Let’s Talk Relationships: Anger is a signal: what is it telling you?

By AMY NEWSHORE

For the Gazette

Published: 02-03-2023 4:45 PM

Like sadness, happiness and fear, anger is a natural emotion that is part of the human experience. Our anger can arise in many situations: a traffic jam, an argument with our partner, a bad day at work, or when our kids are not listening to us.

Anger is one of the most misunderstood and mismanaged of all emotions. Many of us have not been taught how to handle our anger in a way that moves our relationships in a positive direction. Sadly, anger often becomes a destructive force in our relationships - with partners, friends, at work, and even in our relationship with ourselves.

In the heat of the moment, anger can take over quickly, causing us to react in unkind ways that make things worse. We might, unknowingly, resort to behaviors that damage our bond with another person. Having a secure bond is crucial for relationships to thrive.

Throughout our lives, we have very few healthy models for handling anger. Our family-of-origin, gender socialization, and the media we consume profoundly influence our responses to anger.

We all witness countless moments of the two most common, yet unskillful, styles of dealing with anger:

Anger Out, or explosive anger, happens when anger is directed outwardly, with aggression. Many of us believe that aggressive anger is justified when we believe someone has “wronged” us. When anger is paired with aggression, we see behaviors such as: blaming, manipulating, criticizing, belittling, shaming, yelling, lecturing, pathologizing, name calling and using sarcasm. Often, the tone is loud and threatening, drowning out any effort by the other person to communicate. Body language can look frightening and intimidating (such as glaring eyes, pointing fingers, threatening posture). When anger is expressed through aggression, it wreaks havoc in relationships.

Guidance for exploders: Anger is always connected to unmet needs. Slow down, breathe and reflect on your needs before responding.

Your anger need not control you. Instead, view your anger as a signal to explore and communicate what important needs are not being met. Inviting someone into your inner world in this way very often results in being heard, as opposed to alienating the other person through explosive anger.

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Anger In is when anger implodes within a person. Instead of being expressed, it is repressed and stuffed down. Although imploders can feel anger just as intensely as exploders, they bottle up their anger, which can fester for a long time.

Imploders withdraw, refuse to engage, avoid the other person altogether, or exhibit passive aggressive behaviors (such as not doing one’s share of household chores). They may become increasingly irritable, impatient, anxious and depressed. Repressed anger can eventually erupt in sudden explosive outbursts, typical of the Anger Out style.

Guidance for imploders: Claim the right to have and express your anger in a healthy way.

Anger is a natural emotion, and holding it in results in resentment. Verbalizing the feelings and unmet needs underlying your anger is much more helpful and effective.

The Impact of Mishandled Anger

Along with detrimental effects on relationships, the stress caused by mishandled anger can lead to serious conditions including cardiovascular problems, a weakened immune system, high blood pressure, headaches, sleep problems, stomach upset and eating disorders. Mental health often suffers, and many people end up experiencing isolation and loneliness.

The Alternative: Mindful Anger

Instead of exploding or imploding, Mindful Anger enables us to communicate by sharing our feelings and needs. It involves understanding ourselves better, and then sharing this understanding calmly with our partner. This kinder approach is very likely to be received well.

Putting Mindful Anger Into Action

1) Listen to your body: Notice any physical sensations that happen when anger is brewing, such as your jaw clenching, shoulders tightening up, or your face getting hot.

2) Calm yourself: Take a break from interacting so that you are not consumed by anger. Engaging in some deep breathing, going for a walk, listening to music, or doing something calming, does not mean denying your anger. The prefrontal cortex, the part of our brain that helps us think rationally, is “offline” when we experience intense anger. Your physiology needs to regain some equilibrium so that you can return with more clarity about what it is that you are angry about.

3) Ask ourself: what are my unmet needs?: Having important needs met (such as safety, connection, closeness, respect) is necessary for well-being. When angry with a significant person in your life, it is crucial to identify and communicate the underlying feelings and unmet needs you are experiencing that are causing your anger.

Examples of Feelings and Unmet Needs Underlying Anger

Here are a few scenarios involving Partner A acting in ways that result in Partner B feeling angry. In italics, you will see Partner B’s unmet needs, along with the vulnerable feelings underlying the anger. Both are important to express.

Partner A declares that they are right and the other is wrong. Partner B is angry, with underlying hurt because of the need for equality and respect.

Partner A is resistant to the other wanting to spend time with friends and family. Partner B is angry, with underlying frustration because of the need for autonomy and choice.

Partner A is yelling at Partner B and calling names. Partner B is angry, with underlying hurt and fear, because of the need for emotional safety, trust and kindness.

Here is a Mindful Anger Formula to help you communicate your underlying feelings and needs when angry. It also includes the opportunity for a request that you can make. Remember to use it when you’re calm.

1) When I (see/hear) …

2) I feel/felt …

3) Because I need/value …

4) Would you be willing to … ?

Resources

For helpful Feelings and Needs Lists, visit: https://www.cnvc.org/training/resource/feelings-inventory and https://www.cnvc.org/training/resource/needs-inventory.

I am cheering you on to try something new and different the next time you are feeling angry. When you practice Mindful Anger, you become part of making the world a kinder, more loving place – one relationship at a time.

Amy Newshore is a couples therapist/coach who earned her Masters in Clinical Mental Health Counseling at Antioch New England University and went on to train in the Developmental Model for Couples Therapy along with NonViolent Communication which serve as the foundation of her work as a Relationship Coach. For more information visit her website at www.coachingbyamy.com.

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