Mindfulness Personal

6 Steps to Understand & Manage Your Anger Response

As a child, I was incredibly quick-tempered.

Recently during one of our frequent chats to catch up on life, my Mom and I found ourselves belly-laughing as we recounted a scenario wherein my anger got the best of me as a youngster.

The scenario entailed little Rachette (one of my parents’ endearing nicknames for me as a child) asking Mom for something one evening after dinner as she washed the dishes at the sink.  When Mom did not appeal to young Rachette’s request, she dropped to the floor, pounded her clenched fists at her side, forcefully dug her feet into the ground, arched her back upward, and wailed until she was red in the face, stubbornly demanding Mom to comply with her demands.

As my Mom recounted the past scenario and she told of her concerned thoughts at the time questioning, “Is my daughter possessed?”

It was easy for us to laugh, as the Rachael I am today would never respond this way.  Though, it is funny to imagine my grown-up-Rachael-self responding as such, as it would be quite the spectacle. 😉

* * * * *

Thankfully, as I have grown in my faith and self-awareness, I have learned (and am continually learning) how to use my anger in constructive ways, rather than letting my anger “get the best of me” and rob me (and those around me) of peace and joy.

For years, I thought anger was my main issue that needed resolution, as generally anger and frustration were the “negative” emotions that externally manifested in my life most frequently.

I thought “fix the anger, fix the problem.” Right?  If only it were that easy.

My own life experience has proved this theory false; however, for some time I thought this was the solution, so I spent my time and efforts trying to control my rage and praying for patience.  Initially it appeared my efforts were working, as my anger responses tended to become less frequent as I worked at bringing awareness to my anger and attempted to suppress such emotional responses as they arose.

However, ultimately I’d find my efforts to control the rage futile, as I’d unquestionably find myself in a rageful blow-up of gigantic proportions.  It was almost as if all the pent up anger I thought had been “controlled” and “diffused” in the previous moments were instead suppressed below the surface and left to fester, until that one day when out of the blue…a silly action or comment would trip up my ego…and all hell broke loose.  Like an unexplainable evil force had temporary control over my emotions and actions – often resulting in my acting out-of-line with my character, often resulting in actions I regretted once the dust settled.

These blow-ups would leave me feeling like a failure; like I’d never change. And then I’d find myself smack dab back where I started: frustrated and angry…but now with shame to boot.

* * * * *

Over the past few years, my journey of recovery from my eating disorder has led to a lot of positive outcomes through focused introspection and asking myself a lot of questions that I previously never thought to ask myself.

One of the benefits I’ve gained is my awareness to the fact that anger is not the root of the emotional turmoil in my life, but rather a subset.  I have been able to develop and hone skills that now enable me to understand my anger and work through it – which has ultimately led to less anger in my life.

My big “ah-ha” moment was when I finally realized that anger is never the primary emotion.

Anger is the EASIEST emotion to express; or at least for me, that holds true.  But anger is always a subset of another emotion or story we tell ourselves that may not initially be quite so recognizable.  As uncomfortable (and sometimes embarrassing) as anger can be, it sometimes feels like a safer emotion than dealing with what truly is going on underneath the surface.

It can take some effort and often requires “getting real” with yourself in order to unearth the actual root of your anger; but until you do, the problem will remain below the surface: not dormant, but rather festering, growing, and waiting for an opportunity to burst its way to the surface (possibly at the most inopportune times).

Buried emotions and hidden problems are to life as rot is to the foundation of a house.

Just as a rotting foundation untended ultimately leads to a house’s deterioration (and perhaps collapse), so too do buried emotions and problematic secrets ultimately lead to destruction in one’s life.

Maybe the “destruction” that plays out in your own life won’t be as catastrophic as my falling victim to an eating disorder, hitting rock bottom, and finding myself at the juncture of needing to choose between life (seeking help/recovery) or death (opting to remain a victim of my eating disorder, which would ultimately lead to my untimely death).  However, what is certain is that burying emotions or problems never make them disappear.  They’ll manifest one way or another.

You may be thinking:

“Rachael, how can you say anger is not the root issue, when really all I want is to do is become a less angry person? Doesn’t it make sense to try to work at controlling my anger?”

PREACH!

Ohhh, how I understand this thinking.  Trust me – the first time my therapist asked me to “dig deep” and asked “Rachael – what are you really feeling?” – I nearly spat at her out of anger.  My whole body tensed and my response was, “I just told you, I’m angry.”  At the time I felt attacked, as though my integrity and intelligence was being questioned, as she (an outside third-party) “had the nerve” to tell me that what I was actually feeling wasn’t ultimately anger; but rather was something more than that.  An underlying, more true emotion or past hurt – or so she said.

