Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Is Your Anger Causing You Problems?

January 9, 2006

In a moment of anger do you lash out and say or do things you'll regret? Are people afraid of your temper? Do your temper outbursts end up causing problems in your relationships?

Anger is a perfectly normal, understandable, legitimate emotion. Like pain, anger tells us something is wrong and needs attention. We feel anger after a loss, when we are frustrated, when we are confronted with injustice, when our path is blocked, when our needs aren't being met, when we feel attacked or humiliated, or when we feel helpless.

Anger is like pain. It helps us identify a problem that needs to be addressed. If we pay attention and think about our anger, then it has accomplished its purpose. Some anger, especially after a loss, needs to be expressed in order for the loss to be eventually accepted.

Anger can be used unfairly. Unfortunately, we can also use anger to do more than just warn or to communicate about unsolved problems. We can use it to punish others for their "mistakes," to intimidate and to control another's behavior, or to protest when we are not getting our way.

An angry person can ask him or herself, "Am I being too judgmental? Does my frustration warrant my angry reaction? Am I being selfish?" Even, "Am I using anger to get my way?"

Angry people often feel justified. They are too sure of themselves. They are "right" so they feel their anger is "just." They can be wrong, dead wrong, and not know it. They can be cruel and call it just. Sadly, anger works. People back down or give in rather than deal with an angry person.

Anger causes problems and feeds on itself. To feel anger is one thing, how we act when we are angry is another. There are productive ways of solving problems in our lives instead of lashing out blindly, suddenly and uncontrollably. Anger short-circuits the thinking process. An angry person needs to think before responding.

Contrary to the popular notion that venting off steam prevents problems and is a healthy thing to do, the frequent experience of intense anger stimulates an angry response in new situations. Indulging anger creates an "anger habit." It also creates anger in the recipient of the anger. Then there are about 15 percent of people who over control their emotions. They need to be better at recognizing their feelings and expressing them.

Disciplining children while angry is counter productive. It creates fear and anger and violates a child's sense of justice and security. The first rule in disciplining a child is to first gain control. The child can focus better on their behavior instead of the parents anger. A child will learn to use anger to solve their conflict situations if it is used on them.

Many parents stumble on the fact that anger itself can be used as a punishment. If other consequences haven't been thought through, decided ahead, talked about and understood, the easiest parental recourse is anger.Anger gets results. Not much learning takes place, but anger does bring things to an abrupt halt.

The problem is that children habituate to parental anger. It takes higher and higher intensities to get their attention. Children wait until the anger is at a fearsome level before they regard the situation as serious. The parent ends up acting more like an out-of-control child than the children do themselves. For best results, discipline should be as matter of fact as possible.

Tips on how to control anger.

- Recognize your early warning system for anger. It might be a clenched fist, a twitching lower lip, a tightening of the jaw, or a rise in the tone of your voice. Use these signals to disengage before you lose control.

- Decide ahead the limits of your anger. Rule out violence of any sort. Have a plan for gaining control. This eliminates the need for rational thinking at those moments when you are least capable of it. Know where you are going and what you are going to do to calm down.

- Get away from the situation until you are in control. Walk away. Leave. Establish ground rules for postponing a discussion so that you can cool off. Part of the ground rules will be a commitment to deal with the issue being discussed at an early opportunity, preferably within 24 hours. "Time outs" shouldn't be used to control a relationship and avoid issues.

- Be a good listener. Shift gears and try to listen to the other person's point of view before inserting your foot in your mouth. Be open-minded about their response. You can modify your remarks based on what you learn. When you understand them, ask for the floor and ask to be heard out without interruptions or counter-arguments.

- Pick a time when the person you want to communicate with can listen to you. If you are angry, you don’t want anger back, withdrawal or even logic or arguments. What you want is to be listened to. When two people are angry at the same time, not much listening will take place.

- Think through common situations where you react with anger. Try to understand where your anger is coming from. Think it through and approach the other party with your rationale on why that particular situation is so upsetting to you. Explain yourself and what you need from them.

Anger can help solve problems if you know how to use it right.