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Feelings of anger can be interpreted as a protective cover for what we really feel underneath.

Anger is a secondary emotion that is more socially acceptable to express than the primary emotions we feel. Showing anger allows us to protect our vulnerable feelings of:

1. Fear
2. Jealousy
3. Shame
4. Sadness
5. Hurt

If someone says something derogatory, controlling, or demeaning to you, it may seem like a personal attack. You may feel fear, shame and/or grief because you are being treated in such a demeaning way. Instead of voicing these vulnerable feelings that you may believe are weak, you lash out in anger to feel more in control. Unfortunately, reacting in aggressive ways like yelling, throwing things, pushing or hitting does not address what you are really feeling.

The next time you begin to feel angry, pause and think: “What am I feeling underneath?” Explore the feeling of sadness, shame, jealousy or fear that your anger is covering. Think about what outcome you want from the situation and the best way to achieve it. While you take time to reflect on your internal thoughts the anger will subside. You may need to count to ten or leave the room. Think of the best way to express your primary feeling to the offending party.

Some examples are:

• I feel hurt when you say xxxx or do xxx.
• I need some time to cool off, can we talk about this in (an hour/tomorrow).
• I am going for a walk to relax and think.
• I am very tired/hungry right now. I can give you my undivided attention after I rest/eat.

It is a good idea to reflect on the times you’ve gotten angry in the past and try to uncover the primary emotion behind your reactions. Think of the best way to express that primary emotion in a calm, clear way and how to achieve your desired outcome. Writing your thoughts down will help you remember and mentally rehearse a better way to respond to situations that trigger anger. The next time you feel angry you will be prepared to express what you are really feeling and better able to get your needs met.

Imagine yourself hiking along a meandering dirt path with a friend on a breezy day, enjoying casual conversation as well as the warmth of the sun and the coolness of the wind upon your skin. In the midst of your serenity, your eyes briefly dart upward and ahead, and (gulp) that’s when you see it: a huge monolith, standing tall and proud, casting a giant shadow across the ground. You feel a chill run down the back of your neck, all the way down your spine, because you realize, “This is the rock I’m going to climb.”

Now, most of you reading this post are most likely not rock climbers, but I’m sure you can imagine how attempting to climb a seemingly insurmountable rock is a lot like attempting to accomplish anything in your life that seems overwhelming, stressful, and even impossible at times. As a climber of some scary rocks myself, I assure you—just about anything in life is possible, even conquerable. The trick is learning how to manage your fears and stress, which are nothing short of illusions.

Since I started rock climbing, I’ve learned 3 major lessons about how to move through stress and fear, lessons which I believe apply to every day life situations, such as: writing an essay, completing a work project, planning a vacation, or decorating your living space.

Lesson #1: Take it one step at a time. I know you’ve heard that before, and it’s become quite cliche, but seriously—literally take your goal and focus on one little itty bitty step at a time. If I kept staring at the top of the rock I was climbing, lamenting how far away I was from the end goal, I would most likely not reach the top very quickly, or not even at all. However, if I decide to only focus on the handholds and footholds right in front of me, no more than 5 feet above my head, then I’m sure to stay present with the task at hand. It is here, in the NOW, that I feel centered, focused, and relaxed, as opposed to fearful and stressed out.

Lesson #2: You can do more than you think you can. Yes, another cliche, but oh so true! When I began climbing at the gym, I would only climb pink and yellow colored routes. Why? Pinks and yellows were considered to be the easy routes, and I believe I could only climb at the easy level. Luckily, fellow climbers would often encourage me to climb a green route, a blue route, and sometimes (dare I say) even an orange! Well, guess what? I was able to climb an orange route, simply because I tried. This victory helped me realize that the seemingly unconquerable tasks are sometimes more conquerable than we think—we just have to be willing to try, even if it means making a fool of ourselves.

