“Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one who gets burned.” ~Buddha
For as long as I can remember I’ve struggled with anger.
My earliest memories of my anger are from junior high school, but it was around much earlier than that.
The only emotion that was ever shown in my house growing up was anger. My dad had an anger problem, and my mother showed no emotion at all. This is what emotional normal looked like to me—either nothing or anger.
I was the quiet, reserved kid, keeping my emotions locked away. I buried my feelings, especially the touchy ones, trying to hide any expression of vulnerability. Not knowing what to do with my feelings other than ignore them.
It was obvious to the teachers that paid attention and cared that I was hurting, and my anger showed it, but I didn’t know it. I was sarcastic and had an edge to the way I talked and interacted with others. One day, while standing in line to leave the classroom, I got bumped from behind, and without hesitation, I turned around and punched the kid behind me to the floor.
As I went through my twenties trying to figure who I was and what my place in this world could be, anger spewed out of me at unexpected and awkward times. It confused others, but it was all normal to me.
It wasn’t until I got fired from a job because I was too confrontational toward the owner that I started to see my anger as more about me than others or my circumstances.
One of my favorite sayings that best describes my view of my anger back then is, “I don’t need anger management. I need people to stop pissing me off!”
Acknowledging my problem with anger wasn’t easy. It required admitting shortcomings and facing deeper issues within myself, something I’d worked years to avoid. But I finally realized and accepted that my future relationships, happiness, and mental health depended upon understanding and resolving those feelings and beliefs.
My First Step in Healing – Not as Easy as I’d Hoped
The journey toward healing started with self-reflection and seeking support. Ironically, this journey to understand myself began as I was completing my undergraduate degree in psychology.
I found a psychologist to help me unravel the complex emotions I’d been suppressing for so many years. I’ll admit, I was hoping he’d give me a few quick tips and tricks to keep my anger under control and send me on my way.
No such luck.
He explained that to truly resolve anger issues, I had to:
- Deconstruct my anger response
- Create a healthy framework for processing my feelings
- Learn new methods for communicating and expressing emotions
The process wasn’t as quick and easy as I’d wanted.
What It Looks Like to Deconstruct Your Anger
Deconstructing your anger means breaking apart and examining the elements that have created it.
The process requires analyzing and understanding the underlying factors, triggers, and emotions contributing to your anger and its eruptions. Although it takes work and a hard look at some ugly parts of yourself, doing this leads to the effective management of all emotions, which is an essential skill for happiness.
The key steps for deconstructing your anger are:
1. Evaluating past experiences
Past experiences and traumas contribute to how you respond to certain situations and influence the formation of anger. Reflecting on these experiences can help you recognize patterns and triggers.
For me, it was the influence of my father. He was both emotionally disconnected from our family and blisteringly angry. Any response could be cold or hot, or simultaneously both.
Unknowingly, like every kid, I was psychologically influenced by him. And although I would have told you I wasn’t going to be anything like him, it turned out that I followed in his footsteps (until my thirties when I began to really do this work).
2. Understanding your emotions
Anger is a complex emotion that often masks other feelings. Fear, sadness, frustration, and hurt are all difficult feelings to face. For many, including me, it was easier to get angry than deal with the intensity of these feelings I didn’t know how to face or process.
These emotions also created feelings of vulnerability and weakness in me that I didn’t want to see, experience, or admit to. And I certainly didn’t want to show them to anyone else.
But examining these underlying emotions is a necessity for understanding anger and learning how to lessen and control it.
3. Identifying your triggers
Everyone has things that trigger a seemingly automatic emotional response. Identifying triggers, the emotion that follows a trigger, and how your anger rescues that emotion is crucial.
Triggers can be external (e.g., someone’s actions, words, situations, or events) or internal (e.g., negative thoughts or memories).
When I looked closely, I discovered that most of my triggers involved my expectations of others. One such expectation is rule following—doesn’t everybody know you don’t drive slow in the fast lane? Or that you treat others the way you want to be treated?
