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Using Anger as a Teacher

“He who angers you, conquers you” – Elizabeth Kenny   It is neither realistic nor human to expect that we won’t experience anger. Anger is an old and deeply rooted response to a perceived threat. What we do with our anger, however, distinguishes the blathering, rage-filled, idiot from the strong, confident individual. Learning from our anger teaches us to maintain healthy boundaries, develop self-respect, and respect of others, strengthens our relationships and helps us get our needs met. Anger always masks an underlying fear. Acknowledging the fear underneath our anger is the first step of taking control vs. losing control.
  • Is someone being abusive or treating you disrespectfully?
  • Are you scared that your fundamental needs won’t be met?
  • Are you facing a loss that seems unbearable or terrifying?
  • Is someone doing something in your life that is forcing you to make choices you don’t want to have to make?
  • Are you feeling abandoned?
  • Are you feeling controlled?
These are common examples of what most often underlies our anger. If we react by yelling, attacking, blaming, name calling, complaining, showing contempt, threatening, judging, criticizing, playing the victim, or domineering we are giving in to anger and losing control. These reactions represent failures of self-control, disrespect of our partner and are always destructive to the relationship. Learning to constructively articulate our fears is the second step. It helps to recognize anger early on – before we become emotionally flooded and loose our temper. Take time to sit with your feelings, sort them out, and calm down before communicating with your partner. Learn to express your underlying fears, hurt, or sadness directly: “I’m afraid that…” “I’m hurt when…” “I’m sad because…” In healthy relationships, it’s okay to ask your partner to understand and validate your feelings. What isn’t healthy is expecting your partner to have the same feelings as you, or to agree with you. Each of you has a right to your own feelings and opinions as long as you are respectful of each other. Learn to ask for understanding and compassion for whatever is causing you fear, sadness, or hurt. Your partner probably won’t remember or interpret circumstances the same way as you, but that doesn’t mean they can’t sincerely validate and acknowledge why you are hurting. It might help to share why a fear is particularly upsetting for you due to past experiences. For example, if you were cheated on in the past, you might be sensitive to your partner being protective of his or her phone. Once again, ask for understanding and compassion, not agreement. Lastly, figure out what you want (as opposed to what you don’t want). As a therapist, I have observed that people frequently think they are asking for what they want, when in fact they are stating what they don’t want. People don’t respond well to complaints, blame, or being told what not to do. Instead, learn to communicate desires in a positive way that gives your partner the opportunity to be your hero. Someone who loves you will look forward to pleasing you. Healthy people in healthy relationships derive great pleasure from pleasing their mate. Don’t expect these tips to work right away – especially if the two of you have a long history of arguing and fighting. Building a foundation of respect, trust, and safety might require months of practice and reassurance. It takes consistent behavioral change to shift the paradigm of a relationship from win/lose to validate/cooperate. But it does work and it is worth it! When you have learned to process your anger rather than react to it; when you have learned to discern your greatest fears and articulate them respectfully; when you have learned to ask for what you want in a way that makes your partner feel good about themselves… You have achieved a mastery of self through the mastery of anger.