Anger is One Letter Short of Danger

A hiker overlooks the sunset. Text "Not all classrooms have four walls" appears on the graphic.

My Uncle Sammy was an angry man. He had printed on

his tombstone, “What are you looking at?”

- Margaret Smith

Once upon a time, there was a little boy who had a very bad temper. His father decided to hand him a bag of nails and said that every time the boy lost his temper, he had to hammer a nail into a fence.

On the first day, the boy hammered 17 nails into that fence. The boy gradually began to control his temper over the next few days, and the number of nails he was hammering into the fence decreased.

Finally, the day came when the boy didn’t lose his temper at all. He told his father the news and the father suggested that the boy should now pull out a nail every day he kept his temper under control. The days passed and the young boy was finally able to tell his father that all the nails were gone.

The father took his son by the hand and led him to the fence. “You have done well, my son, but look at the holes in the fence; the fence will never be the same. When you say things in anger, they leave a scar just like this one. It won’t matter how many times you say, you’re sorry, the wound is still there.” Never say mean words out of anger. You anger will pass; but your mean words can scar a person for life.

The theme throughout these lessons has been to be the best possible version of yourself. Over the years, I have found that anger is the one emotion that has proven to be so difficult for people to master. So, let’s travel together on a fact-finding mission about anger and learn some practical tools and strategies to help you succeed.

Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Do you find yourself reacting to situations in ways other people would find excessive?

  • Do family and friends seem like they are walking on eggshells, trying hard not to provoke you?

  • Do you get road rage walking behind people?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, these could be indicators that you have some degree of anger management problems.

A participant in one of my ‘Interpersonal Communication’ workshops once quipped, “I seriously need a speed bump between my brain and my mouth.”

Another added, “At this point, I think some people were put on this planet to test my anger management skills.”

Aristotle once said, “Anybody can become angry, that is easy. But to be angry with the right person and to the right degree and at the right time and for the right purpose, and in the right way, that is not within everybody’s power and it is not easy.”

Anger can be a problem when:

  • It happens a lot.

  • It happens too strongly.

  • It happens too long.

  • We harm ourselves, property, or others.

  • It affects our lives.

A saint was asked, “What is anger?” He gave a beautiful answer, “It’s a punishment that we give ourselves, for someone else’s behavior.”

My personal definition of anger is: an emotional reaction or response to an unmet expectation. Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend in their book, Boundaries, wrote, “When you react to something someone says or does, you may have a problem with boundaries. If someone is able to cause havoc by doing or saying something, they are in control of you at that point and your boundaries are lost. When you respond, you remain in control with options and choices; you can step away and regain control of yourself. The difference between responding and reacting is choice.” You have to get to the point where your mood doesn’t change based on the actions of someone else.

Anger is one of our most powerful yet misunderstood emotions. One of the major reasons anger has gained a negative reputation is that there is so much misinformation about what anger is, and we tend to hear more about unhealthy expressions of anger. Anger can be described as the Rodney Dangerfield of emotions; just like the legendary comedian, anger gets ‘no respect.’ But anger is a completely normal, healthy emotion, and feeling angry is neither good nor bad. It is how you choose to manage it and express it in a constructive manner. The goal isn’t to never feel angry. The goal is to understand your anger and to choose healthy ways to respond to it. Anger is not only inevitable, it is necessary; its absence means indifference.

There are numerous misconceptions about anger; learning to tell facts about anger from myths will make it easier to you to deal with anger effectively.

Misconception 1: Anger is a negative emotion.

Misconception 2: Ignoring your anger will make it go away.

Misconception 3: Anger is hereditary.

Misconception 4: Behaviors stemming from anger are uncontrollable.

Misconception 5: Outside stimulus makes us angry.

Imagine looking at yourself in the mirror and saying, “No other person makes you angry. You make yourself angry.” No one makes us mad. Others don’t make us angry. There is no force involved. Becoming angry is a conscious choice, a decision, therefore, we can make the choice not to be angry. Just for a moment consider things outside your control- other people’s actions, other people’s words, other people’s mistakes, other people’s feelings, other people’s ideas and other people’s behavior. Things I can control- my words, my actions, my ideas, my mistakes, my behaviors, my anger.

All anger expressions, good or bad, are the result of choices.