4. Analyzing responsive thoughts
Most of us have reinforced certain thought patterns. And these thoughts significantly influence our emotions and emotional response. Deconstructing anger involves examining these thoughts and the resulting emotions that fuel your anger.
For instance, are you jumping to conclusions, catastrophizing, or personalizing situations? If so, your emotional response may be disproportionate or even inappropriate for the situation.
I began to understand that my expectations led me to make assumptions about others that were incorrect. If you look in the rearview mirror when driving and think about how your speed is impacting other drivers, you’d move to the right, but some people don’t use their mirrors and aren’t aware of what’s going on around them. They should, but they don’t.
Changing my expectation that everyone drives like me helped me reduce the buildup of anger.
5. Assessing responsive behavior
Responsive thoughts often initiate responsive emotions and behaviors, such as getting angry. By examining your behavioral responses and how they impact your relationships, and others in general, you’ll better understand why it’s helpful to consider new and healthier alternatives.
I realized that my inclination toward aggressive driving was a result of my anger at others for not following the “rules,” and this was only fueling more anger and negatively impacting me, not changing anyone else.
6. Exploring new coping mechanisms
If you’re struggling with anger issues, your current coping mechanisms for the deep emotions that trigger anger aren’t working. You need to find more constructive ways to respond to and express your feelings. Doing so will help break the negative thought-behavior cycle.
Part of my process was to write down what triggered me, along with my responsive thoughts and behaviors. Looking at them on paper and away from the emotion of the moment allowed me to see them accurately as unhelpful and unhealthy for me.
I could then write out a more balanced and healthier response. Once on paper, I would practice those more positive responses, and then weekly look back and reread what I’d originally written and my new better coping response to assess my progress.
7. Setting boundaries and prioritizing self-care
Recognizing your limits and establishing healthy boundaries will help prevent you from being drawn into situations that trigger anger. It’s also critical to prioritize self-care to ensure that you have the emotional resources to handle challenging situations.
One of the more effective practices for me is walking away for a few minutes when I feel my frustration or anger rising. By removing myself from a triggering situation I am better able to refocus more on myself internally and less on the external situation.
These steps aren’t an overnight fix and really need to become a life-long practice. But by following these steps to deconstruct your own anger you’ll gain self-awareness and emotional intelligence that can empower you to respond to difficult emotions more constructively.
The Transformative Result of Deconstructing My Anger
As I worked through these steps, I was able to develop and incorporate new ways to cope with my emotions.
This path of personal growth coincided with my pursuit of multiple degrees in psychology. So, as I learned how to help others change, I was able to first help myself change. Now I’m the doctor giving the advice, which comes from years of training as well as my own personal experience.
Mindfulness and internal reflection have allowed me to respond to my feelings with greater emotional intelligence. I’ve learned to recognize my triggers and the warning signs of building anger in the moment and implement calming techniques as a response before an eruption.
But perhaps the most profound transformation came from learning to show kindness and compassion toward myself. I am now able to acknowledge my mistakes, forgive myself, accept that I am a work in progress, and recognize the need for regular emotional check-ins with myself.
Deconstructing my anger has opened the door to my being more understanding and patient with others. The process has also helped me better empathize with my patients, as I’ve sat where they sit and done the work I recommend they do too.
I still feel anger at times—it’s a natural emotion, and it can be beneficial in certain situations. I will always be more prone to it than others. But anger doesn’t control my life or negatively impact my relationships any longer.
My journey toward addressing my anger issues has been long and challenging, but it’s also been profound and life-changing. We all carry burdens, and we heal and grow through acknowledging and addressing them.
Deconstructing your anger can be a transformative process, empowering you to understand your emotions better and respond to them more effectively. Remember, although anger is a natural part of being human, how you choose to manage it determines its impact on your life and the lives of others around you.