Why not just strive to never be angry again? Such a
goal is unrealistic and unproductive. Anger is a normal
part of human existence, although hopefully an
infrequent one. All anger is legitimate. It does not
serve us to feel guilty about being angry. Guilt tends
to lead to shame, and shame undermines self-esteem.
Understanding and Dealing With Our Anger
WHY BE ANGRY?
are better served by focusing on understanding
our anger, and finding effective ways of working through
it. To reach this understanding, we need to determine
both the object and the cause (source) of our anger.
Differentiating between the object and the source is
critical. Individuals often get confused between and/or
combine the object and the source in their minds, paying
a price in their emotions and in their relationships as
a result. If we can find the source of our anger, we
can often heal old wounds.
Anger is often tied to a situation where we believe
another person or group is “wrong” in something they did
or said. [In the absence of any apparent involvement of
others, it will likely be tied to an event we believe
“shouldn’t” have happened.] Whomever we accuse of being
“wrong” [or the event that “shouldn’t” have happened]
can be defined as the OBJECT of our
anger. The object of our anger is most often
outside ourselves; it is someone or something
“out there”. To work through our anger, it is helpful
to get clear and specific about the object of it.
Knowing the object of our anger can be very helpful in
identifying the source of our anger.
Again, it is important to not combine or confuse the
two. The source of our anger is always within us;
accepting this is a critical step
in moving through and past our anger. The source is
that part of us that we want to avoid seeing and
owning. It is often difficult to identify, as our first
reaction is typically to want to blame the object
for our feelings. However, we generate our anger
through our reaction to the object. This
outer reaction masks the inner reasons for
our feelings and behavior. Most often, these are based
in fear and/or sadness. When having
difficulty in moving from the object to the source, it
may be helpful to ask the questions:
might I be scared about here? and/or
sadness might I have about this situation?
we allow ourselves to attribute any portion of the
source of our anger to another person or something
outside ourselves, we are doomed to carrying that
portion with us for the rest of our lives.
EXAMPLES OF OBJECT
A friend cannot pay his rent on time and asks us to
loan him the money for two weeks. Against our
better judgment, we agree to their request. The
friend does not pay us back on time, and we get
angry. In this situation, the friend is the
legitimate object of our anger. If we explore our
fear of the consequences of not getting our money
back, and/or our sadness in choosing to agree to
their request, we may well find that the source is
one of the following:
pattern of not paying enough attention to our instincts.
willingness to accept responsibility for solving
problems created by others.
tendency to discount the patterns in others’ behaviors,
expecting that “this time things will be different.”
“Soft boundaries” i.e., allowing ourselves to be
persuaded to do things that are not in our own best
Upon returning from a shopping trip, we discover a
large dent in the passenger door of our new car. We
are immediately enraged. In this situation, an
unknown driver is the legitimate object of our
anger. If we explore our fear of the cost and time
involved in getting the door repaired, and/or our
sadness in seeing the condition of our new car, we
may well find that the source is one of the
need to “be perfect” (chastising ourselves, for not
seeing the damage before we left the shopping center,
and/or for picking the parking spot we did.)
fear of being criticized by our spouse or partner.
ego’s need to “look good.”
fear of embarrassment (others thinking that we are not
taking care of our new car.)
“While wine, cheese and art may age well, anger does
not.” Anger that has not been worked through (“residual
anger”) over time transforms into resentment.
Resentment is unhealthy, both physically and
emotionally, residing in our bodies and minds, much as
excess calories are stored in our bodies as fat. Like
fat, this resentment is unnecessary excess weight we
carry around, poisoning our bodies. Residual anger also
precludes intimacy with the person who is the object of
CUTS AND UNWISE INVOLVEMENT
Anger is like a cut; it hurts. Properly treated, in
time, a cut heals over and the pain goes away. Ignored
or improperly treated, the cut becomes infected and pain
increases. The area around the cut becomes very
sensitive and easily irritated. Unchecked, the
infection can spread to other parts of the body, making
life miserable. In extreme cases of neglect, the
infection can cause death. Residual anger impacts us
much the same as an untreated cut, with potentially
equally devastating results.
cut is caused by unwise involvement
with a sharp or pointed object. We must come in
contact with the edge or point to get hurt. The
object does not cause the cut --- our unwise
involvement causes it. A knife or thorn
does not cause pain. Our unwise
involvement with the knife or thorn causes it.
It is our misuse of the knife that causes
the cut. The knife does not cause the cut; the knife is
just being a knife. A thorn does not scratch or
puncture; our unwise involvement
with the thorn causes it. The thorn is just being a
it is with anger. Another person cannot cause us to be
angry; however, our unwise
involvement (or expectation of involvement)
with others is often the cause of our anger. Whatever
suspicions we may have of others, who may legitimately
be the object of our anger, it is
important that we do not accuse them of being the
source of our anger. We as individuals are
responsible for our (wise or unwise) involvement with
(or expectation of involvement with) the object of our
anger. The other person is responsible for their
behavior; we are responsible for the
results of our involvement with them.
