The Destructive Nature of Anger: anger & pain and circular transmission
Anger. You see it everywhere and especially now during Covid fatigue. People in grocery stores are losing patience with one another. The maskers are angry at the anti maskers. People are becoming increasingly frustrated with arrows on the floors and especially angry at those who don’t follow the arrows. Tempers are flaring and people are tired, frustrated and ANGRY.
I’ve had a number of clients coming to me of late asking for help with their anger. They know they are losing their personal battle with their inner anger gremlin. They find themselves at their wits end as they are noticing they are losing friends, hurting their intimate relationships and bumping, more like smashing, into co-workers completely unaware on how to deal with this powerful emotion. Conversely I have clients in my office suffering at the receiving end of someone else’s anger. Whether it be within the context of toxic family of origin members, toxic workplace environments or at the hands of toxic bosses whose idea of leadership is in fact dictatorship. I will be writing more on leadership for the benefit of all at a later date.
Whether you want to control your own anger or figure out how to get off of the floor due to someone else’s destructive anger this article is designed to help you sort through your emotions and give you the tools you need to move forward. You are not helpless, but this emotion is not easy to navigate alone.
People get angry for so many reasons. Anger was designed to do good. Anger is an emotion intended to produce action and it was given to us so that we could be energized to move in the direction of correcting a wrong in this world. Don’t believe me? Think back to the last time you were angry. Did you perceive some kind of injustice? Whether the perceived injustice was towards yourself, towards your loved ones, or for some important cause that required your help? Anger mobilizes us. You become ready to fight, to swing, to run, to do something about the injustice when you are angry. I’ve heard it said that those who have been severely abused and suffer from learned helplessness or a loss of personal agency, do good to get in touch with their deep anger as this often is the momentum they require to propel them off the floor. What one may do with anger is what will determine whether the action will move circumstances towards a positive outcome or towards a more destructive one.
To understand that anger is a strength-building human emotion when used properly, and conversely a destructive force with far reaching implications when used improperly is the first step in taming this powerful emotion. To channel your anger into what you want instead of blindly finding yourself in the middle of what you don’t want is in fact deep work in self awareness.
The people who end up in my office wanting to work on their own anger management are greeted with unconditional positive regard and know they have a safe place to explore this malady that has been messing up their aspirations in life. However, those who want to deal with their own anger in a healthy and constructive way are a very small fraction of the population as most people who go to anger management do so only when their lives are falling apart or when they have been ordered to do so by the court. Those who volunteer themselves over to self examination concerning their own anger, and include a sense of personal compassion, are those able to make the shift from being controlled by their anger towards the kind of person they want to be. These are the “anger over-comers” who work diligently at developing a strong sense of self control & self respect and these are the people who are more likely to chart a mature path forward. The word “maturity” isn’t meant to sound derogatory here. I will use this word in the clinical sense, that is, to manage oneself, create space to discern the problem at hand, and to choose to act in ways befitting a man or woman who maintains personal dignity. Developing and maintaining dignity is important as well as giving dignity to others, regardless of the choices others’ may make. This creates self determination within your life story. In other words your dignity is not based on the behaviour of other people.
We have all been the recipient of someone else’s anger. We have all been on the receiving line of injustice imposed on us by another’s desire for personal gain, revenge, one up woman/man-ship and at the extreme side of the pendulum “sadism.”
Here are some examples of various abuses and misuses of anger experienced by the recipient (s), although this list is not exhaustive. “Overt” faces of anger include: Yelling, making cutting remarks, sarcasm, obvious exclusion at work or family systems, cutting you off from children and/or grandchildren, slander, property theft, property disposal, property destruction, manipulation, deception, being framed/blamed for things one has not done, swearing at a person, physical hitting, slapping, kicking and any other form of physical &/or sexual abuse.
Other examples of more “covert” or passive aggressive forms of anger include: Showing up late, calling last minute to cancel, taking credit for your successes and ideas, planting seeds of distrust & suspicion about you to people you work with or to those in your personal life, assassinate your character to those you love, excluding you from family functions while inviting members closest to you, the silent treatment, interrupting while you are speaking, jumping to conclusions about anything you have said or done without talking to you about it first, forming opinions (aka making assumptions) about you without first inquiring about your point of view, using your things without returning them, mocking you publicly, & gossiping about you behind your back. Gossip deserves its own article so I will write more to that at a later date. There are many more examples of what people do to people when they are angry and feel justified to engage in these mean, nasty and sadistical behaviours as noted above. Research indicates that these passive-aggressive forms of anger are significantly more used when the perpetrator believes they can get away with these behaviours and not get caught out. In other words passive-aggressive behaviours (as described in the covert expression of anger) are used by those who want to express their anger without taking responsibility for their role.
Nothing puts a person in touch with having a sense of helplessness more than the infamous smear campaign designed to hurt & destroy one’s sense of value and worth. The devaluing of another person is a common trait among narcissists and is meant to cause pain (saddism). When your pain makes someone else smile you know you have a narcissist or worse in your midst. So having observed anger misused in the workplace, family of origin systems, social pecking orders, and life in general there are some things that you truly can do to manage your own anger and manage your response to someone else’s anger aimed towards you. You can regain a sense of control, of personal value, and of personal agency, that is, sensing you have some influence over your own life & situation without succumbing to the lie that you must act or retaliate.
For starters, let’s get real.
