Relationship Success

Anger – The Misunderstood Emotion

cute couple in the park

Anger gets a bad rap. It feels bad. Ugly words and impulsive acts accompany it. Consequences and punishments often follow it. Anger can be scary and overwhelming. Why wouldn’t it get a bad rap? But is anger bad? When put to the vote, anger gets some votes for bad, and some votes for good. The truth is: anger is neither bad nor good – it is neutral. What we do in response to anger is what turns into “bad” or “good,” helpful or not helpful, healthy or unhealthy.

Anger is a normal, natural emotion. It is an emotional response to a provoking stimulus. Win the lottery – happy. Loss of a loved one – sad. Punched in the nose – angry. Anger is a part of being human; to deny it creates problems and to lose control of it creates problems too.

When misunderstood and over or under expressed, this all too natural emotion can be a destructive force in any relationship, especially a marital relationship. The reality is that when in a close, long-term relationship, something one person says or does will evoke anger in the other; it is inevitable. A happy, healthy relationship does not mean never getting angry; it means knowing there will be feelings of anger, understanding one’s own anger, being able to hear another’s anger, and, expressing anger in ways that show respect for self and others.

But why do we have so much trouble with this emotion? Well, lessons in anger begin very early in life. There are all kinds of messages in childhood regarding anger: “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all,” “children are to be seen, not heard,” “parents are always right.” Expressions of anger from children are not only discouraged, but punished. How often are children sent to their rooms for talking back? Tantrums are shut down and punished. Additionally, children are witness to the adults around them and their anger. Do they see adults with explosive tempers? Yelling and screaming? Drinking alcohol? Punching a door or a wall? Do they see adults holding their anger in, or becoming passive-aggressive? And, nowadays there are TV and video games that send messages about anger. So many confusing signals.

So are we stuck practicing the same styles of expressing anger that we learned as children? The good news is, “no.” With some awareness and some practice, new skills for managing anger can be learned. It is helpful just to have some basic understanding about anger.

  • Anger is a normal emotion.
  • Everybody gets angry.
  • Anger protects.
    There is always a more vulnerable emotion hidden behind anger, like fear, embarrassment, shame, inadequacy, inferiority, or feeling misunderstood. When trying to manage one’s own anger, it can be helpful to explore what underlying emotion the anger is protecting.
  • There are choices as to what to do when angry.
    *Cool off. Good rarely comes from quick responses to anger.
    Identify things that help create space between the feeling and the response, for example, taking a walk, listening to music, talking to a friend, or taking a nap.
    *3 No-no’s when angry:
    don’t hurt self
    don’t hurt others
    don’t hurt property
    *Calm expression of anger will have the greatest likelihood of being heard.
    Listening stops when yelling begins.
    “I feel angry when…”
  • It is just as important to be a good receiver of anger as it is to express anger well.
    *Verbally acknowledging that someone is angry can have a surprisingly calming and productive effect. People just want to be heard. “It sounds like you are really angry.” “I can tell you are angry about that, let’s talk”.
    *Don’t take the bait. When someone is angry at us, it can provoke our own protective anger that says fight back. Accept that others will be angry at us sometimes. Take a deep breath, listen to what they have to say, then acknowledge their feelings. A calmer, more productive discussion is more likely to follow.

Anger is a part of life; often daily life. It is not the easiest emotion to have or express. It is not the easiest emotion to hear. But if we recognize it as normal in ourselves and others; if we practice some basic skills to express it respectfully; if we can be patient and tolerant in hearing it from others; perhaps anger will shake that bad rap.

By Kim Weber Gianitsos, MFT

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