Bridling Anger

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Anger experts say that anger develops more often in the family--in marriage and with children--than in any other human relationship. Sometimes anger turns violent, resulting in emotional and physical abuse of those that God expects us to love and serve.

According to anger scholar Charles Spielberger, anger is expressed in at least three ways. It may be directed outward, toward other people or objects in the environment. You might feel like yelling, screaming, punching a person, smashing or destroying something, or throwing a chair or book across the room.3 These are destructive expressions of anger. What makes them destructive is that instead of solving the problem, they usually escalate the situation and make the problem worse. A recent study showed that, contrary to popular belief, venting anger through physical aggression, such as by punching a bag or pillow, did not decrease anger but actually increased aggressive behavior.

Anger may also be directed inward, such as through holding in or suppressing angry feelings. This mode of expression can also be destructive, for if anger is not allowed some form of constructive external expression, it can increase the risks of high blood pressure, depression, suicide, gastrointestinal problems, and drug or alcohol use. Unexpressed anger can also lead to other problems such as passive-aggressive behavior (getting back at people indirectly, without telling them why, rather than confronting them head-on), a hostile and cynical way of dealing with others, and increased use of put-downs and criticism. Obviously, such behavior doesn't promote harmonious relationships with others.

A third mode of anger expression is the control of anger. Pop psychology ideas used to promote the philosophy of "let it all hang out." During its heyday, this damaging approach led many clinicians and others to recommend that people communicate their anger just to get it off their chest. But research has shown that far from solving problems, unbridled expression of anger makes matters worse. Not only does it escalate anger and threaten relationships, it also places one's physical health at risk. It is wise to control or manage the expression of anger in constructive ways.

Controlling anger doesn't mean ignoring the emotion. Instead, it involves first calming oneself so that one's anger can be used to achieve constructive ends, such as solving problems and restoring emotional connections with others. Proper control of anger reduces the risk of violence toward others as well as physiological harm to oneself.

As much as we like horses, few of us would be willing to ride one without a bridle. There are literally hundreds of different kinds of bridles but the major purpose is the same: to get the horse to do what we want it to do.

Using a bridle doesn't deny that the horse exists, nor does it mean that the horse is a bad animal. Quite the contrary. Bridles allow us to manage and guide the horse to accomplish our purposes, like packing deep into a mountain wilderness.

Anger is like an unbridled horse. Unless we govern it, we are at its mercy. The consequences of unbridled anger aren't the ones we really want. Here are some suggestions for putting a bridle on anger.

  • Understand that anger is a choice. Since anger can be controlled, it follows that anger is a choice. Anger is a learned response to a trigger in our environment. While we may have a tendency to become angry, it's not wise or correct to give in and simply say, "That's just the way I am, and there's nothing I can do about it." Ultimately we are in charge of which behaviors we choose in response to the emotions we feel. We often hear people say things like, "She made me angry." That statement is inaccurate. No one is ever made to be angry. People are not forced against their will to lose their temper. Between every provoking situation and outcome lies the freedom to select the actions we deem appropriate. Habit may make our responses seem almost involuntary, but we really do choose our responses. While certain provoking situations may creep up on us and seem to cause us to respond with a knee-jerk reaction, once the connection between the provoking situation and our response is in our consciousness, we can then begin to take more control over our actions. Remember: Anger is a learned response to a provoking situation.
  • A story is told of a famous man who was approached by a person who verbally attacked him right to his face. The man remained composed. His traveling companion marveled at his self-control and asked how he stood there and took such abuse so calmly. The man responded, "I'm not going allow someone's actions toward me determine how I act toward them."
  • Learn what provokes your anger. While no one can cause us to use anger destructively, the emotion of anger can be triggered in us. So it is wise to learn what your anger triggers are, and write them down. Your anger might be triggered when someone ignores the good things you do, puts you down, or shows disrespect for your opinions. As a parent, your anger might be triggered toward children when they are messy, don't cooperate, or disobey your wishes. Once you have made a list of your anger triggers, keep the list handy. Spend some time thinking about what you might do instead of reacting angrily the next time the trigger gets pulled. For example, if you are angered when your teen won't clean his room, give him the option of cleaning it once a week and let him choose the day and time.
  • Recognize and admit your own anger. Notice what your body does when anger is triggered. Do you feel hot or flushed? Is your heart pounding? Are you breathing more rapidly? Is there any change in the tension of the muscles in your neck and other places? Is your head or stomach aching? Also, notice the thoughts you have, and what you do or want to do when you feel anger. Examples of angry thoughts include "It's not fair!", "She's out to get me," or "He makes me so angry so much of the time." With these thoughts and physical feelings, you may (or may want to) yell or scream at someone, hit or slap, threaten, order, or, as a parent, punish a child severely. 
    Notice also signs of hidden anger, such as sarcasm or feelings of frustration or wanting to get even. You may have been taught to deny your anger feelings or to think they don't matter. But feelings do matter. Now is the time for great self-honesty. Realize that anger is a normal emotion. There's no need for you to feel ashamed or guilty about it. Whether at home or at work, give each other the right to feel angry. Feeling angry and acting destructively toward another are two very different things.
  • Relax and calm yourself first. Before the issue that triggered the anger feeling can be resolved, you must first reduce the intensity of the angry feeling by calming yourself. Discover what helps you relax and calm down in anger situations, then do them. Such things might include calling a friend or relative, listening to music, prayer, and meditation, vigorous exercise, writing down feelings in a letter (for yourself), a good night's rest, taking a warm shower or bath, deep breathing, counting to ten, taking a walk, or taking a mental vacation by imagining a peaceful, beautiful place.
  • Strive to understand the other person's point of view. There are many reasons why someone may do something that triggers our anger, besides intentionally trying to make us angry. Parents would do well to learn possible causes of anger in children at different ages and stages of their development and then use that knowledge in responding to an anger trigger. For example, Tommy, a three-year-old, was angry because his father wouldn't let him play with the CD player. He yelled and screamed "I hate you!" at his father. His dad remembered that children at this age may resent the fact that others have so much power over them and may become angry when they don't have the freedom to do as they please. Armed with this knowledge, he responded in an age-appropriate manner to his son by saying "Well I love you. You're just angry because you can't play with the CD."

