Dealing with anger is much easier when you know what you're truly angry about. Sometimes people may feel irritable because of factors like stress or sleep deprivation, but more often, there's a more specific reason for the anger. Anger is considered a secondary emotion. Anger is always driven by a primary emotion; a softer, more vulnerable emotion.
For example, your friend showed up a half-hour late to another planned night out together. You're fed up because this has happened several times, now. After all, you're busy, too, and you got there on time! Underneath the anger is the primary emotion. You may feel devalued, disrespected, or as if you are unimportant to your friend.
We all have a lens of our childhood "stuff" that we see things through. Let's say you were a child of an alcoholic parent who used to show up late to your school events, if they even showed up at all. As an adult, when your friend shows up late the subconscious feelings of disappointment you felt time and time again while you waited for your parent are now added on to the disappointment of your friend showing up late. Our subconscious remembers and connects things from our past that we haven't healed from to similar events of today, intensifying our emotions.
Anger is the evidence that we feel strongly about something. From anger we can learn what our values are, what we need, what we lack, what we believe, and what our insecurities are.
Instead of saying, "I can't believe how irresponsible, insensitive and inconsiderate she is," a more productive response is "I am really upset by this. Why does it bother me so much? What am I really feeling? What are my primary feelings? What need do I have that is not being met? What principles of mine have been violated?" If we can identify what's really going on inside, that can be part of our healing process to dealing with past hurts and it allows for a better chance of diffusing anger and making a better decision on how to deal with current offenses.
Also, adding empathy to our thought process can be extremely beneficial. If we are able to put ourselves in the other person's shoes, it changes our perspective and anger will decrease. Whenever possible, it is also helpful to assume that the other person has the best intentions. Even the most hostile people are usually not trying to hurt others. They are typically trying to protect or defend themselves. This does not mean that consequences and boundaries are not used to discourage hostile behavior, but it can still be helpful to understand that people are not usually trying to hurt us.
Often times we hang on to our anger much longer than we need to. So much of how we handle anger is subconscious, so much of it is habit, and so much of it is choice to accept reality and forgive. Remember, anger is important because it tells us that we feel strongly about something, but it must be worked through in order to have a fulfilling, peaceful life.
• Kim Romen, MSW, LCSW, is owner and founder of Family Perspectives, L.L.C., and a licensed therapist and member of the Ahwatukee Foothills Behavioral Health Network. She specializes in relationship and family therapy and can be reached at (480) 277-0049 or www.counselingphoenix.com.