There’s a difference between a healthy feeling of anger and an unhealthy expression of that anger. Being in charge of my anger is about making sure the anger isn’t in control.
2 quick points:
I want to jump in and quash the idea that people shouldn’t get angry. There’s a lot going on in our lives and not being angry every once in a while would be worrisome and unhealthy. Anger is a proper response to injustice, whether being cut in line at the deli, or being denied one’s basic human rights.
While I’m on a quashing roll, there’s also no real anger control, just like there’s no sadness, happiness, or guilt control. We don’t learn how to control or even manage our emotions, we learn to feel them fully so they don’t control how we express them. We stop them from running our lives. Denying them, or thinking we can have full power over them, just doesn’t work. Trying to control a feeling takes a lot of energy, and the feeling ends up coming out somewhere else. The guy that never gets sad, never is afraid? There’s usually an irritability in there, there’s a headache–or worse.
Being in Charge of My Anger (Without Being In Control)
Anger can be a powerful motivating energy, but to be helpful, you still need to be “in charge”. If you’re unable to direct it toward something positive, it can get you in trouble.
Many people I work with are afraid of their anger. Afraid what it will do to others and how dangerous it could be to themselves. Afraid of the retaliation if they let that anger out. We need to learn how to express it in a place and with people who can handle it. Being in charge of my anger means I need to know my anger and how it sits in my body.
3 Steps to Being in Charge
- Know Where Your Anger Starts: This first step requires some homework. Often I have people tell me they go from 0 to 100 in an eye blink. Sometimes that happens, but more often than not there is a heating up period. For some people that’s a knot forming in their stomach. Others can feel their face get hot. Usual external signs are balling up fists or a restless leg. These are particular to each individual and taken apart can mean lots of different things, but they are common responses. It’ll be helpful if you knew your response. You might want to ask someone you trust how they can tell if you’re getting angry. This is often something I do early on with people who are concerned about their anger. We try to find it physically–separate from thoughts or emotions. Take a few minutes to imagine the last time you got really angry. If you close your eyes and go through the time leading up to it are you aware of your physical signs of anger?
- Take Care of Yourself Early On: Ok, now that I am aware of the early signs of my anger I am closer to being in charge of my anger. Why? Because now I have choices. You do not have to become the Incredible Hulk, you can remain a human being who is getting very angry. You’re now in a better spot to ask yourself some helpful questions, such as
- “Is this a time when I need to show exactly how I feel, or is it not in my best interest to do so?” (e.g., staff meeting at work; kids are around; etc.)
- “What the most effective way I can let this anger out?”
- “Should I move away from people and get to the gym, or walk around the block, jog around the park? or am I in a place and with people who I want to know how angry I am?”
- “Can I express this anger without becoming frightening to others?” (There’s a difference between scaring people and making them uncomfortable. Are you the best judge of this? You may want to check in with people you care about whether your anger literally makes them afraid. If that is a common theme you hear from others, please take it seriously. There are ways to healthily express this anger and now that you are more aware of your anger earlier (i.e., before it is in control of you) you have a chance to choose.)
- What Are You Up Against?: Sometimes, not always, anger is a weigh station for other emotions. It often takes men, especially, getting really angry in order for them to come out the other side and express how [insert vulnerability here] they actually are. Maybe it’s fear or grief that’s buried in that anger, but the next step in being in charge is to know what it is you’re letting out. Maybe it is anger, and that’s important to know. Rarely, though, do we get one feeling at a time, and for men who are socialized to not show some of the more vulnerable feelings (sadness, fear, embarrassment, shame, guilt…just to name a few) we need to get through that anger first. This is what we don’t hear about when we’re told about the angry guy who did something destructive–he often expresses some deep unhappiness at the end of it. What if he could have expressed that earlier?
Becoming more connected with your anger may allow you to fully express it without that destruction. It’s not necessary for your anger to be destructive in order for you to feel that it is fully expressed.
This is hard for some guys to do, especially when anger is the only emotion in their feeling vocabulary. Maybe you’ve been trying to hold it all in–or you’re concerned that if you don’t let it all out you’re not going to be true to who you are. Please don’t hesitate to get in contact if you’d like to talk about this further. As weird as it may sound, you can learn to be in charge without having to be in control.
Justin Lioi, LCSW is a men’s mental health and relationship expert based in Brooklyn, NY (and online throughout New York State and internationally.) He received his degree from New York University and has been working with men and their families for over 10 years. Justin is on the Board of the National Association of Social Workers and writes a weekly column for the Good Men Project called Unmasking Masculinity. He can be found on local and national podcasts talking about assertiveness, anger, self-compassion, all with the goal of becoming the man you want to be. He works with all men but has a particular focus on providing counseling for fathers (and guys hoping to become dads!)