Ryan Clark writes in The Ultimate Anger Self-Help Guide, “Anger is a natural emotion that is characterized by antagonism towards a person, a thing or a situation that you feel has wronged you in one way or another. Anger is a fundamental emotion, which means that everyone experiences it from time to time, although sometimes the anger is unwanted or irrational. Anger is an unpleasant emotion that lets us know we are unsatisfied with something in our environment. Despite being a normal and natural emotion, anger can become destructive when it gets out of control. Uncontrolled anger impairs a person’s thinking and judgment and can lead to rushed, irrational and unreasonable decisions and actions.” The metaphor of anger serving as the emotion at the tip of an iceberg applies here as it is thought that people are often more comfortable acknowledging and displaying their anger than they are at getting in touch with and addressing more vulnerable emotions such as hurt, fear, stress, guilt and embarrassment. Therefore, sometimes your anger is signaling you to get in touch with these emotions beneath the surface of the iceberg and to take steps to alleviate the distress you experience from them.”

Is anger a bad emotion? Not necessarily; there is nothing wrong with feeling angry. Anger developed as an emotion whose main purpose is to trigger our self-defense and self-preservation instincts. It can act as a motivating force that can lead to better relationships, improve communication and help you establish personal boundaries. Anger lets us know that something is wrong and that we need to take action to correct the situation. Life does not always go as we would wish it to, and when this happens, we might end up getting angry.

Glenn Van Ekeren shares this story from his book, 12 Simple Secrets of Happiness, “Displayed in an old monastery near Babenhausen, Germany, are two pairs of deer antlers permanently interlocked. Apparently, they were found in that position many years ago. Legend has it that the animals had been fighting fiercely, and their horns became so entangled, they were unable to free themselves. As a result, both deer perished from hunger. In life, conflicts are inevitable, but such devastating effects can be avoided. We bring different backgrounds, experience, opinions, and emotions into our relationships. Whenever two people interact on an ongoing basis, there is bound to be some discord. Having conflict need not be perceived as abnormal. The real issue is whether or not we get it resolved.”

All anger expressions, good or bad, are the result of choices.

The four basic styles of anger expression are called suppression, open-aggression, passive aggression, and assertion. Suppression, open-aggression and passive aggression almost always work against you. People have adapted these anger styles because they have been taught this is how to express anger and their behaviors have been reinforced in some way.

Suppressing (or stuffing) occurs when people do not acknowledge their own anger. There is a moving away from directly confronting the person or situation that is provoking the anger. These people often put up a good front and pretend to feel no tension at all. Stuffers are often subject to the ‘bottle and blast’ syndrome. While this is a choice for dealing with expressing anger, it does nothing to eliminate it.

Anger is one of our most powerful yet misunderstood emotions.

In the words of Woody Allen, “One of my problems is that I internalize everything. I can’t express anger; I grow a tumor instead.” Avoiding confrontation at all costs, negating feelings to accommodate others, and not being happy unless everyone you’re surrounded by is happy are three of the main signs that you are a doormat. (Published by The Society for Recovering Doormats). I truly believe that we teach people how to treat us, either by what we say or don’t say, or by what we do or choose not to do to take the necessary action to effectively deal with others in uncomfortable situations. We must communicate our needs even if it makes us uncomfortable.

When most people think of anger, they imagine open-aggression. This category of anger includes extreme forms of expression such as explosiveness, rage, intimidation and blame. Open-aggression arises from a focus that so strongly emphasizes personal needs that there is often an insensitivity to the needs of others.

While open-aggression is an option for expressing anger, it is a poor one. Neurologists claim that every time you resist acting on your anger, you’re actually rewiring your brain to be calmer.

Many people are determined not to surrender to the temptation to be openly aggressive in their anger. By doing so, they become susceptible to passive-aggression. Anger expressed through passive aggression involves preserving personal worth, needs and convictions at someone’s else’s expense. Passive aggression is often caused by a need to have control with the lease amount of vulnerability; because this person feels it is too risky to be open and honest, they frustrate others through sarcasm and subtle sabotage. While passive-aggression is yet another choice for expressing anger, it is a poor one; it perpetuates unwanted tension.

If anger is defined as preserving personal worth, needs and convictions, then assertive (or directing) anger means this preservation is accomplished while considering the needs and feelings of others. This form of anger actually helps relationships to grow; it represents a level of personal maturity and stability. Being assertive requires self-discipline and respect for the dignity of others. Assertive expressions of anger are intended to be non-hurtful. They involve the use of non-threatening, non-blaming, ‘I’ messages. This allows you to own your feelings from a personal standpoint; the other person sees how a situation is affecting you. So, instead of saying, “You make me so angry,” choose “I’m feeling angry.” People who express their anger assertively get their message across, communicate better and generally feel as though they have made contact in a personal way.

