Anger makes us uncomfortable and confuses us, but it can be the most useful of all our emotions. Although it can scare us or lead to destructive conflict, it can also be the key to understanding how we need to change our lives. Anger is like physical pain; it tells us that something is wrong. Managing anger effectively calls for us to learn what our anger is pointing out to us, and to make the life changes that our anger is asking us to make. Do you want to stop getting angry so much? Then remember that there will be no emotional peace without inner and interpersonal justice. Sometimes we must communicate in a new way in an important relationship if we want to truly reduce our anger. In other words, we can’t just sit there and scream, we must get up and do something about it. At other times, we must learn new ways to make peace with the world as it is. Acceptance, compassion, and forgiveness are wonderful ways to reduce anger.
People have searched for the one right way to deal with anger. One extreme position has suggested that it is best to control our anger or hold it in. Thomas Jefferson articulated this position when he wrote, “ When angry, count to ten before you speak. If very angry, a hundred.” An opposite position has noted the health of letting your anger out. Mark Twain spoke for this side of the debate when he wrote, “When angry, count four. When very angry, swear.” Each stance has its wisdom. It is indeed useful to take some time to gently think about the people and events that have led you to become angry. And while blasting and blaming others for your anger is rarely useful by itself, cathartic venting of your anger can help you over your fear that all anger is inherently destructive.
A cognitive-behavioral approach to anger management includes examining the beliefs that lead us to be angry, and learning the behavioral skills that can effectively alter the situations that may have contributed to our anger. These skills can include assertive communication, empathy, and acceptance.
The first step in managing anger is to take responsibility for our anger. No one else can make us angry. No situation is so inherently unfair that we are literally required to get angry about it. It is my anger, and I can do something about it! It is worth understanding the thinking that combines with physiological arousal to result in the feeling of anger. Certain unrealistic beliefs are likely to generate anger. These include:
- People should behave the way I want them to behave.
- I can’t survive unless things change to be more the way I want them to be.
- Life should be fair.
- If someone has hurt me once, I should not have to deal with him or her again.
Cognitive restructuring is the self-examination that can help us alter these unproductive beliefs. It may be helpful to keep a diary of situations that lead you to become angry, and try to identify the specific beliefs that tend to anger you. More rational thinking can help us realize that life isn’t fair; that we cannot control other people’s behavior, and that we may be able to cope more flexibly than we realize. For example, if your co-worker is irritating you by being noisy, you can respond to your anger at him by either speaking to him assertively or by asking a supervisor to transfer you to a more quiet location. Or you can practice a more radical acceptance, and see how good you can get at working near noise.
A cognitive approach to anger leads us to ask ourselves some gentle questions before flying into a rage. Am I being used in an important relationship? Do I fear that even polite requests can lead to the end of a relationship? Am I underestimating my ability to tolerate an imperfect world? Anger usually means that our lives are out of balance. This imbalance may reflect burnout from a job that we feel we cannot leave, or it may mean that we are giving in too much in order to be loved in a romantic relationship. Anger is a friend, telling us that there is an unmet need in our life. It tells us that we want something that we do not now have. A healthy response to anger could mean learning how to get what we want, or it could involve learning to live happily without the things we do not have.
Assertiveness is often the best way to respond to a situation that has made us angry. Assertive communication may lead you to tell a friend that they have hurt you, and requesting that they change their behavior. People tend to hear us better when we speak in a firm calm tone of voice. They tend to discard the valid content of what we say if we say it in a loud threatening tone. Empathy can also help us respond effectively to someone who has made us angry. If you can see a situation from the other person’s perspective, you may be able to talk with them with more understanding and less fury. The result could be a better resolution for all involved.