You may feel better after you’ve vented your anger at someone but there’s little point because:
- Venting does not diminish it.
- The feeling intensifies.
- You create fresh damage – to the person you lash out at.
So why do we do it?
Dr Steven Stosny says angry people have a strong sense of entitlement about how the world should look and others should act. They are poor self-regulators who attribute the source of discomfort outside themselves. Poor self-regulation leaves people unable to act in the long-term consistent with their deepest values. Their bravado may appear as strength in particular when it tilts towards aggression but it masks weak self-control.
When things don’t go their way they lash out at other people or things believing their anger is a justified reaction to an unfair world.
“If they hadn’t have done that, I wouldn’t be angry.” (They genuinely believe this.)
The surge of anger provides ‘a shot of adrenaline-driven energy’ that has amphetamine and analgesic effects, providing a sense of power that also numbs the pain.
That sense of relief is called catharsis but it’s temporary and illusory.
This is whether you vent at a person or a thing, punch walls or pillows or kick doors.
Interestingly, blaming makes people even angrier.
Normal anger is normal
Anger is a normal emotion. Most people get angry if they have to deal with legitimately unpleasant or unfair situations and research shows it can even be useful when dealing with injustice.
The problem is when it tips into aggression or becomes habitual, resulting in chronic anger.
When this happens, anger becomes a default response to even the most trivial event – someone taking too long to answer a question, a car that is driving too slow, a shopper they think has jumped the queue.
Angry people do not face unfair situations more often than other people; rather, they perceive more situations around them as unfair.
Their weak self-regulation however leads them to believe this response is justified. They do not believe it is up to them to change the way they see the world but rather other people should change what they do. Spoiler alert: this is unlikely.
Dealing with anger
So what can we do to release the pressure when we feel the temperature rising?
1. Take a breather
There’s strong evidence that anger subsides on its own if you give it time.
This means learning self-control.
This is not always easy but it’s more difficult for people with poor impulse control, who are impatient and typically don’t deal well with frustration or understand the cost of their actions.
Being aware that you’re quick to temper is a good first step but the bigger challenge is catching yourself before you default to habitual behaviour.
Scientists don’t yet know if there’s a predisposition in some people to anger caused either by excess stress hormones or an underactive cool-down response (or other factors).
However, people can train themselves to slow down and avoid (or at least diminish) reacting in a knee-jerk manner.
- Bite your tongue.
- Buy some time to cool down.
- Go for a walk or a run (don’t slam the door on the way out).
2. Use anger combined with constructive problem solving
Expressing anger can be helpful if it’s accompanied by constructive problem solving designed to address the source of the anger.
If a partner forgets to call when they say they will then yelling at them later will not help the situation.
Psychologists recommend you address the source of conflict in a non-confrontational way, for example:
“I realize you didn’t forget to ring on purpose but I felt hurt.”
When both people are willing to work constructively on a solution it diffuses the charged emotion.
For example you can acknowledge that being let down hurts and agree that in the future you give your partner an hour’s leeway or they text a code that means they’re caught up.
Unfortunately, many angry people have not learned the skills required for having genuinely difficult conversations. They tend to lash out or cut off, rather than navigating the difficult grey space, which ultimately creates a greater sense of connection, safety and intimacy.
However, if only one person is doing the tough work of restraint, reframing and reaching out then it becomes exhausting and unfair.
3. Dig deep and find compassion
Once again this is much easier said than done. People talk about empathy easily enough but it’s a different kettle of fish when you’ve got to practice it in real time.
Often angry people are betraying their deepest values by treating people as they do. This does not make it easier or less painful for the people they take it out on, however, understanding that they are hurting themselves can help us to deal with them more compassionately.
- If you’re on the receiving end of the anger try to see the hurt underneath all the rage and model the behaviour you want from them.
- If you’re the angry one, remember that whatever you think your values are, ultimately, you’re a reflection of what you do. Do your values and actions align?
If you have to deal with an angry person the most compassionate thing you can do is to insist you are treated well.
Constantly letting bad behaviour go through to the keeper sends the message it’s okay.
This does not help an angry person to grow and become emotionally stronger. On the other hand it reinforces the habits that emerge from weak self-regulation including the misconception that the world is the unjust place they think it is.
Angry people have to recognize that other people, confronted with the same circumstances as them, do not react angrily and that how they interpret events contributes to the way that they feel.
However a word of caution. While it’s important to be compassionate, don’t think that being compassionate and understanding will transform someone else. It will not. An angry person has to tackle the underlying source of their emotion. For the person on the receiving end, the challenge is to avoid becoming angry and resentful themselves. You can be supportive and forgiving provided you see genuine action in the right direction.
Chronic anger is a health risk
When it comes to the damaging effects of anger emotion and body are one. A study of nearly 13,000 participants found angry people had twice the risk of coronary artery disease and three times the risk of heart attack than those who were not.
Some scientists think that chronic anger may be more dangerous than smoking and obesity as a contributor to early death.
A series of long-term epidemiological studies suggests that hostility can be lethal. For example, teenagers who are hostile are likely to have higher bad and lower good cholesterol as adults.
- Chronic headaches.
- Skin disorders.
- Alcohol and substance abuse.
- Digestive problems.
Why no one wins and how they can
There’s no win-win with chronic anger. It harms the person who is experiencing it (emotionally and physically) and the people around them.
A challenge in dealing with it is that many angry people do not believe they have a problem. They can even go as far as to feel proud of their behaviour, labeling themselves as hard-nosed or tough-minded, superior to the people who annoy them. (This reinforces the perception the problem is outside of themselves.)
So the first step is awareness, but it’s not enough on its own.
Chronic anger patterns don’t emerge in a day and don’t decrease without consistent practice.
The rest of the world is not full of dumb idiots who constantly do things that make you angry.
Instead, you are angry because:
- It’s a habit.
- It’s easier to point the finger out than in.
Remember that what’s learned can be unlearned and that anything we practice becomes easier over time.
So the next time you feel the temperature rising:
- Take a breather – don’t give in to your knee-jerk reaction to lash out, distract yourself.
- Develop a constructive, problem-solving mindset – develop the emotional wherewithal to navigate the complexities of disagreement. This will draw people close because they feel safe knowing no matter how hard an issue is, you will work it through.
- Practice compassion – we’re all deeply flawed human beings. This doesn’t give us an out – we must take responsibility for our behaviour and do our best to treat ourselves and others well. Before you lash out at someone else for being imperfect, look at yourself. You’ll find more in common that you might think.
I am moving to The Underneathness. Please join me there.