“YOU MAKE ME SO ANGRY!”
From time to time,
most of us use (or at least contemplate using) this
phrase. Generally this happens when we are
overstressed; i.e., when the magnitude of the challenges
we are facing is greater than our coping abilities. If
you find yourself saying this or having similar
thoughts, it can be helpful to realize the following:
person we are saying this to is someone significant to
us; someone we care about. (This is not a phrase used
with people we hardly know.)
In attempting to blame another for how we feel, we are
actually giving our power away to this person. We are
telling them, “You have power over me; you are stronger
than I am.”
We are portraying ourselves as victims.
We are making an accusation (“You did this”), in
addition to communicating our anger.
Our striking out at the other person in
this way is usually an indicator that we are feeling
scared and/or vulnerable. It is a way of telling the
other person, “Back off!”
Instead of saying,
“You make me so angry,” try the following alternatives:
“I am very upset at what you did.”
This conveys our feelings without making the other
person responsible for them. It focuses on the other
person’s behavior (not the person
themselves), thus reducing the likelihood of a defensive
“I am really angry about what happened.”
This conveys our strong feelings about the result.
It completely removes any reference to the other person,
further reducing the likelihood of them getting
Yes, a bit off-color and not politically correct in all
situations. On the other hand, it is succinct and
unambiguous. It speaks only to our feelings;
therefore, there is no portion about which the other can
contend, ”That’s not true.”
GETTING OTHERS TO LISTEN TO OUR ANGER
If we feel motivated
or compelled to tell another about our anger, we will
better serve ourselves if we first get clear about our
reason(s) for expressing to this person. Our reasons
Needing a sounding board to sort out our feelings.
Wanting advice on what to do.
Telling them they are the object of our anger.
them to make up for something they did.
them to do something differently in the future.
Any or all of the
above are legitimate and productive reasons for talking
with others about our anger. However, if our motivation
is to a) cause another to feel pain and/or guilt, and/or
b) to attempt to demonstrate that we have been
“wronged,” this will not lead to an
effective resolution of our anger.
Once we are clear on
our (legitimate) motivation(s), it is wise to ask
permission/seek agreement for what we want from the
conversation. Examples might include:
really upset about something that happened at work today
and I would like some help in sorting it out. Do you
have some time we could talk?”
upset about something that happened between us*
and I would like to discuss it with you. Would this be
a good or bad time for us to talk about it?” [*Note:
“Something that happened between us” is much less likely
to put the other person on the defensive than “something
After discussing the
matter, take a moment to evaluate how things went. For
example, ask the other person:
did this work for you?”
this a good way for me to bring things up when I am
can we do differently in the future to have this kind of
conversation go smoothly?”
Before departing, or
moving on to another topic, be sure to acknowledge the
other person for their participation in the discussion.
Expressing anger in a timely manner and without
judgment is often an important component of
maintaining a healthy emotional state. By expressing
our anger in a productive (as opposed to defensive or
punitive) way, at appropriate times, we can flush it
from our system and get on with enjoying life. For some
people, expressing their anger is always a necessary
part of flushing it from their system; they are unable
to move past their anger without venting to the object
or another person. For others, expressing it may not
always be necessary.
Expressing without judgment means not blaming the
object, or making that person wrong. Blaming someone
else (making them responsible) for our anger means
giving up our power to that person. In addition to
letting them determine when we get angry, we may also
make ourselves dependent on their apology in order to
move through our anger.
easiest way to avoid judgment when expressing is to
avoid any second or third person reference (you, they,
it, etc.), or naming another person. For example:
Expressing with judgment
Expressing without judgment
I am really upset that you are late in repaying
the money you owe me.
I am really upset that I do not have my money.
I’m angry with Jane for being so
careless with my luggage.
I’m angry that my suitcase got ripped.
You were so inconsiderate last night. With all
the noise you made, I didn’t get to sleep until
after 3:00 am.
With all the noise there was last night, I
didn’t get to sleep until after 3:00 am. I’m
tired and I’m upset.
That salesman was very condescending toward me;
I’m going to another store to purchase this
I did not like the way I was treated here; I’m
going to another store to purchase this item.
making statements like those in the second column, we
avoid giving our power away. We also avoid getting a
defensive reaction from the object, which in turn:
Decreases the likelihood that the conflict continues
(along with our anger), and
Increases the likelihood that the object will change
their behavior in the future.
EXPRESSIONS OF ANGER FROM OTHERS
The most productive
thing we can do when we are in the presence of someone
expressing their anger is to listen and encourage them
to vent. (**See NOTE below). We can do this by:
Thanking them for being so candid.
Listening for understanding (not for rebuttal).
it clear we are okay with them being upset; giving them
them positive reinforcement.
Before responding to
the person who is angry,
what they have said sink in; allow them plenty of space
to say more.
your understanding of their point of view,
without any comments or inflections about what you
them what they would like from you
(feedback, suggestions, advice, etc.)
