RECENTLY, I WAS sitting in a coffee shop with a friend listening to him complain about a trip I had organised and blaming me for how poor it was. As he held me accountable for the bad weather and other very minor misfortunes, I could quickly feel tension rise inside of me.
As this tension turned to anger my cognitive processes kicked off; thoughts such as ‘the nerve of him’, ‘ungrateful @#%#’ started swirling around in my head.
My impulsive response would have been to shout back and to tell him to get lost. I was about to speak up when I noticed something, the level of anger I felt in relation to what was happening was dis-proportionate. It was okay to feel some anger at my friend’s words but not to the level I actually felt.
The truth was the anger was already in me, my friends words were just the trigger. The source was past memories of when I was young and was treated unfairly by a person senior to me.
As a child, I was not in a position to stand up to that person. I have memories of shouting back but the person was too strong and shouted me down. Unable to express my feelings in a healthy way, I repressed the emotions and bottled them up until the next trigger emerged.
I have since heard countless numbers of similar stories, where anger is pushed down out of fear of reactive anger (or even judgement).
This is the cycle of anger, the emotional inheritance handed down generation to generation.
Those trapped in the loop can feel like prisoners. If they express the anger to the original source, they fear getting deeply hurt again. If they hold in, it will cause extreme tension both mental and physical which might lead to anxiety, depression, self-doubt, low self-esteem (honestly expressing one’s feelings is regarded as one of the pillars of self-worth) and/or neurosis.
As a therapist I work with both teenagers and adults to help them:
(1) Work through their emotional distress;
(2) Amend their behaviours when anger flares to avoid damaging any relationships; and most importantly;
(3) Explore with them the power of this emotion and how it can be harnessed to create and not just destroy.
Emotional Maturity or Emotional Intelligence (EQ) as used by Psychologist Daniel Goleman is the process of understanding our emotive state at any time and over-riding our impulsive responses.
This is easy when the feelings are moderate; such as frustration, annoyance or disappointment. However an over-whelming feeling of anger or rage takes a huge amount of will power to self-discipline and regulate.
What should we do when we feel that anger rise?
Step 1: Withdraw
Pull away to avoid doing or saying something you might regret. Anger can push the most rational person over the edge.
Step 2: Accept
Every feeling passes if it didn’t we would all be emotional tornadoes. Fighting the emotion mentally will drain you. Try accepting it and see if it passes quicker.
Step 3: Assess
Record the triggers. Triggers can be specific words, facial expressions, situations or environments.
Watch your thought processes and be aware of what you were thinking while you felt the anger.
Did you use words like ‘unfair’, ‘why me’, ‘I hate them’ i.e. outward projection. Or did you judge and blame yourself for the situation and for feeling the way you did, i.e. inward projection.
That which isn’t expressed becomes suppressed
We all have a basic need to be heard and to be understood. Starting with our parents, it’s their job to validate our feelings and ensure we know it’s safe to express ourselves.
However, if the parent(s) have their own anger issues then they could never handle yours and you’re left with the consequences.
Here are some basic anger management techniques:
Step 1: Journal
I often encourage my clients to write a letter to the person who first took their anger out on them even if the person is deceased.
The simple act of putting pen to paper can help make sense of the situation and often change their perspective or facilitate them in seeing the bigger picture.
NOTE: I do NOT encourage my clients to actually send the letter unless the source of the anger (i.e. a wounded person) has resolved some of their own emotional baggage otherwise they could react badly and cause more damage. The letter does come in handy for step 4.
Step 2: Develop will power
Brain development plays a huge part in how we react to life situations. The pre frontal cortex which is the part of your brain right behind your forehead drives rational thinking. Referred to as the ‘cooling system’, it “plays an essential role in forming sensible judgments and decisions, in making long-term planning, in regulating emotions and resisting temptations and urges” 1. By depriving yourself of comfort via disciplined living, we are conditioning our minds to say NO and strengthening our impulse control.
Step 3: Visualise
Understanding the minds potential for healing deep emotional trauma has yet to be fully realised. The ability to create unconscious change through conscious imagery is an important part of the therapeutic process and when fully applied, it can help move past inner wounds and map out a new life with new relationships and goals.Soon I will post an article on creative visualisation but for now I want to share with you two techniques I use to help my clients change their inner state.
Facing the source:
I like to imagine the person who originally shouted at me but they look different from before. They look a little younger. Their hair is thicker. Their skin is clear. Their eyes are white with no bloodshot. Their teeth are clean and they are smiling at me.
I visualise them standing tall but relaxed, physically strong but not huge. They are wearing casual clothes which fit them perfect.They are happy, calm and relaxed in their skin. Their self-esteem is bullet proof. Nothing you say will change their current state.In this place, engage with them. Imagine what this person in front of you would say.
Would they say “they didn’t mean to shout at you”, “I’m sorry I was so hard on you”, “you have every right to express how you feel”.
You might find yourself getting upset as this person has had such a hugely negative impact on your life or your mind might just tell you this is not real and a waste of time but I encourage you persist. The imagery will eventually become a memory, a healthy experience and a new connection with the source. From this, you might make a decision to let go of the negative memories completely realising there is no need to hold onto them anymore.
Cooling the flame:
Another exercise I use is visualising the anger as ball of fire right in front of you. By viewing the anger outside of your body, you can separate it from who you are and decide what to do with it.
You can simply let it be and observe it. Learn to be comfortable with it, make it your friend not your enemy. The less you fight it, the less of a grip it has over you.
Or, you just drop the ball into the psychological sea. It can be a beach or a lake you have visited (I like to think of the lake at Glendalough). Drop the fiery ball into the cold water and watch it steam then cool off completely.
Step 4: Ritualise
As a society we rely heavily on rituals in the process of letting go. The traditional funeral is an example of this. Such rituals can also be used to let go of the negative affects of a bad relationship.
One such act is to burn the original letter I suggested writing in step 1. This should be done in a safe and private area, the flames and smoke can symbolise the anger at first roaring but then dissolving into a cloud, never to return.
Another option is wrap the letter around a heavy stone and throwing it in the river, choosing to drown the negative experience forever.
Can you imagine a life where anger is not a part of it? How light you might feel and laid back you might be. A place where your emotional existence is not determined by the behavior of others. A place where you express yourself on a level which cannot be ignored.
Anger is power, your power. Use it. To paint, to write, to act. Use it drive yourself towards a better life, a healthier and better version of you.
Karl Melvin is a Psychotherapist based in Aspen Counselling in Lucan, Dublin. He works with adults of all ages suffering with issues such as depression, anxiety, grief and bereavement and specialises in helping people break free of dysfunctional relationships . He regulary publishes mental health articles on the website Toxic Escape.