Lesson #3: Your biggest falls are your greatest triumphs. How can that be so? Your falls provide the greatest opportunity for learning and growth. In addition, they free you from your fear of falling (and failing). Once you experience falling, you no longer fear it, because you know what it’s like. In my own experience, I attempted to climb a route outside that was slightly beyond my capability at the time. I was scared to climb it, but I did it anyway. I climbed the first three quarters of the rock gracefully, but by the last quarter, I was feeling tired and shaky. I tried to hang on for dear life, but I couldn’t fight the inevitable, so I finally let myself fall (a good 20 feet, mind you). Surprisingly, all I could feel was a sense of exhilaration—I fell, and I didn’t die!! Not only that, but it was actually kind of fun, and I realized that falling wasn’t so bad after all. SO, when you are working toward a goal, and feel the terror of falling creeping in…remind yourself that falling itself can be its own success, as it has the potential to free your from your fear of it.

Stress and fear can be an everyday part of our lives. But, I assure you—when we take these lessons and apply them to the goals we create for ourselves, we can learn to manage our stress and our fears, and become the most empowered, strong, and centered versions of ourselves.

“There is no reality—only perception.” Jay McGraw in Life Strategies for Teens

“You don’t react to what happens to you (in this instance, someone saying “hi”), but you react to your interpretation of what happens to you (in this instance, how you interpret what that “hi” means). How you see and interpret certain events is purely a matter of choice. All that there is…is perception.” (p.142)

Let’s see how these things work out in social situations: Family, Peers, (and later, School, and Work). The family is the real “factory” for the product (you) that is turned out into the world. So the ways of dealing with each other in family situations are usually carried forward into life for a person’s entire time on earth. In the beginning, if a baby cries, the caregiver—usually the mother—has to guess what the problem is and solve it so the baby can be comfortable, happy, etc. This has to do with real-life situations—cold, wet, gas, hungry, tired, dirty, itchy, burning sensations of rashes, etc. The solution is executed and the baby returns to peaceful repose.

But as the child gets older and learns words that correspond to the feeling and sensations that he/she has, it gets trickier. The caregivers hear the words and see the child’s actions and sometimes the words and actions do not mesh. This is particularly evident in families where expressing oneself, complaining, etc is discouraged. Sometimes even telling the truth is dangerous due to punishments that are meted out—not for telling the truth, but for telling the truth about something the child did which the parent did not like. So the child starts to hedge, choosing not to talk about what he/she is doing or choosing to make up a version which the parents will approve of.

This further carries over to the child’s dealings with people beyond the family. The child modifies his/her descriptions of personal feelings and desires to suit what will make him/her feel safe. If the child’s self-esteem has been injured in the family situation, he/she might make up stories which exaggerate his/her exploits, or perhaps he/she will start blaming others for personal failings so as to escape the feelings of shame which he felt in the family situation. He/she might start bullying others to feel better about him/herself. Or he/she might become a target of bullies.

The caregiver will not have nearly as much control over the outcomes of problems which become evident in the child’s life and will only be able to guess what they really are. Many times the caregiver/parent is overwhelmed and cannot, due to time allotment, or mood or anxiety concerns, listen to the child or certainly cannot actually help the child with the problem. In this case, in which the child does not get a healthy adult viewpoint about his/her perceived problem, the child starts projecting his/her problem onto others, attributing his/her own motivations to others for similar actions or behaviors as he/she would take in certain circumstances.

At this point, the child’s “perception” is skewed by his/her own history of solving or not solving problems and unless he/she asks others why they took certain actions, he/she will never know their true motivations because he/she will assume that they did them for the same reason as he/she would have. This is analogous to the child not learning empathy or how to feel the pain or pleasure of another individual by reading cues on the person’s face or in their behavior. He/she often is unable to anticipate the effect that his/her own words or actions will have on the other person. This child is stuck in his/her own body and is not able to read motivations or emotions in other people.