But over time and with a lot of introspection, therapy, and growth in my relationship with God, I have found that there is truth in the fact that anger is never a solo emotion.  There’s always an emotional companion. Oftentimes, a much harder emotion to feel. And often, difficult to identify.

* * * * *

What’s been helpful for me is learning to view my anger as a TRIGGER to help me realize there’s something else going on.

I don’t try to suppress or control my anger – instead, I allow it to “be” and sit with it. Instead of controlling the anger itself, I try to control how I respond to it.

When I feel triggered to have an anger response, there are some go-to things I have found extremely helpful in controlling my reaction and how I relate to the anger I feel, as well as helpful in identifying the underlying issue(s) triggering the secondary anger emotion.

Below, I’ve put together a list of “steps” that have been helpful for me as I encounter “anger triggers” and strive to understand the root causes of them and work at controlling my response to such triggers in my own life.

My hope is that you are able to walk away with some helpful insights that you can apply to your own life situation the next time you’re confronted by anger and perhaps find yourself wanting to respond aggressively.

You know, like when you feel tempted to blare your horn at the elderly woman who is taking too long to cross the street, defend your pride and challenge the check-out clerk’s logic as he tells you to exit the empty express check-out line because you have 11 items instead of the 10 item limit, or some other frustrating or emotionally-charged situation that causes you to want to lose your cool.

6 Steps to Understand & Manage Your Anger Response

#1: Name it to tame it: bring awareness to the fact that you have been emotionally triggered.

Some emotions are harder to pinpoint; anger, however, is typically pretty easy to identify, as it typically is an emotion that is all-consuming and wants to be expressed immediately. Like a cork forcefully escaping a high-pressured champagne bottle.

When you’re emotionally triggered by anger, it’s takes discipline NOT to react in the moment; however, using the logical/rational part of your mind to name it (calling out that an event or action by another triggered anger, which in turn pushes another button inside of you), can help you fight the urge to lash out in an irrational fit of rage.

When I’m triggered by anger, it’s helpful for me to identify the fact that I’ve been triggered and remind myself there’s something else going on inside me that is tempting me to lash out.

#2: Bite your tongue: wait a beat before you respond.

It’s also helpful for me to remember that our heightened emotional responses will pass (typically pretty quickly, subsiding after around 90 seconds or possibly less). Emotions come, and emotions go.

And they pass so much more quickly if we don’t add fuel to the fire! 

Remind yourself that the discomfort of anger you feel clawing at your chest will be over shortly, allowing you to be in a brain-space that allows you to think more rationally…and then you can choose how you want to respond.

If you’re anything like me, I’m sure you can recount situations wherein you responded to the impulse of anger, only to be mortified by your actions (actions that are typically out of character and not responses you would have liked to have play out).

To avoid acting on those regretful emotional responses, in situations wherein I find my blood boiling, I try (I say try, because I do still often fail) to bite my tongue, take a few deep breaths, and tell myself that lashing out won’t actually bring any resolution to the problem.

For me, I sometimes need to remove myself from the situation – not to avoid confronting the situation or person causing the issue (as sometimes this is necessary or the most loving thing to do); but rather, to allow myself the space to come back down to my “normal,” so I can respond in a loving, compassionate way.

#3: Once the anger has subsided a bit and you feel more “zen”: sit with the emotion(s) and be curious WITHOUT judgment.

Our anger is trying to tell us something.

Rather than fall into “victim mode,” listening to the barraging harsh judgments from my Inner Critic, or seeking out avoidance (such as busyness or distraction, which is merely an easy escape) – I’ve learned that in order to make any forward progress, I need to be able to sit with the emotional discomfortbe curious about the “triggered” emotional response and what the anger is trying to tell me; and compassionately respond to the underlying feelings I uncover.

Essentially, after a triggering event, it is helpful to explore your internal world: remain curious and explore your internal world without judgment as you replay the past events (once your feelings are no longer heightened and you feel clear-headed, at which time I believe you will find you will be SO much more able to rationally discern what-the-heck happened and determine how you want to respond to the situation that initially triggered you).

For example, when I am triggered by anger, I like to find a quiet place for me to process my emotions and thoughts.  I replay the situation in my head (or journal about the scenario) in order to try to figure out what caused the trigger, and then assess how I was feeling in the moment and how I feel now.  [Note: it’s important to be non-judgmental and bring in self-compassion when recounting the situation.  Shaming yourself for your emotions or what happened is never productive.]

A few things I consider as I dig deep inside:

  • What was I doing and thinking about before the trigger happened?
  • What was done or said that caused me to get fired up? 
  • Was it the actual action/event that angered me, or was I self-projecting and/or was my ego bruised in some way that caused me to become emotionally charged? 
  • What was I feeling in the moment and how am I currently feeling? 
  • Are there any additional emotions I can identify other than anger (Putnick’s wheel of emotions can be helpful if you need assistance identifying other emotions). 
  • What thoughts came up or what stories am I telling myself – are they actually true? 

