Dealing with Anger

angerFr. Bhyju cmf

Anger is a fundamental emotion that everyone experiences from time to time. The experience of anger varies widely; how often anger occurs, how intensely it is felt, and how long it lasts are different for each person. People also vary in how easily they get angry (their anger threshold), as well as how comfortable they are with feeling angry. Some people are always getting angry while others seldom feel angry. Some people are very aware of their anger, while others fail to recognize anger when it occurs.

From a very early age, people learn to express anger by copying the angry behaviour they see modelled around them, and by expressing angry behaviour and seeing what they can get away with. As our culture has an uneasy relationship with anger expression, many people are brought up to think that it is inappropriate to express anger directly; that it must not be tolerated; that it is always dangerous. Such people learn to distrust anger, to bottle it up and ignore it, to express it only in indirect ways or to use it as a weapon. The idea that anger is dangerous is not without merit. Angry people are capable of great violence. However, while anger can certainly be abused, it is more than a simple destructive force. Anger is also a critically important part of what might be called the self-preservation and self-defense instincts. People who are incapable of getting angry are also incapable of standing up for themselves. It is important then that people, especially priests and religious, learn how to express anger appropriately. They need to learn healthy and socially respectful ways to express angry feelings, and to not to let anger get out of control to the point where it negatively affects relationships, ministry, community life and health.

The Physiological and Mental Changes during Anger’s arousal

Like other emotions, anger is experienced in our bodies as well as in our minds. In fact, there is a complex series of physiological events that occurs as we become angry. Emotions more or less begin inside two almond-shaped structures in our brains which are called the amygdala. The amygdala is the part of the brain responsible for identifying threats to our well-being, and for sending out an alarm when threats are identified that results in us taking steps to protect ourselves. As we become angry our body’s muscles tense up. Inside our brain, neurotransmitter chemicals known as catecholamines are released causing us to experience a burst of energy lasting up to several minutes. This burst of energy is behind the common angry desire to take immediate protective action. At the same time our heart rate accelerates, blood pressure rises, and the rate of breathing increases. Our face may flush as increased blood flow enters our limbs and extremities in preparation for physical action. Our attention narrows and becomes locked onto the target of our anger. Soon we can pay attention to nothing else. In quick succession, additional brain neurotransmitters and hormones (among them adrenaline and noradrenalin) are released which trigger a lasting state of arousal. We’re now ready to fight. The adrenaline-caused arousal that occurs during anger lasts a very long time (many hours, sometimes days), and lowers our anger threshold, making it easier for us to get angry again later on. Though we do calm down, it takes a very long time for us to return to our resting state. So far we have seen that anger involves a physical state of arousal. But being angry also includes judgements about what these reactions mean. So being angry involves a state of physiological arousal and an interpretation of what this arousal means.

The Causes of Anger

The causes of our anger at both the personal and public levels of our being include perceived hurt, physical harm, psychological harm, unmet needs and expectations, violations of our rights, and attacks on our self-esteem. A person with poor self-esteem will often feel less competent to deal with anger and have more difficulty recognizing its source and expressing it to another person. A person with poor self-esteem may feel out of control and uncertain about who really owns the problem. He or she may take total blame for the conflict or project all responsibility for it onto another. So we need to make some important distinctions about the causes of anger. First, anger is an internal response to a stimulus. It is crucial to note that anger is a response to a perceived hurt or frustration. Our own particular interpretation of the physiological energy in our bodies determines that we are angry. Therefore, we are the authors of our own anger. No one else can make us feel angry; we must own it ourselves. In the same way we are not responsible for another person’s anger. Second, our particular interpretations and responses to any given stimulus come out of our own set of values, beliefs, assumptions, perceptions, biases, and prejudices. Although anger seems to be a response to an external stimulus, most often it is an internal event. Our own negative interpretation of a particular stimulus often leads us to make ourselves angry. What arouses anger in one person may not do so in another. So it is important that we be aware of what predispositions we bring to bear on the interpretation of our anger.

Four Anger Response Styles

Anger can be manifested in both positive and negative ways. Once this inner anger is recognized, the next step is to manage the passion of anger in a positive way. In order to do that we need to know the different anger response styles. Janet Malone mentions four styles of anger responses: passive, aggressive, passive-aggressive and assertive styles. The first three contribute to an inner rage in which anger becomes a destructive force. And the last one is the constructive style of dealing with anger. For the most part, we learn our anger response styles from significant others during our formative years. Only when one can name what is happening in a self-reflective way can change begin to occur. The goal of such an effort is to move to an assertive anger response style and away from the other three styles, which are unhealthy and at times violent to oneself and others.

1. Passive Anger Response Style

The passive way of dealing with anger is to repress the emotion altogether. People who are afraid of rejection by others or afraid of their anger will usually repress this passion. This is especially true of those who have an inordinate need to be liked by others. It is not uncommon for such people to become depressed or simply to become superficial, lacklustre people who do not fully engage with others or with God. Such individuals may feel powerless, controlled, victimized, and angry but will hide those feelings because it is neither “nice” nor acceptable to be angry. They have difficulty feeling or thinking for themselves because being accepted by others is paramount. Such people try to sense what others feel and think in order to agree with them. Being “meek” and “humble” and not saying what they think robs these individuals of a basic integrity and authenticity. Because their needs are not met, their interactions with others are often “You win, I lose” propositions. Passive people have not used their passions to validly energize themselves or to strive toward the good. Instead, they have rejected their passions. Those with a passive anger response style, driven by their fear of rejection, sound tentative because they want to please at all costs. Their eye contact may be limited, their body posture may slump, and they may move at a slow, foot-dragging pace. They may speak softly or in an expressionless monotone and may mumble or talk to themselves. According to Fr. Rossetti, women religious are particularly susceptible to this in our society, probably because of deeply embedded societal messages that it is not proper for women—especially women religious—to express anger.

