Anger is a tricky emotion

March 31, 2019

“You will not be punished for your anger; you will be punished by your anger.”  –Buddha

We used to think the best way to manage our anger was to express it, ideally in a way that didn’t physically or emotionally harm someone else.  For instance, getting in the car or shower and hollering at the top of our lungs, or going into a room, closing the door, and beating a baseball bat or our fists on the bed.

Today we know that acting out our anger doesn’t get rid of it.  Acting it out rehearses and strengthens it.  An article in Psychology Today suggests:  “Anger too easily or frequently mobilized can undermine relationships and … is deleterious to bodies in the long term. Prolonged release of the stress hormones that accompany anger can destroy neurons in areas of the brain associated with judgment and short-term memory, and it can weaken the immune system.”

On the other hand, resisting or ignoring our anger can lead to anxiety and depression which can be just as damaging to our bodies as acting it out.

Caught between a rock and a hard place, what can we do?

Anger has a purpose.  It is one of six basic emotions identified back in the 20thcentury by Paul Ekman, along with fear, disgust, happiness, sadness and surprise.  Anger lets us know something is wrong.  We feel anger when we’re disappointed, mistreated or misled.

In essence, we feel anger to counter a feeling of disempowerment.  Where fear makes us want to flee, anger makes us want to attack, to feel powerful.

Rather than being afraid of our anger and trying to get rid of it, or acting out of it in ways that harm our bodies, our relationships and our future possibilities, we can learn to manage it before it becomes so big that we are unable to control it.

We’re living in a time that seems fraught with anger and fear. If we can’t change the world in its entirety, we can get better at not adding to the divisiveness by learning to manage ourselves in healthy ways that will model a different response to not getting our way.

In my search for anger management tools I ran across an article that has stayed with me.  “How Inuit Parents Teach Kids to Control Anger.”  You can find it here.

The Inuits are indigenous peoples inhabiting the arctic regions of Greenland, Canada and Alaska.  At 34, Jean Briggs, a Harvard graduate and anthropologist, chose to spend 17 months with them above the Arctic Circle, living in the tundra with no roads, heating systems or grocery stores.

One of her discoveries during those grueling and satisfying 17 months, was that Inuit adults and children alike had an extraordinary ability to manage angry feelings.

The Inuits parent uniquely, with humor and stories, without time-outs or scoldings.  In fact, according to Briggs, even showing the tiniest bit of frustration or irritation was considered weak and immature.  By contrast, Briggs said she felt like a wild child:  “My responses were so much cruder, less considerate and more impulsive.”

They don’t see a child acting out as a problem.  They see that a child is upset about something and it’s the parents’ job to help figure out what it is.  And then to model self-regulation in exploring it.

I wish I had read the article when my son was a child having a temper tantrum and my response was to join him in acting out of my least mature  self.  I can remember a time when I literally had to say: “Honey, I’m going to go into the bathroom for a moment because right now we have two 5-year-olds, and one of us has to grow up a little bit.”

My response wasn’t totally unhelpful because I was able to inject a bit of humor and defuse the intensity, but I was still starving for tools that would keep me from reverting to my five year old self in the first place.

My initial reaction to some of the ideas in the article was a bit of resistance.  As I continued reading and sitting with the ideas, however, I realized that it was actually expanding on what I already know. From personal experience I know that humor, dramatic stories, under-reactivity and gentleness are not only effective teaching tools to use with children, but they are also effective in adult interactions and in managing my own angry reactions.

“Kids learn well through narrative and explanations,” says psychologist Deena Weisberg at Villanova University, who studies how small children interpret fiction. “We learn best through things that are interesting to us. And stories, by their nature, can have lots of things in them that are much more interesting in a way that bare statements don’t.”

“Stories with a dash of danger pull in kids like magnets, Weisberg says. And they turn a tension-ridden activity like disciplining into a playful interaction that’s — dare, I say it — fun.”

