shouting, hitting, throwing things or hurling expletives, this is probably the way you think anger needs to be expressed.
Anger management expert Aaron Karmin writes, “If your knee-jerk response in many situations is anger, it is very likely that your temper is covering up your true feelings and needs. This is especially likely if you grew up in a family where expressing feelings was strongly discouraged. As an adult, you may have a hard time acknowledging feelings other than anger.”
In a CNN article on Internet trolls, psychology professor John Suler described the motivation for these online bullying tactics—“They want to inject their own emotional turmoil into other people by luring them into negativity. It’s a way for them to feel some kind of control or power over their own disruptive emotions, at other people’s expense.”
Many of them, Suler says, have issues with depression, low self-esteem and anger. So much like the man or woman with serious anger management issues.
Karmin says there are three points to look out for to determine whether there is a deeper issue or emotion that lies beneath the mask of anger. First, if you have a hard time compromising, then most likely, as a child, you grew up in a home where the anger was uncontrollable, where the parent expressing the anger always got his or her way through threat and punishment. Compromising may bring you back to that time and space where the dominant emotions were fear and vulnerability.
Second, if you have trouble expressing other emotions outside of anger, more often than not you are uncomfortable with feelings of fear or guilt. Thus, you always want to be in control all the time, and in doing so, refuse to yield to other emotions. Anger therefore will always be your shield or your preferred “drug” to mask or numb the pain that lies within.
Third, Karmin says, when you view different opinions and viewpoints as a personal challenge to you and you always view your way as the only right way rather than trying to see through a different lens, there is clearly an underlying issue beneath the anger and seeming bullheadedness or incorrigibility.
The American Psychological Association (APA) suggests three main approaches to dealing with anger—expressing, suppressing and calming.
Expressing angry feelings in an assertive—not aggressive—manner is the healthiest way to express anger. There is no need to slam doors, or verbally abuse colleagues, members of your household staff, or worse, family members.
However, to do this, the APA says you have to learn how to make clear what your needs are, and how to get them met, without hurting others. Being assertive after all doesn’t mean being pushy or demanding; it means being respectful of yourself and others.
And if you find yourself on the receiving end of the abuse, it is important for you to take yourself out of the situation even momentarily, so that you can calm yourself and clear your mind so as not to react negatively.
Converted or redirected
Suppressed anger needs to be converted or redirected. This takes place when you hold in your anger, stop thinking about it, and focus on something positive. The danger in this type of response is that if it isn’t allowed outward expression, your anger can turn inward—on yourself. Anger turned inward may cause hypertension, high blood pressure or depression.
The APA says that unexpressed anger can create other problems, such as passive-aggressive behavior (getting back at people indirectly, without telling them why, rather than confronting them head-on) or a personality that seems perpetually cynical and hostile, like the husband at the beginning of my story.
“People who are constantly putting others down, criticizing everything and making cynical comments haven’t learned how to constructively express their anger. Not surprisingly, they aren’t likely to have many successful relationships.”
I often tell my children and my students that when someone is being very hurtful and obnoxious, there is often an underlying reason. The meaner a person is, the deeper the hurt within. I like to keep that mind-set so that instead of getting upset at the angry person, I try to be compassionate, and when that doesn’t work, rather than respond, I choose to walk away and return when the other person has calmed down.
Lastly, to the APA’s suggested third approach, self-calming techniques can be applied when you have learned to become aware of the anger that is rising within. It takes a lot of practice, and a higher level of self-awareness is required, but it can be done.
The issues, situations and people that may cause frustration and anger cannot be totally eliminated, but you always have the choice on how to respond. They say that “Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one who gets burned.”
It’s simple and yet profound—control your anger before it controls and destroys you.
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