Conflicts — 29 October 2003
Use your anger wisely

Anger is a powerful emotion that serves as a warning signal. It is the
reaction to a real or perceived threat to our safety or our value, and
propels us into action. Anger is a positive alert system associated with
physiological responses in preparation for self-defense.
Yet, anger is often feared, misused and poorly handled.

Anger is to the psyche what pain is to the body. It is an alarm system

demanding attention to assure our well being. Physical pain alerts us to
an ill or malfunctioning body part. Though many people fear and dislike
pain, they understand its survival advantage. Similarly, anger warns us,
through physical sensations, of a perceived assault.
The physiological changes people experience in anger are reported to be
in the chest, stomach, arms, neck or elsewhere. The body readies itself
for a confrontation.

In relationships, anger is mostly evoked by a wound to our sense of
value, such as being ignored or excluded. Perceiving that you do not
matter to your partner is a major emotional threat that demands
resolution. However, anger is often seen as an entity by itself and
erroneously, we deal with the anger- rather than the threat.

Our partners_ anger is very uncomfortable because it is reminiscent of our parent’s dissatisfaction with us during childhood. “I don’t want to make you angry”, “I hope you are not mad at me”. When “you” are angry with me, my safety, security and freedom may be in jeopardy. Those statements applied to our childhood experiences as well as to our adult relationships. In both the desire to be viewed favorably is imperative.

People choose not to evoke their partner’s anger because they fear loss
of love or actual physical or emotional harm.

Some view anger as an “evil trance”, which is out of the individual’s
control, and therefore the irresponsible words or actions that follow,
are excused. “I did it because I was angry,” is often used as a
justification for inappropriate conduct.

Anger is also used by some to intimidate, overpower and control others.
Since dealing with an angry person feels unsafe, we often defer to the
agitated person, just to avoid his wrath. This only reinforces the use
of anger as an intimidation tool.

Angry people often accuse others of making them angry and thus the
recipients of the maltreatment “deserve” what they receive. This may
also be a learned pattern from childhood. “You drive me crazy”, “I was
fine until you kids got home from school”.” If you kids behaved, I
wouldn’t have this headache”. These statements and similar ones hold the
children responsible for the emotions felt by the distraught parent.

Some parents yell, accuse, blame and punish their children out of their
own frustrations. Children accept the charge of causing the parents_
distress and endure the “deserved” punishment. As these children become
adults, they may repeat these patterns with their partners and with
their children.

Though the use of anger is often learned in childhood, it can be
changed. We can learn to view anger as a friendly, self -preservation
signal calling for restoring our emotional balance, rather than a
controlling force. When we do so, the anger cue serves us well in our
relationships and in life. Research findings indicate that couples, who
deal well with anger evoking situations, feel closer and more intimate
than those who fail to resolve anger well.
Anger is only a feeling. What we do in response to it, is completely
within our control and no one else can be held responsible for it. No
one can make another person angry.

Those people who lose control when they get angry- experience rage. They
dismiss any human sensibility and may resort to wife battery, child
abuse, senseless assaults, motiveless homicide, self -injury, dangerous
or aggressive driving, and other harmful extreme conduct, while blaming
their victims. These offenders are out of the scope of this discussion
about anger.

Anger is a call for action- not destruction. It requires intellectual
judgment prior to a response.

The wisest way to deal with anger is as follows:

  • When you feel anger rising within you- recognize it as a sign of
    perceived threat. For example, my idea was dismissed without consideration.
  • Ask yourself: “In what way do I feel threatened?” -I am not being
    respected. I feel devalued.
  • “What do I need to do to reduce the threat and feel more secure?” I
    need to request that my idea be addressed and discussed.
  • Act on it. State your need. As soon as appropriate action is taken,
    the intense physiological responses begin to subside or even vanish.

Notice that this process did not even mention anger. Anger was the
internal cue for the threat of not being valued. If you began to speak
about your anger, a possible discussion could ensue whether or not that
anger was valid.

Remember that your anger is always valid. What you choose to do with
your anger- may not be. Dealing with a threat with logic- is likely to
render a successful outcome. Let us respect and welcome our anger, the
catalyst for restored sense of value and health.

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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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