Who hasn’t felt anger? We all did. Anger is an emotion necessary to our survival and yet when it is out of control we get sucked right into the anger trap. And when we get sucked in we do and say all kinds of things to our loved ones and it hurts everyone. If you have a family and you’ve argued with your spouse in front of your children they will have a snap shot of that angry argument permanently etched and filed away in their brain. They may not remember the details of your argument but they will recall that there was anger in the family. And the chances are that you also grew up in angry environment. Your parents might have been the first generation that immigrated to this country and like many immigrants they worked long hours. They were too busy for their children (us) and many times they came home frustrated and angry because they didn’t know the language and couldn’t understand the culture. So let’s spend some time for the next few weeks in understanding this delicate emotion…anger.
An excerpt from Anger Management Workbook by Aaron Karmin, LCPC.
“There was once a little boy who had a bad disposition. His father gave him a bag of nails and a hammer and told him to drive a nail into the back fence every time he lost his temper. On the first day alone, the boy drove 37 nails into the fence. Gradually the boy discovered that it was easier to keep his temper than to drive nails into the fence, and the day came when he didn’t lose his temper at all. His father now suggested that the boy pull one nail out of the fence every time he was able to keep his temper. The days passed, and the boy was finally able to tell his father that all the nails were gone. “You’ve done well,” the boy’s father said, “But look at all the holes in the fence! It will never be the same. When you say things in anger, your angry words leave scars just like these.”
What a powerful illustration. I remember the times I yelled at my wife and kids in anger and it was not too long ago. We’ve hugged it out and forgiven each other and many tears dropped that night. There was pain and healing. But the holes may still be there in all of us. Anger is so difficult to control. It’s very difficult to understand. So let’s start this process of healing our families by understanding anger.
First, one definition of anger states, “Anger is an instinctual emotional response triggered by a real or imagined threat.” It is an emotional obstacle that blocks our way and we react to the situation with this perceived threat. Like the definition says it is instinctual. This means it just comes out. I’m sure you all agree with that and you’ve felt it. Two things I want to address today are 1. What causes that anger to be instinctual? What is underneath that you are triggered to anger? 2. Can you identify whether it’s a real or imagined threat. It is likely that you are suffering from imagined threat that was programmed in to you. Let’s get to it.
So, first, where did you get that instinctual threat? Somethings must have happened. If you grew up in a secure environment your anger may not be so instinctual. It is likely that you grew up in dangerous environment or you’ve grown up in unpredictable environment. Both will confuse you. Therefore you have to protect yourself from that environment. Many people dismiss their childhood experiences and just brush it off as a “childhood event” that toughened you up over the years. While that may be true it also caused you to become extra cautious. You’ve become a survivor who perceives this world as dangerous. Your view of this world may be the jungle where you have to constantly survive. You have difficult time getting along with peers at work because you see them as potential enemies or someone that will hurt you. You may have hard time getting along with your in-laws or any kind of family gatherings because they constantly cross the boundaries without your permission and your anger wall goes up. You want to protect yourself. So your anger instinct automatically spike up. There may or may not have been a real threat. And that doesn’t really matter. Because what you sensed was danger and threat to something that you are trying to protect. So what can you do?
a. Identify those memories you have where you felt threatened. This exercise is not a pleasant exercise. You will have to recall those events and it will make you angry. But the good thing is that you are pinpointing an event in your life that is causing you to be angry. Now you can be angry at the right person or the right event. Your unresolved anger can be directed to the source.
b. Grieve the losses of your childhood. It is likely that your anger triggers come from your childhood. The younger you were the less likely you have control over it. Your deep distrust in people started at an early childhood and you may need some help from a therapist to find these deep pains of your life. Once you identify them you must grieve those times when you were deeply hurt and sooth your soul.
c. Separate those that hurt you and those that didn’t. If you are a woman and you have bad memories of your own father hurting your mother and you, then you may be more cautious towards men in general. In my case I am more cautious towards women because I had an emotionally abusive mother. This is one of the major reasons why I had conflict with my wife because I couldn’t separate my mother from her. My interpretation of what my wife said or did was always filtered by what my mother said and did. As I matured and worked out my anger I was able to separate the two. This takes exercise and deeper look at yourself.
Secondly, is it a real or imagined threat? In your heightened sense of danger it will always feel like a real threat. But if you want to take control over your anger you have to separate what is real and what is not. Anger can be a good emotion if you have control over it. So what does having control over anger look like? Having control means to separate what is real and what is imagined. Your emotion sense the danger. The part of your brain that senses the danger (whether it’s real or imagined) overrides the cognitive side of your brain. That means that the cognitive side becomes irrational and tries to justify the negative responses by giving excuses for your actions rather than separating a real threat and perceived threat. An emotionally healthy person will use his cognitive side of the brain to control the angry emotion and say, “This is not a real threat so no action is necessary.” Rode rage works like that. Some people cut you off but that’s a matter of how you interpret it in your brain. That driver may not have seen you. That driver may have a valid reason to come so close in front of your car. But our natural response is anger because of a real perceived threat while driving. Point is, we don’t know anything about the other driver and yet we create a narrative to justify our anger at that moment. So how do I have control?
a. One way is to give them the benefit of the doubt. Like I mentioned that person may not have anything against you personally. The driver who cut you off does not know you personally. But it feels like that and our anger comes out. People at your work may not like you but that doesn’t mean they are conspiring against you. Think positively about other people in your life. Most likely they are distancing themselves from you because you are an anger person.
b. Breathe and count. It sounds silly but it’s a simple thing you can do when your anger is spiked. Breathe deep, slowly and count to 10 very slowly. It will bring your hormones and emotion to a manageable and balanced state. You can’t dismiss that physiological part of anger. Your body is ready to fight and lash out. So control your body and mind by breathing and regulating your emotion. It actually works.
c. Talk it out. If you are angry with your spouse ask what he or she meant. If your spouse said something that made you angry then clarify with him/her what he/she meant. In many cases your spouse didn’t mean it to be what you think they meant. Some couples are both avoiders. And this is a walking time bomb. Both stuff it and then blow it. This is dangerous. Try to overcome the urge to stuff your feelings and address the issue as soon as possible. Don’t let the sun go down on your anger.
Anger is part of our lives and it will not go away. You can’t get rid of it. But you can have control over it. Exercise your brain and behavior. You’ll see yourself changing over time. Anger shows you have multiple feelings underneath. It can be frustration, sadness, fear, feeling not good enough, sense of feeling overwhelmed, unloved, dismissed, lonely, isolated and a host of numerous feelings. Anger did not drop out of the sky. It was developed over time in unhealthy environment and it was left alone to grow like a mold. You can clean the mold away by first understanding anger and yourself.
Be compassionate with yourself and with your family. God sure is compassionate towards you and he knows how broken you are. Anger is overwhelming and you need to have control over it. I will help you. I am a recovering angry man who lives by God’s grace. May the Lord overwhelm you, not with fear but with His abundant love. I will upload another article on anger for the next few months.