tom-hardy-shirtless-warrior1Dear Michael:

I am embarrassed to be writing to you, but so what?  I am 37 years old, and angry all the time.  

The weird thing is, I don’t know exactly what I’m angry about, but I have to admit that lately my anger seems out of control.  I blow up at everybody, in the car, with friends, with people at work.  Some days, everything just pisses me off!  

My best friend told me I need “anger management” classes, because I’m always going off on her and she’s fed up.  I think she’s right, but what exactly is “anger management”

Ready to Explode in Oceanside

Dear Ready:

When someone treats you badly, it’s natural and even healthy to feel angry.  Instead of stuffing your anger until it builds (like a volcano) eventually to “explode”, anger is a sign that you have needs that aren’t being met.

When you act out your anger, usually it’s you who suffers the most.  You may yell at someone else, give the finger to another driver on the freeway, insult a colleague at work, but, in the long run, it will come back to hurt you more than it will them.  Out-of-control anger is destructive.  Anger expressed responsibly is constructive and healthy.

Anger that gets pushed under always finds its way to the surface, and will eventually “explode” with damaging results.  Being able to responsibly express anger is part of being assertive.  If you can’t assert your needs, wants or desires, you’re going to get frustrated, annoyed and angry.  This doesn’t mean you always get what you want; you ask for what you want or tell someone what you don’t want, and see what happens.

For example, if your friend does something you don’t like, you can be passive (stuff it and say nothing), aggressive (overreact and yell at her, “You idiot, I told you not to do that”) or assertive: “Remember that I told you how much that annoys me.  I’m starting to get angry because you’re doing it again.”

Anger Management is about responsible and timely expression of anger.  This doesn’t mean going off on people whenever you feel like it.  It means finding a way to maturely and respectfully express yourself when someone or something is bothering you.

When I work with clients on “anger management”, I help them figure out what to do with their anger, how to control it (not vice-versa) and where it comes from.  Where DOES your anger come from?  Anger Management asks you to THINK, not REACT.  Your thoughts create your emotional reaction, not vice-versa.

The next time you’re angry, think before you react.  You could ask yourself: “What am I upset about?” “What need of mine is being ignored/denied?”  “What do I want to be different?” or “How do I want to be treated”?  When you are clear on what you want, you can ask for it.  You can let others know when you don’t like what they’re doing/saying to you.

However, if you’re angry almost ALL the time, this is different from situational anger.

Chronic, ongoing anger is almost always a reaction to old stuff; it’s important to figure out where it comes from.  This doesn’t mean that you blame your parents, teachers, or whomever for past poor behavior.  It means that you take responsibility for yourself by: (1) admitting that you have valid reasons to be angry and (2) finding healthy outlets for that anger.

The worst way to channel your anger is to aim it at someone by yelling at or blaming them.  Usually, our nearest and dearest get the worst of our anger.  This can destroy a good relationship, so it’s crucial to find other ways to channel your anger.  Here are a few:

Get some intense physical exercise: drop to the floor and do pushups until you’re exhausted.  Then see how angry you feel.  Run, jog, lift weights…it’s really hard to be angry when that endorphin “high” kicks in.

Write about it: uncensored writing that you don’t show to anyone can be a good release.  Be as pissed off as you want to!  It won’t hurt anyone (just don’t mail or Email it).

Sometimes you need to talk about it with someone you trust.  A friend may be just what you need.  If the anger persists (beyond a few days), a therapist may be helpful in finding the cause of chronic anger.

Hit an inanimate object with your fists or a tennis racket; it’s a good physical release for anger.  You can beat pillows, hit the bed or slug a punching bag.

Scream in the car (while you’re alone, of course).  Ignore those strange looks on the faces of your fellow drivers…they’re just jealous you can scream so well!

Here’s what NOT to do:

Drink alcohol or take drugs:  this lowers your impulse control and encourages you to “explode”.  Domestic violence often involves alcohol or drug use.

Get in your car and drive.  Sometimes driving can calm you down, but if you’re really angry, your ability to drive is impaired and you’re likely to get angrier when other drivers don’t vacate the freeways for you.  Go for a walk instead.

Yell at people or “tell someone off”: you’ll feel better for, oh, about 5 seconds.  And then the repercussions come: you can’t undo cruel things you say or do.

Break things.  You’ll  just have to clean up and replace them.

Give someone the finger in traffic: how do you know that the other driver isn’t high on crystal meth or has a gun in her/his glove compartment?  Don’t risk pissing off some crazy person who might follow you home!

Anger can be an asset:  it’s one way to let other people know where you stand, e.g., “this is not okay with me”.

Anger clarifies what you think and feel; it can help you to identify the source of your conflicts with others.  You can say to your friend, “This matters to me, I need to be able to talk with you about it, because if I don’t, I’m going to resent you.”  Unexpressed anger causes resentment, and too much resentment results in the kind of emotional “explosion” you talked about.

Let’s be real.  If your goal is to express your anger responsibly, in all conditions, at all times.  Good luck!  No one I’ve ever met has pulled this off.  But, it’s a good goal.

“Anger management” is about gaining control over your emotions so your brain can short-circuit your impulsive reactions to say and do hurtful things.  In the long run, learning to manage your own anger is one of the best things you can do for YOU…and, of course, your friend(s) will be happy too.