Before communicating assertively with someone, review these ‘Choosing Your Battles’ criteria to decide whether to ‘speak or forever hold your peace.’

Anger is the direct consequence of losing our patience.

Always consider the following questions before proceeding:

  1. Is it trivial?

  2. Are you blowing things out of proportion?

  3. Is it innocent or intentional?

  4. Can or will it change?

  5. Are there any extenuating circumstances?

  6. Have you questioned your motives before speaking?

  7. Is it good timing?

  8. Have you put yourself in the other person’s shoes?

  9. Are you willing to deal with the possible consequences?

You can’t see your reflection in boiling water; similarly, truth can’t be seen in a state of anger so always analyze before you finalize.

A young woman who was not accustomed to driving a manual transmission stalled a car when a traffic light turned green. Each time she started the car, she nervously let the clutch out too fast and stalled it again. The car behind her could have gone around, but instead the driver laid on his horn. The more he honked, the more embarrassed and angrier she became. After another desperate attempt to get the car going, she got out and walked back to the other car. The man rolled down his window in surprise.

“Tell you what,” she said. “You go move my car, and I’ll sit back here and honk the horn for you.

How are patience and anger related? Anger is the direct consequence of losing our patience. It is precisely because we don’t have tolerance for something or someone that we get mad. The more patience we have, the less irritation, anger and rage we will experience. What I’m talking about here is the normal irritation and anger we feel toward people, places or events in our daily lives that come from a lack of ‘reasonable tolerance.’ The more patience we cultivate, the less anger we will carry. Patience is the ability to count down before you blast off. By taking time to consider things from the other’s point of view or perspective, we can become more tolerant to anger triggers. Unfortunately, there is no one to explain to you the reason behind other people’s actions so it may be necessary for you to give them the benefit of the doubt.

One workshop participant shared the following, “I thought I was a patient person but the way I react when people drive slowly in the left lane would suggest otherwise.” Another commented, “Sometimes I get road rage walking beside people in the grocery store.” Driving is one activity that seems to stress everyone out. According to studies, almost 80% of drivers have experienced road rage, with a large number among them taking action meant to get back at the other driver.

A woman was recently sentenced to 13 years in prison for the ‘road rage’ shooting death of another motorist on an exit ramp of a busy interstate in the United States.

Emotions are temporary states of mind. Don’t let them permanently destroy you.

Your emotions take practice. When we think about practice, we often talk in terms of skill. You practice the piano, or you practice playing tennis. But the thing is, who you are emotionally also takes practice. You can practice patience; you can practice forgiveness. Who you are emotionally, is a reflection of the things you consciously or unconsciously practice. You were not ‘born upset.’

Ryan Clark adds, “Many times our anger is a direct result of the expectations we hold in our minds. We expect people to behave in a certain way, we expect there will be no traffic on our way to work, we expect that the weather will be a certain way, and so on. Most of the time, these expectations are irrational because we have little control over external influences; we cannot control a lot of things we have expectations about, yet we allow these expectations to trigger our anger. The solution is to identify the expectation and then let it go. The first thing you need to do is to acknowledge your anger and the reason behind it, then to let it go.”

What is stress? It’s the gap between our expectation and reality. More the gap, more the stress. What screws us up most in life is the picture in our head of how it’s supposed to be. Are there people in your life who continually disappoint you or fail to meet even the most reasonable expectations?

What do the following phrases have in common?

What you permit you promote.

What you allow is what will continue.

Stop asking why they keep doing it and start asking why you keep allowing it.

Never get mad at someone for being who they’ve always been; be upset with yourself for not coming to terms with it sooner. You can’t blame a clown for acting like a clown, but you can ask yourself why you keep going to the circus.

You can’t just give up on someone because the situation’s not ideal. Great relationships aren’t great because they have no problems. They’re great because both people care enough about the other person to find a way to make it work.

