Anger is all about expectations. We expect people to be kind and respectful and when they aren’t, we feel anger. We expect our children to follow our instructions and when the don’t, we get angry. We expect our government to have our best interests at heart and when they don’t, you guessed it — anger. Whenever there is too much space between our expectations and the reality of the situation, we feel anger.
But anger is a natural and healthy emotion that everyone feels from time to time. Sometimes when we interact with others, we can can suddenly become angry. And when we find ourselves suddenly caught off guard with unexpected anger or feeling anger at a time when we can’t express it, it can be difficult to cope with.
So, what can you do when you find yourself suddenly and unexpectedly angry? Below are some strategies to help keep your calm and respond appropriately.
Acknowledge Your Feelings
When you’re caught off guard with anger, you might start to feel defensive or emotional and not immediately know why. Before you say or do anything, explore your feelings and acknowledge that you’re angry, and the likely cause of the anger. “Our children got in a fight her child started it, and she’s wrongfully blaming my daughter.”
Take a Deep Breath
As you acknowledge you’re upset, stop and take a deep breath. Breathe in through your nose and slowly release all the oxygen from your lungs until every last bit of air is gone. Do this 2–3 times. The act of releasing all the oxygen from your lungs (longer exhalations), helps trigger the relaxation response in your body.
Then put some physical distance between you and the other person or situation by taking a couple of steps back. The physical distance also helps to create distance from the thoughts and feelings. There’s a big difference between the thought, “I’m really angry” and “I’m feeling angry right now” or “I’m noticing I’m feeling angry right now.”
Be Curious Instead of Furious
If you have difficulty controlling your anger, it can be all too easy to instantly jump into furious mode and unleash the wrath of your anger. Instead of being angry, try being curious. Consider why this person is behaving this way, or saying these things. Maybe they had a bad morning or heard some upsetting news. Maybe it’s not a person and you’re simply feeling angry and you don’t know why. Instead of getting angry that you don’t know why you’re so angry, be curious. “What is my anger trying to tell me right now?”
It’s Not Always About You
Remind yourself that this isn’t personal to you. Often times when people are behaving inappropriately or saying hurtful things, it’s because of things going on with them in their own lives that have nothing to do with you or anyone else. It’s all too easy to personalize it and jump into that space between your expectations (people should treat me a certain way) and the gap in reality. Practice reminding yourself that it’s not always about you, and check your (likely unmet) expectations.
Use “I” Statements
When you’re upset, it might not always be appropriate to respond. Sometimes it’s best to just walk away. A friend once told me about her personal rule of waiting 24 hours to respond to anyone who triggered feelings of anger within her. No doubt difficult to implement (at first), but almost always the best approach.
But if you do need to say something, focus on the behavior you find unacceptable without placing blame. Talk specifically about your feelings and the effect of the behavior on you. By communicating without placing blame, you are more likely to be understood and work towards a resolution, rather than putting the other person on defense and starting a conflict. “When you speak to me in that tone, I feel frustrated and defensive.”
If you’re still feeling upset after a difficult exchange, try calling a friend to vent, write your feelings down in a letter you’ll never send, or do some exercise. Go for a walk. Do something nice for yourself later, like cooking a special dinner or taking a hot bath. When it comes to anger, remember that in the long run it’s best for you to control it, rather than allow it to control you.
Are you having difficulty managing your emotions? Is anger beginning to have a negative impact on your life, relationships, and career? Life is too short to spend it feeling angry all the time. Anger management therapy can help.
James Killian, LPC is the Principal Therapist & Owner of Arcadian Counseling in New Haven, CT where they specialize in helping over-thinkers, high achievers, and perfectionists take control and move From Surviving to Thriving.