The human emotional system is built as a messaging system.
Each emotion has a general message it wants to convey. Once that message is delivered, the emotion or the wave of that emotion can subside.
Sometimes it takes a little time for the emotion to process through the body, sometimes it is relieved right away.
I will cover that, but let’s start with the basic message first.
Today I want to focus on anger.
Let’s be honest, anger gets a bad rap. Usually because it is mishandled. Anger is not a problem at all. In fact, it has a very important job.
When anger shows up, that means your protection system is activated.
It provides protection in two ways:
ONE: It lets you know that one or more of your boundaries have been crossed.
You might not have know about that boundary before, but the anger points out that the boundary exists for you. Just as easily, you might have known about it.
TWO: It protects other, more vulnerable emotions like fear, sadness, shame, disappointment.
Anger is an extrovert, OK? It does not like to travel alone. If you picture a car, anger is the driver and there is always a passenger. Anger is the driver because it is strong, decisive and very energetic.
Anger helps us be able to do or say things that we normally don’t do or say. That is what normally gets people in trouble.
Ways anger can be unhelpful:
ONE: It can be an explosion.
If you try to push initial anger away or hold it back when it first shows up, then it breaks the dam and that is when our anger gets us in trouble because it is like an explosion. It is out of control and can end up hurting people.
TWO: It can catch you by surprise.
That means it could escalate quickly and take us into our reptilian brain, bypassing all of our resources of willpower, discipline, insight. That little trip to the primitive structures of the brain could cost us a lot. There are things that cannot be unsaid or undone that occur in a rage.
THREE: It is gullible.
Anger is accurate to your thoughts. So it is crucial to check your thoughts or perception before you get super angry. You might literally be wasting your time and energy being upset about something that is not real.
FOUR: If it doesn’t get a chance to move, it can cause a problem.
Anger generates a lot of energy that we feel compelled to discharge. There is a reason for that. The energy is a strong propeller to help us do or say things that we normally wouldn’t.
Think about a beer when it freshly poured. You know the foam on top? That is the anger. The important message about the boundary crossing or more vulnerable emotion is the beer. You don’t drink the beer for the foam usually, you are trying to drink the actual beer. But you have to let the foam settle or graze it off the top to get to what you are really going for. Same thing with anger.
You are going to have to let it settle or discharge it physically somehow to get to the important feeling underneath. Getting through that top layer will also help you find a way to communicate productively about it rather than saying or doing things that will cause harm to yourself or others.
Ok, let’s talk about how to work with anger.
We know it’s noble intention: it is a protection system. We want to preserve that helpful job it does by managing it well.
Here is what to do:
- Catch it early by tuning in to sensations in the body. Usually you will feel it in your fists, arms, upper back and jaw. It is unmistakable. You will likely feel heat in the body, hence the saying “my blood is boiling”.
- Check your thoughts. Make sure what you are perceiving is true.
- Recognize the intention of the anger, which is to reveal that a boundary that is being crossed or that a more vulnerable emotion is at play.
- Identify the boundary that has been crossed or the more vulnerable emotion.
- Let the emotion process through the body: vent about it (with the goal of trying to move the energy through you), move your body, scream in the car, breathe and exhale deeply.
- If it is needed, communicate your boundary and preserve the noble intention of the emotion by communicating it productively.
Here’s a hint to communicating productively:
Make sure it is timely (communicated at a time when the other person can hear it), true, communicated kindly and helpful (will the other person or your relationship benefit from hearing your communication?).