Anger and Relationships
Many people struggle with anger. We may have numerous, overwhelming commitments to family, home-life, work, school, and community that can leave us feeling depleted and stressed. It seems there are not enough hours in the day. Endless tasks create a feeling of being boxed in (or cornered) with no outlet in sight. When our stressors become overwhelming, and expectations continue to bombard us, we can become defensive and lash out at the people that mean the most to us. Unfortunately, when things calm down, we may feel ashamed at how we treated those we love.
Anger is not an inherently bad emotion. It is one of many emotions that help us navigate the world. Anger alerts us to danger and signals an immediate reaction, influx of hormones and chemicals, and briefly bypasses our ability to think. Think of a tiger as an example. If we come face to face with a tiger, do we want to take time to think, “Do I want to run, or do I want to fight?” No. We want to be fueled by our anger to react to the immediate threat of a tiger, and then, when things have settled, have an opportunity to think about what happened. In this context, anger is a helpful and life-preserving response.
Not only is anger triggered by real dangers, such as a tiger, but it is also triggered by how we respond to ourselves in the midst of stress. Our brain responds to negative and judgmental self-talk just as if a tiger were in the room. We immediately trigger a threat reaction. When we tell ourselves we are not good enough, we are bad, or everything is our fault, our brain goes into threat detection and danger mode. Moreover, the same thing happens in the brain when we use negative and judgmental talk with others. This is when anger can bring negative consequences to our lives.
For example, when stress goes up, our level of empathy goes down. When our stress levels are high, it is more difficult to be understanding of others and ourselves. When we become angry, our brains temporarily shut down those parts of the brain that hold our hopes and dreams, the thinking, logical, rational parts. The problem is not with anger, but with those times when we act out of anger in our relationships.
Anger in relationships becomes destructive when it fuels conflict. Name-calling, defensiveness, criticism, contempt, and stonewalling are signs that anger is dominating the relationship. This type of behavior erodes intimacy. (Gottman, 2000) It does not have to be this way, however. Conflict can actually strengthen relationships when we seek to really hear one another and search for creative ways to repair our bond.
If anger has become a constant companion, take a moment (right now) and take a deep breath. Take another one. Know that many of us struggle with multiple stressors in our world. Not one of us is perfect. Take a time-out any time anger begins to rise. Know that we are not fit for human consumption when we are in the midst of anger.
Now, begin a new practice and respond to oneself with compassion. Compassionate self-talk has been shown to calm the threat-detection system and allow us to be more understanding with others. Kristin Neff is an expert in self-compassion. Her research found that “people who can first give themselves emotional support and validation will be in a better position to be giving, accepting and generous to their partners.” She also found that “people who nurture self-compassion have better overall psychological and emotional health, experience less anxiety and depression, are more motivated to achieve their goals.” (Randall, 2013)
When we talk to ourselves with criticism and self-judgment, we fuel anger. When we respond to ourselves with kindness and compassion, we calm our body and create space to respond courageously with our best selves. Paul Gilbert, in his video series on self-compassion, uses the illustration of talking to our best friend. If a friend found himself or herself going through these challenges, how would we comfort and console? Likewise, be a friend to yourself. (Paul Gilbert, 2011) Know that the body is capable of calming itself down, and that the brain is lighting up to meet each unique challenge that arises.
Try these steps:
- Take a deep breath (calms body and helps us disengage)
- Take a time-out, calm down, and allow emotions time to settle
- Notice self-talk
- Respond to self with kindness and compassion
- Start Over
- Repeat anytime
Check out Paul Gilbert’s and Kristin Neff’s Video Resources on Self-Compassion and Anger.
Gottman, John. (2000). The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work.
Randall, Kay. (2013). Happy Valentines to Me?