We can strive to put ourselves in other adult's shoes when they push one of our anger triggers. Someone may be tired or overstressed. For instance, you may find that your anger was based on a misunderstanding or misinterpretation of someone's words or actions. Or, perhaps the anger resulted from one person being pushed beyond his or her limits of tolerance.

  • Establish ground rules for expression of anger. Setting ground rules for the expression of anger will help you manage it. For example, when anger and conflict are escalating over an issue, agree that you will call "Time Out" and try talking about it again after you calm yourselves and can listen to one another better. Choose a specified time to talk, such as in ten minutes or at a later time within twenty-four hours. Using this kind of ground rule can help you deal with difficulties that trigger anger with less bickering and strife.
  • Express your anger constructively. Express angry feelings calmly and with the attitude of respect, without attacking or blaming the other person. Explain to the other person why you are angry. Use I-statements with a "feeling-when-because" format. For example, "I feel angry when the barbeque is left on because it wastes gas." Other examples:
    "I feel frustrated when you come home after curfew because that is against our agreement."
    "I feel angry when you track dirt on the kitchen floor because I just cleaned it."
    "I feel upset when I don't get the recognition I believe I deserve because I worked my tail off on that project."
    Follow up the I-statement with a statement of the change you believe would solve the problem now and defuse the anger in the future. For example:
    "I feel frustrated when you come home after curfew because that is against our agreement. I want you to follow through on what we agreed."
    "I feel upset when I don't get the recognition I believe I deserve because I worked my tail off on that project. I want some acknowledgment of my contribution."
    "I feel angry when you track dirt on the kitchen floor because I just cleaned it. I want you to leave your muddy shoes in the doorway under the coat rack."

    Even when expressing anger, you can communicate love and respect for the other person. A gentle touch on the shoulder and a calm voice, even when the words are expressing a feeling of anger, communicate to others that although we are angry that doesn't mean that we don't care about them or value the relationship. By expressing anger calmly, you are more likely to be able to explore with the other person the sources of your anger and how such a situation may be prevented in the future. When anger is recognized and approached calmly, respectfully, with the intention of strengthening the relationship and not hurting it, anger can actually encourage growth and intimacy.
  • Make an anger bridling plan. As you read over the ideas above, have you noted those that might help you bridle your anger? If so, pick one of your anger triggers and come up with a plan for dealing with it. Don't try to deal with all your triggers at once. Just start with one. Make a chart like the one below:

My Anger Bridling Plan (Example)

My anger triggers Physical reactions and thoughts My typical actions What I will do instead
1. Jason refuses to do his chores 1. My face gets flushed and my heart starts pounding. I think, "What do I have to do to get you to move!" 1. Yelling, ordering, threatening. 1. Go to my room, do deep breathing, repeat the word "relax" in my mind until I feel calm. 
2. Go back to Jason and restate his job, and then say: When you refuse to do your job, I feel angry because we depend on everyone to carry their weight in the family. I expect you to complete your job before you go to your friend's house

 

Some of us may have become so accustomed to destructive expressions of anger that we may face great difficulty in applying the ideas listed above. Some reactions to certain anger triggers may have become so ingrained that it seems nearly impossible to change them by ourselves. If this is so with you, get help from a trusted and trained professional or minister who can help you deal with your anger.

Written by Stephen F. Duncan, Professor, School of Family Life, Brigham Young University.

References

Duncan , S. F. (2004, Spring). Subduing the spirit of contentionBYU Magazine.

Institute for Mental Health Initiatives (1991). RETHINK: Anger management for parents. Author.

Spielberger, C. D. (1996). State-trait anger expression inventory: Professional manual. Odessa, FL: Psychological Assessment Resources, Inc.

Williams, R. B., & Williams, V. (1993). Anger kills. New York: HarperCollins.