I walked into my boss’s office. For several years I’d been trying to manage a full-time job on part-time hours, complete my master’s degree, support my husband in his career and run a busy home occupied by three children. The previous month, a friend had died tragically and unexpectedly, and in the previous week several major work and family crises had been bouncing off each other. My sleep had been seriously eroded and the balance between my work and my life was so lopsided it had broken the scales.
I only meant to ask my boss if he could reassign my load, find someone to help me or let me reclaim some overtime and have a break for a couple of weeks. But my intense tiredness, my sense of hopelessness about the whole situation and the trauma of the past few days overwhelmed me. As soon as I began to talk, I felt the aching pressure of a million unshed tears in my head. I tried to contain the sadness inside, so instead of crying, all the pain tumbled out of me in a chaotic and angry heap that ended up piled on my hapless boss’s desk.
As you can imagine, the outburst didn’t help me or my cause at all. On a scale of one to 10, with 10 representing beautiful moments I’d like to treasure, I would consider this event scoring around minus seven. And although I can’t hit the rewind button on the particular episode, after a good night’s sleep and in the refreshing light of a new dawn, I got to thinking about what had happened and what might have been a better approach. And I learned some things about myself from this reflection which—if containing anger is a problem for you—might help you take better control.
1. Dig around the roots
One of the secrets to managing anger is to dig around in your mind and uncover its real cause. Underneath anger there’s usually another strong emotion hiding. It might be disappointment because of a hope that’s been shattered, preventing you from reaching your goals; sadness because you’ve lost something important to you; or frustration when you feel pressured or stressed and find it hard to express yourself. Or maybe you were very afraid or embarrassed. It’s easy to flip into anger so fast that you don’t give yourself time to think what that root feeling might be, so it’s important to slow down and ask yourself what’s really going on in your head.
Keep in mind, however, that anger isn’t all bad. Anger can also protect us from harm and danger by giving us the energy to stand and fight, run away or rescue someone else from harm, particularly if we see injustice. Anger only becomes dangerous when it hurts us and the people around us.
Identifying the root emotion that flipped the “anger switch” can help you to work out a better solution and maintain your relationships.
2. Take a break
Emotions such as anger can get out of control and develop into actual behaviour before we realise what’s happening. As I felt the level of my anger rise, it would have been good for me to slow down, visit the water cooler and take a few moments to reflect.
When you calm down and think, ask yourself what you could do differently to make the situation better. Think about each person in the conflict and his or her needs, hopes and goals. When I felt the anger rising in my body, I could have said to my boss, “Actually, right now I think my feelings are too strong to discuss this appropriately. I need to take a break to think some more; I’ll get back to you tomorrow.” I could have gone for a walk or cleaned the house to release some adrenalin and then jotted down some useful thoughts on a piece of paper. This would have given me a script to follow the next time we talked.
3. Alter your perspective
Find another way to look at the situation that’s making you feel angry. Ask yourself whether it will really matter in a month’s time. Is the issue worth risking serious damage to your relationship? Is there a way to think of this event as helpful so it doesn’t prevent you from reaching your goals? For example (and I concede that this can be difficult for some people), instead of seeing the slow driver in front of me as making me late, I try to think of him or her as protecting me from getting a speeding ticket or preventing me from having an accident.
4. Transform complaints into requests for help
Instead of nagging and complaining, turn your hopes into a clear request for help. Try saying something like:
“In this specific situation __________ , when ________ happens, I feel ________ , and it would really help me if you could ________ so that I can help you by _________ . . .”
You might say, for example, “When I find your muddy football clothes on the bedroom floor, I feel frustrated and disrespected. It would really help me if you could put those dirty clothes in the clothes basket after a game so that I can wash them in time for your next game.”
The secret here is to state your request in a way that the other person can feel good about helping you instead of feeling blamed. Remember—avoid blaming the other person.
5. Ask more questions
Have you ever felt tempted to say, “You always . . .”; “You never . . .”; “It’s all your fault”? When people hear these words, they feel misunderstood, judged or belittled, and they’re more likely to rush to their defence by retaliating with a counter-attack of justification and fault-finding in you.
Instead of blaming and judging others, ask for more information: “Tell me what this means to you.” “Why do you feel so strongly about this?” Or you might say, “It sounds as if you’re really upset [angry, frustrated, stressed] about what I’ve said. I’m sorry. How can I be more helpful [considerate, sensitive] next time?”
6. Share the problem
Rather than thinking of a problem as all your fault or all the other person’s fault, think of the challenge as something you share: “It’s important that we sort this out. If we do it well, then [mention something positive] might happen. I’m wondering how we can put our heads together and find the best solution.”
Using the word ‘we’ rather than ‘you’ makes you equally responsible and suggests that you want to work alongside the other person in a supportive way. Inviting them to first share their thoughts shows respect. Then you can share your concerns and ideas, and you can search for a way to move forward together that includes your combined creative thinking.
7. Be appreciative
Appreciation helps to lower everyone’s anxiety levels and soothe a potentially heated conversation. We’re more likely to feel positive toward people who are positive toward us. Try to find at least one thing you can genuinely appreciate about the other person when you sense a conflict approaching.
8. Be kind
When other people are thoughtless and hurtful, we can end up feeling even more frustrated, sad and discouraged. Sometimes we fight back or become defensive to protect ourselves from getting hurt again. This can end up with both parties attacking each other in ways both will later regret.
A friend of mine has a key ring that says, “Be kind to everyone you meet, because you don’t know what kind of day they’re having.” The clumsy person you meet is waiting for surgery on her hand and needs your patience. The man shouting at you for taking the last packet of cornflakes that’s on sale has just lost his job and is afraid he won’t be able to support his family.
Anger can damage and destroy any relationship. When your anger has made a mess, tidy it up and sort things out as soon as you can. A simple apology and a thoughtful gift can go a long way toward repairing damage.
Anger is a normal emotion, a gift that God has given us so that we can protect ourselves and others from abuse. We wouldn’t want to be without it. But it’s also very powerful and can easily slip out of our control. Ask God to help you recognise your anger and deal with it appropriately.
Karen Holford is a family therapist with a background in occupational therapy and developmental psychology. A version of this article first appeared on the Signs of the Times Australia/New Zealand website and is republished here with permission.