Dealing With Anger: Water or Gasoline?

The issue of anger comes up frequently in my practice.  Whether it is a low grade irritability, prolonged resentment or full blown rage, it shows up in many relationships.  In dealing with anger it may be helpful to make a distinction between two different kinds of anger, good and bad.

Good anger is sometimes called “righteous indignation.”  Essentially, it is anger that is directed at an injustice.  It is a constructive anger because it seeks the good of another.  It can be used to improve the lives of people.  Suppose you saw a starving child and the sight angered you.  You know in your heart that children should be cared for and nurtured, not starved.  Your anger would be directed at the injustice.  Hopefully, you would be motivated to assist starving children in some way.  Mothers Against Drunk Driving is another example of good anger being used as a positive force.

Bad anger is basically a temper tantrum.  The self is usually the focus of bad anger.  This type of anger is not constructive.  It tends to promote the destruction of relationships, people and property.  People of all ages have temper tantrums of varying degrees.

Anger is often thought of as an emotion that “just happens.”  What is often overlooked is that anger is largely a choice we make.  It is really a secondary reaction to a primary emotion such as frustration, embarrassment, guilt, disappointment, etc.  When people do not deal with the primary emotion effectively, anger is the next recourse.

The primary emotions of anger can be placed into two main categories: feelings of being emotionally hurt and feelings of being put in danger.  The “fight or flight” reflex kicks in and people respond either by wanting to distance themselves (flight) or by wanting to lash out physically or verbally (fight).  However, once the anger begins to show up, we then have to make a choice.  This is when we decide either to pour water or gasoline on the flames.  Many folks don’t realize they have a choice at this point.  They just let the feeling take them for a ride rather than managing the feeling.  They claim they were “made angry” rather than admitting they chose their own reactions.

Road rage is an example of unmanaged emotions.  Being cut off by another driver may trigger feelings of being emotionally hurt (“How rude!  Can’t he see I’m in this lane?”).  It may frighten you and trigger fears that you are in danger (“I could have wrecked the car!”).  In any case, those primary feelings may lead to the next step of anger.  Then you make a choice: take a few deep breaths and let it roll off your back (water), or tailgate the other driver to get back at him (gasoline).

In relationships the same principle applies.  We need to take ownership of our own emotions and manage them.  Otherwise, we end up blaming others for our bad behavior while relinquishing our own power of self-control.

Watch this video and notice which person has control of his own anger and which person lets his anger take him for a ride.

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