After the other
person has finished venting, and confirmed that you have
a good understanding of how they think and feel about
Tell them how you feel about
what they said (e.g., sad, scared, disappointed,
Give them what they asked for from you
(e.g., feedback, suggestions, advice, etc.)
If you are the object of the other person’s anger,
What they would like you to do now.
What they preferred you would have done in the
[if appropriate], “Would it make any difference
if I were to tell you…”:
“I didn’t know what else to do” and/or
“I didn’t realize that…..” and/or
“I am so sorry to hear that…..”
responding to the anger of others, it is wise not to say
or infer, “Don’t be angry.” If you find yourself
getting defensive in this or other ways, acknowledge
this by saying something like: “I want to hear what you
have to say, and yet I can tell that I am getting
defensive,” without making the other person wrong.
WHY/WHEN DO WE
REACT IN ANGER?
We react in anger when and where we feel vulnerable.
The same event at two different times and/or involving
two different objects may result in us feeling angry in
one case and not in the other. For example:
We are driving in the left lane of a freeway
going 5 mph under the speed limit. Another driver
passes us on the right and pulls into the space between
our car and the car in front of ours, which is about
four car-lengths long.
If we have had an already stressful day, and are
late to an appointment, it is not unlikely that we will
get angry at the driver who pulled in front of us (the
object). Whether or not we get angry in this situation,
and the extent to which we get angry, will be a function
of how grounded we are feeling. If we are feeling very
secure within ourselves and in our life, we may have
only a brief flash of anger that quickly passes, with at
most a minor experience of our anger. On the other
hand, if we are feeling insecure about various aspects
of our life, we may get quite angry in response to this
event. The more insecure we feel, the more likely we
will feel compelled to express our anger. We might
utter an obscenity, honk our horn, and/or “flip off” the
other driver. In an extreme case of insecurity, we
might even pass the object driver on the right and try
to squeeze into the space directly in front of them.
On the other hand, if we are having a wonderful
day, have more than adequate time to get to our
destination, and are feeling very secure and grounded,
we might very well not react at all to this event, other
than to back off a few car lengths.
In (a) above, our
anger is a direct result of our feelings of
vulnerability. The source of our anger could easily be
one or more of the following:
Our fear of the consequences of further lateness to
Our ego’s need to be right.
Our regret (sadness) at not departing sooner for
We ask our spouse/partner to stop and pick up
three items at the grocery store on their way home,
which they agree to do. When our partner gets home, we
ask them about the groceries, and they respond, “Oh, I
If this incident follows many similar previous
ones, it is entirely possible that we will get upset.
The likelihood and degree of our anger will be greater
if our partner has made a commitment to discontinue this
pattern. If we needed the grocery items to complete a
dish we are in the middle of preparing for a dinner
party starting in a few minutes, the magnitude of our
anger and our compulsion to express it to the object
(our partner) will be even greater. If this situation
is further compounded by us having numerous other
serious relationship issues with our partner, we may
well “tip over” in response to this incident.
If this incident of forgetfulness is a rarity
with our partner, if our need for the grocery items is
not urgent or significant, and/or if we are aware that
our partner has had a particularly stressful day (and we
have not), we may very well not react at all to this
incident. If we are feeling particularly good about the
state of our relationship with our partner, the
likelihood of us getting angry is further reduced.
In situation (a) of this example, our angry response is
again a direct result and function of our feeling of
vulnerability. The source of our anger could easily be
one or more of the following.
Our fear of not having dinner ready when guests
Our ego’s need to “look good” to our friends, or
need to perfect.
Our inner critic chastising us for believing that
our partner’s pattern would change.
Our heart’s sadness at seeing an example of further
deterioration in our relationship with our partner.
After reading all of
the above, you may be saying, “OK, I understand and
agree with all of the above,” and then find yourself
asking, “So now what can I do with all this?” One
option is to adopt the following strategy:
Track your anger. Use the chart in
to keep track of the times when you get angry. Without
judging yourself, observe the patterns you see.
When you find yourself getting upset or angry,
ask yourself the following questions:
Who or what is the object of my
What am I feeling vulnerable about?
What fears does this incident bring up inside of
What sadness might I associate with this
If you feel compelled to express your anger,
first ask yourself the following questions:
What are my motivations for expressing it? Are
they legitimate, or am I wanting to cause pain, guilt,
What serves me best in expressing
my anger? Am I better served by expressing it to the
object or to someone else? By expressing it now, or by
What outcomes do I want from my expression?
Once you have several examples on your Anger
Tracking Chart, sit down with a trusted friend, and
review you findings. See what patterns emerge. Discuss
options for changes you can make in you life in order to
achieve more of the results you want.
Share this article and discuss it with the most
important people in your life. If you feel comfortable,
share your Anger Tracking Chart and/or any resulting
plans you have for yourself. Ask for their support in
implementing your plans and achieving your goals.
Let us know how this process works for you. Send
your comments to:
anger can be like a boomerang. We may think we have
tossed it away, only to have it come back and slice
right through us.
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