Whoopi Goldberg once wrote, “I don’t have pet peeves like some people. I have a whole kennel of irritations.” You should try to identify the specific thoughts or incidents that trigger your anger. If you frequently get angry, you might recognize that there are certain thoughts or incidents that seem to trigger your anger more often. Remember, your triggers are your responsibility. It isn’t the world’s obligation to tiptoe around you. Pay attention to the early warning signs that you’re growing angry. Take a time out from from the action to calm down before your anger reaches explosive levels. Go for a walk to calm both your body and your mind.

Keeping an anger journal is an effective way of understanding your anger and the reasons behind it. An anger journal is simply a book where you keep a record of your outbursts of anger. Keeping an anger journal helps you understand the kinds of situations and incidents that trigger your anger, your reactions to anger, the thoughts and emotions that accompany your anger and so on.

Letter writing is a valuable technique for letting go of pent-up anger and sorting out what you might want to say to the person you’re mad at. You can decide later whether you should send the letter or not. Do not send it in the heat of the moment.

Did you know that when you’re upset or angry, silently talking to yourself in the third person can help you get control over your emotions? Because it helps you get ‘out of your own head,’ positioning yourself as a different person can make it easier to view a situation calmly and clearly. ‘George’ in Seinfeld was known for his, “George is getting angry!” third person statements.

Are there times when it’s just best to walk away?

Rashida Rowe writes, “There are some people who always seem angry and continuously look for conflict. Walk away from these people. The battle they’re fighting isn’t with you; it’s with themselves.”

Walk away from people who deliberately put you down.

Walk away from judgmental people, they do not know or even try to understand the struggles you have been facing and what you have been through.

Walk away from arguments that lead to anger and nowhere. An environment that is not safe to disagree is not an environment focused on growth-it’s an environment focused on control.

Walk away from your mistakes. They do not determine your future. Practice self-forgiveness.

Sometimes you just have to be done. Not mad, not upset. Just done.

Food for Thought

What are some of your emotional/anger triggers?

What’s the worst thing you’ve said or done when you were angry?

What makes you the most frustrated, the most annoyed, and why?

Think about a time when you handled your anger in a healthy way.

Every time you get upset at something, ask yourself if you were to die tomorrow, was it worth wasting your time being angry?

Choose one quote every day or perhaps one or two every week if you like. How do these quotes speak to you? What applications do you see in your life? Share your chosen quotes with a family member, a friend, a business colleague. Create a ‘quote of the day’ club at work.

No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.

- Eleanor Roosevelt

Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intention of throwing it at someone else. You are the one who gets burned.

- Buddha

Speak when you’re angry and you’ll make the best speech you’ll ever regret.

- Ambrose Pierce.

I like long walks, especially when they are taken by people who annoy me.

- Fred Allen

You never saw a fish on the wall with its mouth shut.

- Sally Berger

I’m so lucky so many things annoy me because if they didn’t. I’d hardly have anything at all to talk about Sunday nights.

- Andy Rooney

When angry, count to ten before you speak. If very angry, a hundred.

- Thomas Jefferson

We boil at different degrees.

- Ralph Waldo Emerson

Never argue with a fool. Onlookers may not be able to tell the difference.

- Mark Twain

Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.

- Viktor E. Frankl

It is not best than we all think alike; it is a difference of opinion that makes horse races.

- Mark Twain

Anger is a feeling that makes your mouth work faster than your mind.

- Evan Esar

Anger is an acid that can do more harm to the vessel in which it is stored than to anything on which it is poured.

- Mark Twain

No matter how much cats fight, there always seems to be plenty of kittens.

- Abraham Lincoln

If you kick a stone in anger, you’ll hurt your own foot.

- Korean Proverb

Maturity begins when we are content to feel we’re right about something without feeling the necessity to prove someone else wrong.

- Sydney J. Harris

If you are patient in one moment of anger, you will escape a hundred days of sorrow.

- Chinese Proverb

If a small thing has the power to make you angry, does that not indicate something about your size.

- Sydney J. Harris

Education is the ability to listen to almost everything without losing your temper.

- Robert Frost

It’s easy to identify people who can’t count to ten. They/re in front of you in the market express lane.

- George A. Brown

Speak when you are angry and you’ll make the best speech you ever regret.

- Henry Ward Beecher

It is not irritating to be where one is. It is only irritating to think one would like to be somewhere else.

- John Cage

She is evenly balanced. She has a chip on both shoulders.

- Gill Paul

Expectation is the root of all heartache.

- William Shakespeare

Anger is a sign that something needs to change.

- Mark Epstein

Next Lesson: The Healing Power of Forgiveness

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