We all have an inner anger gremlin. This is a fact. You cannot sit and point fingers at someone else’s inner anger gremlin as four fingers are pointing directly back at you and yours may even have more hair than theirs. So let’s talk about anger, how we learned to cope with it, how we can unlearn those destructive ways, and how to make a shift in the only person we have control over, that is, ourselves.
Recall an incident where you experienced any of the above experiences at the hands of someone else’s anger. If so, pause and think about how it made you feel. These words are often noted: hurt, rejected, offended, insulted, saddened, out of control, condemned and…ANGRY. Yes there it is. Anger is also in the mix when you’ve been hurt by someone by their lack of ability to manage their own anger.
Angry people do not communicate very well. Feelings of hurt often turn to feelings of anger and out of control anger turns to rage. Rage on the loose impacts your brain. Rage will distort your reality and your mind will look to find evidence to back up the intense feelings that you are experiencing. Your perception becomes altered and your body kicks into flight or fight mode.
You were designed for your sympathetic nervous system to kick in whenever there is a threat, real or percieved. Your sympathetic nervous system directs the body’s rapid involuntary response to dangerous or stressful situations, and when this response is activated you get a rush of hormones that boosts your level of alertness accelerating your heart rate ensuring the you have extra blood going towards your muscles. Your body does not know that the perceived threat is not physical and that a wild animal is not chasing you. Your body has no idea, but your mouth goes dry, your armpits sweat and your fists become clenched along with your jaw.
The most important part of dealing with your own anger and/or your response to someone else’s anger is to become aware of your body. Yes, your body. Your thoughts are busy racing so right now you need to get your body back to calm. Good decisions are never made when your body is in flight or fight mode. So how can you get your body back to calm?
You need some private (the only you know) kind of tools in your tool box that can help you get your body’s sympathetic nervous system under control. You can create your own list, but here are some strategies:
- Excuse yourself with the intention to come back
- Find a rock
Hands: Take notice of your hands. Are they clenched. If they are clenched then open them up so that your palms are open. Make the mental connection to this personal gesture as a reminder to yourself that you do not have to fix people or situations. You do not have to insist that anyone or anything come through for you in order for you to be okay. A child makes these demands of life and people. This is why we call it a tantrum. As painful as the circumstances you find yourself, and the injustice that you are experiencing are facts and the stories you tell yourself. Stop telling yourself stories about what is happening. Know that your wellbeing, survival and future is not based on whatever is going on. Open palms. Insist on nothing.
Feet: Notice your feet. Particularly notice the soles of your feet. Note what year it is. Where are you standing. What are you wearing? You are grounding yourself in the here and now. You are not back to the event where you felt traumatized by someone in your childhood or the out of control boss at work from years back. You are in the current moment and the former events are NOT happening. You are feeling triggered. These are merely old emotions that you can feel, experience and let go. You are in the here and now. Nothing is as bad as you once felt.
Excuse yourself with the intention of coming back to the table: If you find yourself feeling way too intense that you know you are probably going to react instead of respond to the situation then you may have to excuse yourself. Tell those you are with at that moment that you need a few minutes, and inform them that you will be back to discuss the issue as soon. Give them a timeframe or reschedule. Once you are away from the conversation practice using your hands and feet as a reminder of giving up control over people and events as well as grounding yourself in the present.
Find a rock: and write a word on it that reminds you of who you want to be in every circumstance. Perhaps you write the word “peaceful”, “loving”, or “dignity” for example. Choose a word that defines for you who you choose to be in this world write it on the rock and put it in your pocket. Keep it with you always or at least until you have internalized your ability to stay grounded.
Something that has become increasingly obvious to me as I coach people who are dealing with their own anger or don’t know how to respond to the anger of others is that, without a doubt, people are touchy. More often than not people over react to others and circumstances. Often people think the worst. So if people are over reacting, thinking the worst of a person or situation, and they are easily angered they are in fact not managing their own nervous systems. In general people say things that never should be said and they also snap at one another in ways they would never want done to them.
For the most part I have witnessed people treating others in ways they would NEVER want others to treat them. They have a tendency to re-write their level of innocence and typically cast themselves as the victim and the other person as the villain. Yes, some people are control freaks and they run roughshod over others to get what they want. Some people need to have reminders that there are boundaries around you that they are not allowed to invade without consequence. I will discuss more on boundaries in a later article. What I want to emphasize is that MOST people have significant difficulties managing their own anger than most realize.
Unmanaged anger blows thoughts out of proportion, creates miscommunication, emphasizes the weakness in others and discounts any strengths. Unmanaged anger creates a “victim” storyline in your life and casts others in the role of villain. Thought distortions, self inflicted drama, cutting people out of your life who deserve better, are often the result of unmanaged anger. Anger management problems are the unwelcome gifts you have received from your family or origin. These gifts will keep on giving if you don’t figure out how to manage your own anger for if you don’t understand that healing truly does begin with you then neither will your children and the cycle will just keep repeating itself.
There are some things to never fight over. Don’t fight over money, because you can’t take it with you. Don’t fight over material possessions as you can’t take them with you either. Don’t fight for others to be or act in a certain way as you cannot nor should you try to control anyone. If someone exhibits anger problems that inflict pain on you just know they should not be in your inner circle. Remember the number one trait of a narcissist is they lack empathy and for anyone to be in your life they must show empathy towards you. If someone doesn’t care how they make you feel, what you think, nor consider you going forward they do not belong in your inner circle. Treat others the way you want to be treated. Manage your own anger and remove yourself from the toxic self entitled anger of others. Doing so will create the peaceful experience that you hold dear and you will be a role model for generations to come.
Until next time,