Daniel stared furiously down at the toothpaste tube. It was flat in the middle, with a gaping pocket of toothpaste at the bottom. Again.
“How many times do I have to tell her that toothpaste is supposed to be squeezed from the bottom UP! Everyone knows that! This is ridiculous!!!” He yanked it off the shelf and roughly squeezed the toothpaste to the top, silently fuming. Why did stuff like this keep happening to him?
As you might imagine, this was about way more than toothpaste.
Have you ever gotten good and angry, knowing deep down that it was valid, true, and you had every right to feel that way? Then somehow, the situation ended up blowing up in your face, turning into an ugly debate that ended up with nothing being resolved, and maybe even left you in a worse spot than you were before.
This is a pretty good sign you’re using anger as a weapon instead of a tool. But what does that actually mean? I’m glad you asked.
Let’s take the case of Daniel. He grew up in a family where conflict was avoided at all costs. There were no arguments, no conflicts, no open disagreements. Instead, there was just this underlying consistent dysfunction where everyone played nice all of the time and then said awful things behind each other’s backs. Naturally, disagreements scared the hell out of him as an adult. To him, any argument was a sign that you shouldn’t be with someone.
This didn’t really help him have the healthiest relationships.
In fact, his whole adult life followed the same old pattern. A relationship would start off really well. He and his partner would be happy, in love, enjoying the honeymoon period. And then suddenly, out of nowhere, a dramatically painful ending. Daniel was at a loss –– why was he seemingly cursed with relationships that were amazing right up until the minute they weren’t?
It dawned on him that he really didn’t understand emotions; in fact other than the happy ones they kinda freaked him out. He even recognized his instinct was to shut them down, turn them off, avoid them altogether. So eventually he decided to get some help with understanding his emotions.
So he read The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck. He listened to podcasts. He even went to therapy. All of this left him really in touch with his emotions … especially one great big one: anger. After years of putting every disagreement out of sight, he had years’ worth of arguments to feel his way through, and he was seriously pissed off. And it led to him making one of the most common mistakes newly feeling-literate people make:
Daniel decided he was going to be “honest”.
He had put off conflict for too long, from here on out, he was going to honestly express his anger whenever he damn well felt like it. And in the course of doing so, he ended up ruining many of his relationships. At the end of his rope one day in my office, confused as to why yet again, his girlfriend was upset with him, he exclaimed in exasperation,, “She can’t handle my anger! I don’t get it, I’m just being honest” As we talked, it became clear that Daniel’s idea of “honest” included things like yelling at his girlfriend because she smiled too long at a mutual friend, being rude to servers in restaurants when the service he received failed to meet his expectation, and putting friends in “their place” whenever there was a disagreement or misunderstanding.
OK, so what gives? It sounds like Daniel’s damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t –– he shouldn’t hold his anger back, but he can’t express it either?
Here’s the thing: anger is a tricky emotion. It’s often pathologized, seen as a loss of control, or even promoted socially depending on the topic. It feels better than depression, sadness or powerlessness. So many people prefer it as a way of showing up and making a case for their “rightness.” This is where people, like Daniel, start to get into trouble.
While it feels justified and often empowering, acting from a position of anger is actually a way of covering up another even less pleasant emotion, and unfortunately, it’s likely to get you even more of what you don’t want. Angry facial expressions, tones of voice and body language are non-verbal signs that you’re dangerous and people should get away from you. Nobody is required to “handle your anger” or absorb your rage. It’s your job to process it.
Nobody is required to “handle your anger” but you.
It doesn’t mean you don’t get to be mad. It does mean that you have to choose how to handle your anger wisely –– and acting out, yelling at loved ones, showing disdain to strangers, and positioning yourself as better than others isn’t the answer.
Since anger is a secondary emotion, a cover up for fear, sadness, or loneliness, it means that figuring out what that primary emotion is and expressing yourself from that emotional standpoint (instead of the anger) is the key to being able to use anger as a tool to solve problems and build relationships rather than as a weapon to destroy them.
The way you do it is really, really simple: you take a breath.
Seriously, all you gotta do is pause for a second. The next time you’re angry, rather than reacting impulsively, take a breath, get physically grounded, and take a minute to get clear on why you’re so angry and what the underlying primary emotion might be. Then respond to the other person from that emotion.
It’s not always going to feel good. In fact, it might feel very, very uncomfortable, because it requires you to be vulnerable. You can’t be blindly angry and vulnerable at the same time.
Vulnerability is vital to human connection. And when you are truly being vulnerable it sounds like truth and feels like courage. And being vulnerable is a risk. You don’t know how the other person is going to respond. But the truth is you will never know if you don’t take that risk.
Have questions? Tangled up in your own anger? Click here to schedule a free 20 minute consult.