Anger, judiciously expressed and directed at a proposal rather than a person, can be helpful in negotiations, according to some research. On the home front, however, how much or how little your anger achieves will have a lot to do with the listeners’ back story.
Consider these possible scenarios.
If you tell me that it makes you really angry when I forget to put tools back in their appointed places, I may, out of affection and regard for you, make a greater effort to remember your preferences. In this case, your anger will have accomplished something.
If I explode at you verbally, telling you how sick I am of your refusal to own your insulting treatment of my mother and how really stupid I think it is, you may get your dander up. You may retaliate.
You may defensively launch a barrage of insults at me. You may, if you are generally uncomfortable working through conflict, simply fail to follow through with some task I asked you to do. In this case, when I voice my anger, things go from bad to worse.
Let’s say your anger goes from zero to sixty in a flash, before I can grasp what has triggered it, and you lash out physically. Maybe you throw a glass, punch a hole in the wall, slam a door, or sweep papers and dishes off the table and onto the floor. How I react to this display of emotion will depend a lot on our history together and on my past associations with such behavior.
If you beat me in the past or otherwise abused me physically, I am likely to freeze. I may dissociate, or put my mind somewhere else, if I can’t find a way to make a safe exit. A fresh display of rage from you will transport me instantly and painfully back in time.
You may say that you have changed since then, that you would never again resort to violence, but I am not convinced. I am instinctively, maybe permanently, on guard. If you acted destructively once when you were upset, the damage you inflicted then will remain, in my eyes, something that might recur.
Displays of extreme anger can traumatize people and animals. They become vigilant, quick to startle, ever on the lookout for danger, watching for signs of impending violence—sudden loud noises or abrupt gestures— so that they can protect themselves as necessary, whether by freezing, fleeing or hiding, or striking back.
Trauma imprints on the brain before language. Its effects may dissipate only after many years. What’s more, the flashbacks that you trigger may relate to an injury caused by someone else and not by you. If you have acted violently, however, you will be best able to regain trust by establishing a track record of calm and predictable behavior.
Do not expect a traumatized individual to change in attitude overnight. Do not respond with impatience and exasperation when the same dreadful episode from the past is revisited again and again. In the meantime, if you need to voice anger, do so whenever possible in ways that will look low key and nonthreatening, especially if you have been known in the past for volatility.
Whether you yourself become enraged or are dealing with someone else who does, remember that people in states of extreme distress are not fully rational. The executive functions, including those involving language, go offline in moments of crisis. The survival-oriented animal parts of our brain take charge when we feel most threatened.
To communicate effectively with animals or people when they are very upset, you will need to suit the medium to the message. Do not attempt to reason with them or to rationalize. Try to show, by your tone of voice and your body language, that you are giving them space. Speak slowly and calmly, in a low voice. Retreat, putting distance between the two of you. Back down physically and verbally so that they can feel safe.
You may view your anger differently from the way other people see it. You may be puzzled by the response of those around you when you are upset. Remember, you are behind your face, not in front of it. Your voice sounds different to you, as you will know if you have ever listened to a recording of yourself.
You do not see your full repertory of facial expressions in the mirror when you brush your teeth in the morning or apply makeup. We are all hard-wired not to notice some of the ways our faces change with advancing age. You may also be relatively unaware of your body language. If you want to learn more about the differences, try having a family member or a trusted friend shoot some videos of you.
Most of us can acknowledge, even if only reluctantly, that our behavior does not always show us at our best. You probably attribute your slip-ups to circumstances, however, whereas observers may well chalk them up to your personality. “He has a short fuse,” they may say, while you believe that job stress made you irritable at the time. Psychologists have found that we tend to attribute our own failures to environmental factors and the failures of others to character.
Anger is a healthy, normal, useful emotion. Violence is destructive. Cultivate nonviolent ways of honoring anger. Do whole-body exercises that stretch your body and dispel tension. Let meditation show you how to notice and accept your feelings without necessarily acting on them. Avoid speaking, driving a vehicle, or making big decisions when you are angry. Breathe deeply. Take space. Soothe yourself.
You can tell others how and why you are angry with them. Do so without insults, name-calling, yelling, or destruction of any sort. The object is to be able to voice your feelings, negative as well as positive, and to acknowledge them as yours. You are responsible for what you said and did and not what the other person heard or believed, over which you have no control.
Communication sustains all relationships. You will have greatest success in connecting with others if you can not only express your feelings but also open yourself to hearing, understanding, and accepting theirs. Remember that how and when we feel angry have to do more with our journeys to date than with any single interaction in the present moment.
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