#4: Respond with self-compassion as you process THROUGH your emotions and debunk any limiting beliefs.

An important step (one I think many of us could stand to work on a bit) is bringing in some self-compassion as we uncover and respond to the emotions or any hurt that is revealed.

Kristen Neff (an expert on this topic) explains there are 3 elements of self-compassion:

  1. self-kindness vs. self-judgment (warmly approaching yourself with understanding and recognizing failure and life difficulties are part of being human)
  2. common humanity vs. isolation (remembering that you are not the only one who has felt this way or made this mistake – it’s a shared human experience)
  3. mindfulness vs. 0ver-identification (being observant and objective in assessing the facts, rather than over-identifying with the negative emotions one feels)  

I encourage you to tap into some self-compassion and allow yourself to bring awareness to any untruths/limiting beliefs that are wrapped up in the situation that triggered you.  As a note, limiting beliefs are thoughts that constrain us in some way, and are often present in the stories we tell ourselves based on scripts from our past hurts/experiences.

Once you’ve identified any unhelpful lies and limiting believes, THROW THEM OUT and affirm truth (choose to affirm it, even if the truth doesn’t feel legitimate at the time).

For me, it’s incredibly helpful to journal to help me process my feelings: I do an “emotional dump”  to just let it all out (I often do this at my computer, as it’s more conducive for me to capture my thoughts and feelings that way; a pen and paper often just can’t keep up with the emotional outpouring ;)).

At times, I prefer to talk things through with a loved one; sometimes I like to just think it through on my own.

Do whatever feels most helpful for you in your own unique situation.

#5: Determine whether any future actions are necessary to resolve your current situation.

Perhaps no actions are necessary and processing through and understanding your emotional response is enough in your present situation.  Perhaps action is required in order to achieve resolution or avoid similar situations in the future.

For example, perhaps you need to talk to the person who hurt you, perhaps you need to apologize and seek forgiveness for your outburst or things said (if you gave into your anger and lashed out).  Or maybe you might want to consider writing a letter to the person you hurt – letting it all out, and then throwing it away (or burning it if that gives you some additional satisfaction!).

Just LETTING IT OUT will do a world of good to let the anger process through you and avoid having the poison of resentment infect your soul.

#6: Identify healthy coping mechanisms to help you manage your response to anger in future triggering events.

Identify tools and other coping mechanisms that can help you remain “zen” during future triggering events.

A few ideas to get your creative juices flowing:

  • Increase self-care to help you proactively destress so you’re not so “on-edge” and therefore, less likely to be reactive when triggered.
  • Incorporate a gratitude practice (such as capturing 3 gratitudes each morning as you brush your teeth).  Gratitude will start popping up more and more throughout your day as you undertake your gratitude practice. And you are way less likely to respond in anger when your world is wrapped in gratitude.
  • Create a mantra(s) you can tap into in the moment to help you manage through your anger without exploding (e.g., “Let it go,” “I choose peace,” “Namaste,” “This too shall pass,” etc.).
  • Choose to act compassionately toward others.  Challenge yourself to remember in the moment that you do not know what’s going on in the other person’s life. It is possible there is some deep pain they are going through that is causing them to behave in a way that is uncharacteristic.
  • Remind yourself that anger only encourages more anger. Anger never brings constructive resolution. And anger is never pretty on you.

* * * * *

Anger is something we all deal with: even the most self-aware, “zen,” and optimistic person is subject to this kind of emotion.

But that’s okay.  Erasing anger from our lives entirely is not the goal.  If used wisely, anger can actually be an opportunity to help us better understand ourselves and address the emotions that bubble below the masked expression of anger.

I hope you find that the more you undertake to understand your anger (rather than running from it, suppressing it, or actively acting out on it), the more self-awarness you will gain.

I encourage you to try out the process outlined above for yourself.  A word of caution: it may feel a bit awkward and “formal” to undertake this kind of exercise at first, and it will also require time and patience on your part. However, I believe it’s an important exercise to do in order to attain more self-awareness and actually work through whatever it is that caused you to become triggered in the first place.

And if you put in the work, I think over time you’ll find it will become more natural for you to walk through this exercise, and I also believe you’ll find the positive benefits that result in your life will be well-worth the effort.

Ultimately, if you begin to bring awareness to your internal world and learn to sit with and process through your emotions, I truly believe you will not be disappointed.

I believe not only will you find the anger and frustration in your life reduced – but also, an increase in the amount of joy and peace experienced as well.

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