Anger, the Misunderstood Emotion
Judith E. Rader, MA, LMFT
February 3rd, 2016
Anger is commonly deemed a bad or negative emotion -- associated with images of aggression, out-of-control behavior, and conflict. But if viewed separate from all the different ways it can be negatively expressed and instead, purely considered as the feeling itself, anger is simply one of many emotions that provides us information about our current life experience. Just as happiness lets us now that we like what is happening, and shame lets us know that we need to correct some behavior and/or apologize for some misstep or misbehavior, anger lets us know that something we are experiencing feels distressing or upsetting, and needs to be addressed.
What becomes problematic is not the experiencing of anger per se, but rather how so many of us reactively express our anger. Reactivity emanates from the part of our brain called the amygdala that is responsible for our fight/flight/freeze response to danger. This very important brain center enables us to instantaneously react to protect ourselves when faced with severe threats to our well-being by either lashing out aggressively, fleeing, or freezing (playing dead). While we benefit from this instantaneous fight/flight/freeze response to actual life and death danger, the amygdala can also ready us for a reactive flight/flight response when we are confronted with situations that simply anger or upset us; and herein lies the problem. For none of these reactive responses to situations that simply anger us are productive in resolving the upsetting situation.
First let’s look at the fight responses. There are many presentations of the reactive fight response to an angering situation; but all of them involve some level of aggressive behavior. They include: volume (raising one’s voice, shouting), aggressive tone (scornful or sarcastic tone), hostile language (curse words or demeaning words such as ‘stupid’ and ‘idiotic’), or damaging body language (including aggressive posturing, hitting, glaring, and rolling eyes). All of these reactive fight responses to situations that anger us are counterproductive to resolving the situation, and in fact, simply escalate it.
The reactive flight response presents as a shutting down on the conversation or interaction. It’s epitomized by the word, “whatever” as in, “Whatever…I’ll just deal with the status quo, but will not engage over this issue anymore.” This unilateral disengagement from the interaction similarly is counterproductive to resolving conflict (although lacking good communication skills, it may be the best choice to keep an aggressive other from further escalating).
All human beings are on a continuum for reactivity. Some are hair-trigger reactive, while others can take a lot of upset without lashing out. Some shut down at the least hint of upset (and are often described as conflict avoidant); while others may be able to stay in the conversation a bit longer, attempting to resolve the issue -- but eventually give up and shut down. Our differing levels of reactivity linked to some combination of 1) our temperaments, 2) our family of origin conditioning (for example, some of us grew up in families where expressing anger outright was punished so we grew up conflict avoidant, while others grew up in homes with much yelling, where verbal escalation was deemed ‘normal’), and 3) our gender socialization. Women are judged significantly more harshly than men for reactive aggressive expressions of anger, the result being that men in our culture are significantly more likely to externalize their anger (in aggressive or violent behavior) while females are much more likely to internalize or stuff their anger. Indeed situational (vs. chemical) depression (which often involves stuffing one’s anger) is much significantly more prevalent among females than males.
The question becomes, how do we avoid escalating and/or shutting down on our anger? How do we circumvent the right-brain reactive response to fight or flee when we become angry? The answers lie in our taking several steps to override our reactive amygdala response, and instead appeal to our prefrontal cortex (which is our left ‘smart’ brain) to verbally express our anger.
The move from our reactive brain center to our prefrontal cortex is not an easy matter. Our amygdala’s fight/flight response is first and foremost a physiological response – including an almost instantaneous tightening in the body, often with an increase in heart-rate, blood pressure, and a tensing of some muscles. The one technique that can interrupt and arrest the reactive fight/flight part of our brain from taking over is for us to take deep breaths at the first sign of our physiological tensing and tightening. Deep breaths are a loosening, relaxing, opening bodily experience that counteract the tightening, ‘readying for attack’ response of fight/flight.
Once we feel our physiology relaxing a bit, we then visualize ourselves moving over to our left-brain prefrontal cortex, which is our intelligent brain. As we picture ourselves grabbing on to this part of the brain, we ask ourselves the question, “What do I need to do to productively deal with my anger,” The answer is always to: 1) briefly validate your partner’s upset. This validation usually serves to disarm anger a bit; and 2) ask for the positive communication repair needed in order for you to stay in your non-reactive prefrontal cortex, and not revert back to the amygdala’s fight/flight reactive response. That communication repair would be a request for either a lower voice, a less scornful or critical tone, and/or conversation without aggressive language or body language.
Here are a few examples:
Son to mother: “I hate your rules. Everyone else gets to stay out later on Friday night. You’re so lame.” (communicated with volume, tone, and aggressive language).
Mother’s unproductive, reactive response: “I can’t believe you’re talking to me like that. I would never talk to my mother like that. Why do you always have to complain about every rule I have?” (expressed with volume, and incredulous, defensive tone).
Corrective response from mother to son: “It sounds like you feel I’m out in left field with my curfew, and that other parents are more generous with their curfews (validation). “If you can bring your volume down, and talk more neutrally with me, I’ll absolutely listen to what you’re thinking, and maybe I will extend the curfew a bit.”
Wife to husband: “You’re always watching sports on TV. Don’t you ever think to ask me what I might want to do at night? You’re just so selfish.” (expressed with tone and some volume).
Husband’s unproductive, reactive response, “What’s wrong with you today? (incredulous tone). You’re in such a foul mood. Yes, I’m watching TV….it’s Monday night football. You know I look forward to this every week.”
Corrective response from husband to wife, “It sounds like you’re feeling left out with the amount of TV I watch at night.” (validation). “Honey, if you could share with me more directly and without tone what you’re feeling, I’ll listen, and try to understand what you’re feeling.”
Daughter to mother: “My teacher is so stupid. I can’t believe how hard I worked on this homework, and she still gave me such a low grade.”
Unproductive, reactive response by mother; “I hate it when you call people stupid. You do that a lot.” (expressed with critical tone).
Mother’s productive, non-reactive response: “It sounds like you’re really disappointed with the grade you got, given the amount of time you devoted to this assignment. But rather than calling your teacher ‘stupid,’ why don’t you tell me a little more about your upset with her grading, and I’ll try to help you figure out a way to address that with her.”
If someone is unable to fulfill the reasonable request for less aggressive communication, then we must simply require a time-out or break. Example: “If you’re unwilling to speak to me in a lower, less aggressive way, then I’ll need to take a break from this discussion. I’m willing to come back to it later tonight if you are.” Or, “I’m noticing you’re rolling your eyes at me. If instead, you can put your feelings into words, I’ll try to work through this upset with you. But if not, I’ll need to take a time-out. I can check back with you later today to see if you want to pick up our discussion where we left off.” Setting relationship boundaries in the form of a time -out or break when communication is deteriorating is very important to good communication skills. For if we simply stay in communication with someone who is yelling at us or otherwise aggressively communicating with us, the meta-message to them is that it is perfectly fine to treat us aggressively. And that enabling meta-message actually serves to embolden the other party to continue their aggressive stance towards us.
The above are just a few examples of how to move from right-brain reactivity to left-brain responding and productive communication. It’s important to note that knowing these steps is an important first move; but that will not help our reactivity change overnight. Because reactivity happens so quickly and has been reinforced from years of repetition, learning to reliably deep breathe in order to interrupt and quiet our physiological tensing and then employ the proper communication skills is a process that takes time and much practice. So be patient with yourself as you try to work these skills. But if you find yourself frustrated by an inability to interrupt your reactivity, several therapy session can prove beneficial