The problem with this is that many misunderstandings develop because of the disconnect between people. If I have not had the experience or practice trying to understand motivations or emotions of others, I will often be offended by what another person says or does, construing it in the way that I have learned in the many times my caregiver or similar person of importance to me may have meant it in a punitive way, which may not be what the other intended at all.

This results in a feeling of disrespect, fear, anxiety, shame, or any number of other feelings which develop from not understanding the meaning of the other’s words or actions. In most people, the outward expression of such negative emotions, is simply to take offense and get angry. There are very few who will actually inquire as to what the speaker actually meant by what he/she said, or the person who, say, seemed to stare at our hero, actually had (or says that he had) in his head (not thinking at all about him/her, spaced out, looking at something else, remembering something he/she forgot to do, etc).

Jay McGraw’s point was that we spend an inordinate amount of time trying to interpret what others have said or done, but we do it according to what we ourselves—a different person—have learned and experienced in our lifetime—many times in a negative way in which we had to defend ourselves. Without feedback from the other person, it is nearly impossible to arrive at the right motivation or intent for what another person says or does. Of course, even then, the other person may be lying or simply unaware of his/her true intent. So our perceptual reality is very squishy, isn’t it?

So this is one of the primary tasks of living in the social world—communicating with others using words and behaviors—and being understood by them, and, of course, vice versa as well—trying to interpret the words and actions of others. This is possibly the most difficult skill that must be learned in order to live a healthy life. What role does anger play in all that? The feeling of anger is the signal that says that there has been a disconnect in the chain of communication that needs to be corrected before the personal relationship can be repaired between the speaker/behaver and the perceiver/victim.

This is not something that is easy to learn and usually takes a “course” in life skills, anger management, social interactions or some aspect of communication skills in order to assimilate the skill so that it is usable. In other words, this skill, if you did not learn it at home as a child, must be learned from someone else later on either in “therapy” or in a more-or-less formal class environment, in order to “catch up.”

Written by: Anita Avedian, MFT

Many people wonder how a situation escalates so quickly. Questions such as, “What happened?” or “How did he end up leaving?” are asked, yet there is not much success with finding a fulfilling answer.

We live in a society where immediate gratification is part of our daily lives. It is a great challenge for many to take the time to reply to a triggering email or an upsetting voice message. We want to respond right away because the pain is so intolerable. Unfortunately, this is a journey of digging ourselves into a deeper mess.

Reacting

When we react, we are emotionally charged. This is not a good time to reply to the email, or return the phone call. I challenge you to hold off from replying to the email until the following day. In fact, write the draft without sending it, and reread the draft the following day. You will notice how harsh, defensive and/or attacking the initial email sounds. Maybe it’s not that harsh, however my guess is that there is a difference between the initially drafted email and the final email written on the following day.

Responding

Responding rather than reacting requires for you to wait until you have cooled off, and worked through the issue, prior to replying to the situation. It helps to explore and understand what really bothers you about the situation, and if appropriate, you can share your wants or needs with the person. During the waiting process, you can either journal through your own destructive thinking and hurtful feelings (remove comma) or call a trusted person to share your feelings and brainstorm, in order to productively handle the situation. This practice will increase the likelihood of saving important relationships and friendships.

How To Do It Differently

For example, if my supervisor criticizes me at work, I will feel angry and resentful, and I will act withdrawn (reacting). How I can respond is to recognize that my work does not have to be perfect, and that my supervisor was probably only trying to help me (responding).

Another example: I receive a disturbing email. My reaction is to write an entire page in return, defending myself, and venting my frustrations. The consequence would be potentially losing a friendship. On the other hand, when responding, I would journal through my anger, fear, and concern, and work towards understanding what the email triggered in me. Maybe ask myself, “What was this really about for me?” Once I gain some insight, and also try to recognize the writer’s point of view, I would write an email expressing my thoughts and feelings respectfully, and negotiate by requesting my wants.

If you are interested in learning more about reacting versus responding, you can contact one of our clinicians to work with you.