Here’s an example of using humor and a story.  I was interacting with a friend’s granddaughter.  She was upset and angrily sulking after playing poorly in a family game.  When we had a moment alone, instead of getting all serious, I told her stories about what a terrible game player I used to be (seriously), because back then I thought winning vs losing mattered.  I told her that sometimes I even sat out because I was afraid I wouldn’t be good at a new game and I would feel stupid. Wanting to win so badly made me feel so stressed that playing games became the opposite of fun.  But then I discovered how to have fun even when I lost.  The next time I lost I joked about it and made light fun of myself.  I realized that laughing with my friends was what mattered, not winning.  When I finished I saw her whole body relax.

Preaching, reasoning, using platitudes, or droning on about how a child should behave has rarely been effective.  In my experience, the same holds true for adult conversations.

When was the last time you had a successful outcome managing your anger with another adult by nagging, sulking or hollering in an effort to change someone else’s behavior?

Here’s a challenge.  The next time you’re feeling irritability or frustration or anger bubbling up, label the feeling, breathe all the way out, soften your body, and see if you can’t find a bit of humor, a gentle response, and a story to reframe what is  happening.

Since reading the article I have had endless opportunities to practice.  When I don’t get my way.  When someone says something that I don’t like.  When life hands me something I’m not quite prepared for.  More often than not, in those moments I am finding humor in giving my feelings an age.  Usually I feel around 5 or 6.  Instead of being even angrier with myself, I notice a feeling of tenderness toward that 5 year old who just wants to get what she wants, and can’t.

All the tools in the world aren’t going to make me less human, which means I will probably always want what I want, and be disappointed when I don’t get it.  When I can take a page out of the Intuit parenting book and add humor, kindness and a dramatic story to my toolbox I will reduce the likelihood that I will hurt you by making my anger your problem.

I’d love to hear what you think about modeling anger management in a way that not only teaches our stressed out children how to better navigate this world, but also keeps your blood pressure in check.

Also, please comment on ways you’ve learned to manage your own anger and other uncomfortable  feelings.

Much love,

8 comments

  1. Richard C Mills says:

    From a pamphlet somewhere: “There are only two causes of anger: 1) not getting what I want; and 2) getting what I don’t want
    . That’s it.”
    Now when I start to get angry, I ask myself, “What am I not getting that I want, or what am I getting that I don’t want?” I try to answer honestly.Then I ask the all-important follow up question, “Do I want to choose to get angry about this?”
    The answer is always NO. No, I don’t want to get angry. No, I don’t want the crummy feelings. No, I don’t want to spring loose those chemicals that make my brain feel like it’s filled with hornets.
    “No thanks,” I think, “I don’t choose to get angry.”

    • Robyn says:

      Yes, the idea that we’re hurting ourselves when we swim in anger makes a compelling argument to develop a different relationship with that normal emotion.

  2. Ryan Sarti says:

    Ekman identified six basic emotions: anger, fear, disgust, happiness, sadness and surprise. I was struck by the list. There are at least 4 dark emotions. If it is an unpleasant surprise, make that five. Are there more emotions like happiness that provide a little more light for the world?

    • Robyn says:

      Great question. And yes, there are other longer lists with a few more ‘happy’ feelings. Even on the longer lists, the number of uncomfortable emotions outweighs the number of comfortable ones. I’ve made sense of it in that life hands us a lot of uncomfortable, unexpected experiences, and our challenge is to make peace with that, rather than resisting it. When I stop resisting discomfort, it sometimes transforms into something else. I suspect that my interpretation of and relationship to uncomfortable, surprising, unanticipated feelings is what makes them ‘good’ or ‘bad’, not the feelings themselves. Given the reality that things are changing literally every moment, and change presents the unknown, it makes sense to me that we’re uncomfortable more often than not?

  3. Bethlyn says:

    Oh boy did I need this article, Robyn! Currently parenting a very independent and SMART 2.5 year old who can definitely push my anger buttons! I love the idea of giving my anger an age and meeting it with more compassion. Will definitely play with this. Hopefully I can model some more helpful ways to manage my own anger and the 2.5 year old will pick up on them 🙂 Thanks again!!

    • Robyn says:

      I loved this Bethlyn. And I feel for you! They’re such little beings, but they can cut us off at the knees in a nanosecond. Hang in there and be gentle with yourself!

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