Spotlight on Mental Health

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In the Face of Anger  

 

When someone else is angry, the cardinal rule is simple (but counterintuitive!): do not tell them to calm down. 

Those two words, no matter how gently you say them, will have the same effect as tossing gasoline onto the fire of anger: incendiary. 

As you now know, anger is never an emotion within itself, but is a symptom of or mask for an underlying (primary) emotion. Directly addressing the anger is akin to applying a Band-Aid to a festering wound without addressing the cause of the injury. 

So, what should you do about another person’s anger? 

Once again: nothing. There is nothing you can do that will eliminate the anger if you try to assuage the anger itself. 

Tune In to Primary Feelings 

Instead, tune in to the primary feeling that your boss, your child, or your friend is likely experiencing such as feeling ashamed, abandoned, unheard, or uncared for. This accomplishes two important tasks: you won’t respond angrily, as you will not personalize their behavior or words when recognizing their pain, and you will be able to get to the root of the issue and work toward real resolution of the issue. 

Take a step back and realize that their anger is not all about you; rather, it signals that he or she is feeling strong emotions or has taken your actions or words personally. Replace your reaction of “My spouse flew off the handle at me, I didn’t even do anything wrong, that’s so unfair!” with “My spouse feels unloved, frustrated, or disrespected.” The new response will help you feel the other person’s pain, empathize, defuse the anger, and move forward effectively to a solution. 

Often, we instinctively respond to an angry attack with anger of our own. People who are prone to anger typically have low self-esteem, which is a natural pairing: when someone feels that everyone is out to get them or that they can never get anything right, they remain in a heightened state of vulnerability and negative emotion that easily morphs into anger. They perceive innocuous situations – she didn’t wait for me outside or he was humming while I was talking – as a personal slight: I always come second to everyone else in his life, she doesn’t care about me, they’re ignoring me because they think I’m worthless. 

Conversely, someone with healthy self-esteem finds it easier to realize that others’ reactions are not all about them; these people are less prone to hurt feelings and, consequently, to anger. 

 

Acknowledge the Other’s Pain 

That said, properly acknowledging the angry person’s actual pain and then using “I” statements can magically diminish anger by showing that your actions or words have everything to do with yourself rather than with them. If your boss looks upset when you show up late, identify the underlying emotion – he feels like you don’t value the workplace goals or are taking advantage of him – and make it about you rather than him: “I’ve really been trying, but some days it’s difficult for me to get here on time because I’m going through something hard right now.”  

This concept is especially valuable in the parent/child dynamic. If your child accuses you of being the world’s worst mom, don’t respond with anger or defensiveness; tap into the emotion he or she is feeling. It’s easy to label a child’s words or actions as “chutzpah,” but true chutzpah is quite rare; take notice if you’re often triggered by your child’s behavior, because that often means that you’re taking it personally. It’s often the insecurity of a parent, masking thoughts like I’m not a strong enough parent and everyone has always taken me for granted, now even my own kid doesn’t listen to me. 

As long as the relationship is a healthy and non-abusive one, validate their primary emotion – not their anger – and wait for the anger to subside. Once they’ve calmed down (without you ever saying those words!), have an open conversation: broach what you think may have driven their reaction, listen to their response, and reassure them that you did not intend to hurt, insult, ignore, or embarrass them. Apologize when appropriate and reiterate that your actions came from a place of love and care. You will likely see how receptive your child/friend/spouse will be and how an authentic conversation with real change will follow.  

Next month, we’ll address common manifestations of primary emotions and how to recognize them in yourself and others. 

 

Dr. Yossi Shafer, PhD is the clinical director and a clinical psychologist at Empower Health Center, a private practice of multispecialty psychotherapists. They have offices in Deal/Long Branch and Lakewood and can be reached at (732) 666-9898 or office@empowerhealthcenter.net.