Dr. John Schinnerer
How do you deal with your anger in the midst of an argument? And what happens when that no longer works? Traditional tools for managing anger include exercise, reframing, mindfulness or breathing deeply. These are classic tools to deal with anger. But what about those situations when you just can’t get a handle on your anger? What then?
Anger is one of the most powerful feelings we have. Anger can overtake even the most emotionally aware person. When you are overcome with anger, your heart rate quickens, blood rushes to your fists to prepare you to attack and the emotional part of your brain, the limbic system, goes into high gear, making rational conversation nearly impossible.
Anger is often a secondary emotion. This means anger often follows after another emotion, such as embarrassment, anxiety or hurt. These vulnerable emotions are typically swallowed up by anger in a second, particularly in men who have been socialized over time to be slow to recognize such feelings.
Yet anger is going to happen at times. There is no getting around it. It is normal. It is human. So what can you do? How do you best deal with anger, particularly in a relationship?
1. Name it.
Studies have shown that simply putting an emotional label on what you are feeling serves to reduce the intensity of that feeling. Even if you’re not quite sure what you’re feeling, simply being curious about what it is you ARE feeling helps to slow the emotional reaction. For example, you begin to get upset because your spouse has just called you a slob because your dirty socks are on the living room floor. Identify how you feel, and saying to yourself, “All right, I’m getting annoyed right now. Just take a deep breath.” The reason is that this simple act of labelling activates the prefrontal cortex (where rational thought tends to take place) and it deactivates the limbic system (where emotions arise).
2. Identify what is underneath.
Ask yourself, “What am I feeling beneath the anger?” Most times, there is an emotion preceding your anger. I’ve found that 90% of the time, hurt feelings underlie my anger. Now when I begin to get frustrated, the first question I ask myself is, “Did someone just hurt my feelings?” Typically the answer is yes. When I get that ”yes” response, it is easier to come at the conversation with a more compassionate, kinder response.
For example, underneath her anger, Sierra feels as if she is insignificant and the relationship is unimportant after her spouse was late (again) for their dinner date.
The primary emotion is Sierra’s feeling that she and the relationship are unimportant. She feels “less than.” As soon as she is aware of this, she can share this with her spouse in a way that he can hear and support her. You can begin such a conversation with a soft start up by asking “Is this a good time to talk?” In this way, she can start a conversation with a much higher probability of successful resolution:
Sierra: “Is this a good time to talk about something that’s been on my mind?”
Simon: “Sure, honey.”
Sierra: “I feel insignificant when we have dinner plans and you show up late. I know you don’t intend to make me feel less than. I would really appreciate it if you would make an effort to be on time.”
By using “I statements” and focusing on the softer feelings beneath the anger, you stand a much better chance of your spouse hearing you and responding with caring and kindness. This is much preferable to leading with anger and starting a night-long disagreement. Instead, you are opening a conversation respectfully about how you are feeling.
3. Be appropriately assertive.
Assertiveness lies midway on the scale between doormat and aggressive. Assertiveness requires that you know what you need (e.g., being spoken to with respect, a hug, kindness, food, alone time, together time, etc.). This is often the most difficult part of assertiveness - knowing what you need in any given moment. The second part is speaking up and asking for what you need. This part can take a little courage for those who aren’t practiced at it. However, the payoffs are huge - less anger, less resentment, less stress and more needs met!
The happiest and most successful couples learn how to quickly identify which emotions lie just below the surface of anger. They are skilled at moving to the primary emotion whether that is embarrassment, feeling less than, feeling hurt, anxious, worried or disappointed. After they identify that feeling, they speak to that when they talk to their loved one. This results in a calmer, slower start up to the conversation. It calms the limbic system and activates the prefrontal cortex. And perhaps most importantly, it puts your partner in the best possible position to respond positively to your needs.
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