As submitted for publication in Recorder Community Newspapers, March 9, 2005

“You think I’m mad?! I’ll show you mad…”
“There’s no reason to be angry; he didn’t mean to hit you.”
“Go to your room and stay there until you’re done being angry.”

What do these parent-to-child statements have in common? They all send the message that anger is bad. The message is as present in homes where anger is studiously avoided as it is in homes ruled by someone’s rage. If you grew up in either situation, you probably have difficulty with anger. That is, you either hide from it, or feel overwhelmed by it. Both situations can feel terrifying. In contrast, when anger is viewed simply as a signal that a problem exists, it is something else altogether.

Let’s start with the basics. Anger is an emotion of hostility that we all experience. Although the definition of anger seems obvious, we sometimes mistakenly equate the emotion of anger with aggression, which is acting on that feeling. Thus, we also sometimes think that we have done something wrong when we feel angry. When these misperceptions occur, we experience anger as uncontrollable destructiveness and as being bad.

Whether you ignore or unthinkingly vent anger, you are letting your anger, or fear of it, control you. Those of us who embrace and feed our anger damage our relationships by being physically or emotionally abusive to others. Those of us who enjoy conflict-free relationships by denying our anger also suffer from denying our feelings, censoring our speech, and failing to defend our values. In both cases, the price we pay is high. Ask yourself whether you want to continue to pay this price. If you don’t, then consider the following suggestions.

Observe that anger does not equal aggression. Although anger can leave you feeling at a loss for options, there are innumerable ways to respond to it. When you feel angry, note that you have choices. For example, if a friend is disrespectful to you, you can (among other possibilities) ignore it, talk with her about it, or criticize her. Knowing you have choices unlinks anger and aggression. The result is that you no longer assume aggression will follow anger.

If your anger overwhelms your ability to think clearly, find constructive outlets for the intensity of the emotion. Redirect your anger into exercise, housework, chores, or a hobby. Mellow your anger with relaxation techniques or listening to music. You might also benefit from writing a letter to the offending person (which you might not send), pretending to tell the person what’s bothering you (an empty chair can work well as a stand-in), or venting to a friend. These activities will help reduce the intensity of your anger or your fear of it.
If you tend to deny your own anger, unlinking anger and aggression can help you acknowledge anger without fearing aggression or seeing yourself as bad. Observe yourself in situations that might make others angry. What are you feeling? Imagine what it would mean about you, or what would happen, if you were angry. The stronger your feeling of aversion for this exercise, the more patience you will need to have with yourself.

When you are angry, ask yourself what is wrong. By perceiving anger as separate from aggression, the emotional intensity surrounding your anger will likely subside. You can then take time to think about your anger. Is your anger a reaction to other feelings, such as hurt or fear? Or, is it a response to a perceived injustice? Is the intensity of your feelings truly in response to this situation, or are you being reminded of a previously distressing circumstance? There might be a lot more to your anger than you originally thought, so give your introspection some time and energy.

Now, decide how you want to respond. You can still choose to avoid a conflict or dive headlong into one. However, you will be responding to your anger in a way that is tempered with good judgment. Some basic options for responding are:

Let go of your anger. If you decide that a situation is not worth addressing (i.e. a minor problem that is unlikely to re-occur), then let go of the anger. Focus on more important parts of your life.

Directly express your anger. This could mean venting your anger at someone or talking through an issue with a friend. Be clear about what you want to accomplish. Know the likely ramifications of your actions and be willing to accept them.

Fix a problem. If you feel strongly about an injustice, consider becoming active in a cause. For example, you might get signatures for a petition to make changes in local government.

Leave a harmful situation. Some situations are harmful and best dealt with by leaving them. For example, find a safe haven if you are in a dangerous domestic violence situation.

And, there you have it, Anger Management 101–a tidy little guide to managing a messy emotion. No doubt, it all sounds too simple. Our anger can be extremely intense and compelling. Because our attitudes toward anger are based in childhood experiences, they are deeply ingrained. So, changing how we respond can feel impossible. However, with introspection and a willingness to change, you can learn to respond more constructively to your anger.

The Recorder Newspapers has over 250,000 readers and publishes weekly editions in 19 newspapers, which cover Morris, Somerset, Essex and Hunterdon counties of New Jersey.

Leslie Becker-Phelps, PhD
Basking Ridge, NJ