2. Passive-Aggressive Anger Response Style

A close cousin of the passive style of anger management is the passive-aggressive style. In this case, the passion of anger is not completely repressed, but neither is it openly and directly expressed. They are operating out of a combination of frustration, fear, and desire for revenge. Feeling fed up or powerless, those who use this style combine aspects of both the passive and aggressive anger response styles. Although they might want to deal with their frustrations in an aggressive way, they are afraid of the consequences. “Passive-aggressive persons follow a strategy of negativism, defiance, and provocation, and are unable to make up their minds as to whether to adhere to the demands of others or to resist their demands. Consequently, their behaviour is characterized by both passivity and aggressiveness. They appear to be ambivalent about nearly everything and cannot decide whether to be independent or dependent or whether to respond to situations actively or passively. They constantly struggle with the dilemma of whether to be submissive or assertive. They resolve this dilemma with a compromise: they express their anger and resistance indirectly through procrastination, dawdling, stubbornness, inefficiency, and forgetfulness.” Practitioners of this style may use the silent treatment, whereby one “punishes” another person by not talking to him or her. This violent and non-constructive behaviour can go on for long periods of time in a group, community or work situation. The emotional stance towards others might be characterized as “I lose, but you lose too.” For example, the religious who is angry at authority but afraid to express that anger directly might engage in subtle behaviours to undermine the leader’s authority, all the while feigning obedience. The passive-aggressive person will smile and nod at the leader’s words. But the leader, often inexplicably, finds himself or herself becoming frustrated and upset with this individual. In the opinion of Len Sperry ministry settings seem to unwittingly foster passive-aggressive behaviour by emphasizing external control, avoidance of conflict, and the suppression and denial of anger. While passive-aggression may mimic commitment and cooperation, it is actually a counterfeit of commitment and cooperation. Such people tend to avoid self-discipline and sacrifice and appear to lack vision and focus in their ministries. Superiors need to take special effort to help those who use this style of anger response. Any effort a superior makes to increase assertive communication and active listening in a ministry setting can and will reverse passive aggressive style. In the same way if the superiors utilize a problem-solving approach to conflict resolution, approach decisions directly, and adopt a consultative style of leadership, they can expect cooperation and commitment rather than rebellion and passive-resistance from such members.

3. Aggressive Anger Response Style

Those who express anger in the aggressive style are openly dissatisfied and confrontational. They may become chronically caustic and sarcastic. People with an aggressive anger response style are expressing resentment over past hurts that have festered over the years. Confrontational and offensive, the aggressive style focuses on getting one’s needs met at others’ expense, with an attitude of “I win, you lose.” Those who use this approach are often covertly, if not overtly, violent and non-constructive in their efforts to control and manipulate. Their voices are loud, high-pitched, and shrill (they usually yell); the rate of their speech may be fast or slow and measured. Those with an aggressive style of anger management are prone to becoming addicted to anger. Their only emotional response is bitterness and sarcasm. Their anger is often used to control and intimidate others, and sometimes to mask the hurt and depression in their own lives. If they were to give up their mask of bitterness, they might find much unhealed pain and sadness underneath. Men in our society are particularly susceptible to this problem. It may be due to their upbringing and socialization. From early on a boy learns to separate himself from feelings that frighten him. And he reaches manhood emotionally off-balance. Unaware of what he is feeling, his inner world remains alien: well hidden from himself and unavailable to those close to him. Boys also learn to connect feeling vulnerable with acting aggressively. Soon these two becomes intertwined and the boys realize that feeling vulnerable is not only frightening; it is incompatible with being a real man. So anger is denied and the energy is turned into aggressive behaviour. In this way, many men convert their feelings of inadequacy and vulnerability into anger, which operates as a defense to cover up their feeling weak. Social analysts suggest that these culturally ingrained links between vulnerability and aggression help to explain the epidemic of violence against women in our society.

4. Assertive Anger Response Style

There is a style of anger management that can lead to wholeness and holiness: the assertive style. In this style, the person expresses anger so that it may become life-giving for both the object of the emotion as well as for the one who is angry. The emotional stance toward others becomes a mutually enhancing “I win and you win.” People with an assertive anger response style possess a sense of personal well-being and high self-esteem. Their communication is direct, reflecting not only their openness to having their own needs met but also their respect for others. Individuals with this style try to ensure congruence between the verbal and nonverbal aspects of their communication. Coming from a centered place within a person’s being, the assertive style is characterized by “I” statements that convey personal needs, thoughts, observations, and feelings in a dialogic way. Instead of fostering defensive confrontation, the assertive style invites dialogue and mutual understanding. Such assertive statements are increasingly possible to make when one feels confident, empowered, and unafraid. Using this assertive style to communicate directly about one’s needs and wishes does not guarantee that the other person will comply. One does not have control over the behaviour of others. Part of an assertive anger response style is staying self-empowered while recognizing that in any interaction with others, the final outcome is beyond one’s control. Respecting the other person does not mean condoning what he or she has said or done. It does mean safeguarding against obvious communication barriers such as blaming, mind-reading, judging, and making unfounded assumptions about the other person. Learning to communicate in ways that are open, direct, and assertive is a lifelong process. Being self-empowered and assertive is certainly an ongoing challenge.

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