Anger can be a tough emotion to navigate whether you’re angry at yourself or someone is lashing out in anger at you. It’s natural to want to protect ourselves when someone is reacting in anger. And, of course, self-advocacy and safety are crucial. We don’t ever want to tolerate emotional abuse in any form or in any relationship.
But can we build confidence and learn skills to hold a safe space for angry outbursts? Is it possible to diffuse anger and better love those in our lives?
Before we answer those questions, let’s first explore what anger is and what happens in our bodies when we get angry.
What Is Anger?
Anger is one of the basic human emotions. By dictionary definition, anger is a strong emotion of displeasure, hostility, or belligerence. Old Norse, angr, means grief. So when one is angry, they are experiencing grief, a possible loss of something important to them.
If you look deeper at the etymology of anger, the PIE root (Proto-Indo-European) means “tight, painfully constricted, painful.” And when we feel anger, our bodies constrict, taking blood away from the gut and directing it to our extremities to prepare for a threat. Our minds sharpen and become more alert. Anger is a useful emotion because it invokes quick action and helps us prepare for danger.
In an interview, Dr. Daniel Siegel, Executive Director of the Mindsight Institute, explains what emotions are:
“Emotions can be thought of as the inner and interpersonal process that evokes motion and shapes how our body feels and how our mind is motivated to act.”
Emotions provide us with information to guide us towards wise action. Emotions help us decipher our world and interpret experiences much like our bodies signal us back to health. When we get a runny nose, the symptom informs us of an impending cold so we can get extra rest and increase vitamin C; a headache can remind us to hydrate or eat; a sore muscle encourages us to rest.
It’s not anger that is bad; it’s our reactivity or inability to intentionally respond to its energy that leads to harmful behavior. When we listen to the information that anger is communicating to us, we can identify effective ways to respond that will help us to feel better.
When someone relates to anger effectively:
- They use cognitive abilities to modulate their emotions.
- Focus on solving the problem rather than the person.
- Have an awareness of their impact and how their anger can affect others.
- Take responsibility for their anger without blaming or making it another person’s problem.
- Calm themselves to prevent hurting another or expressing their anger reactively.
- Take effective action required to feel better.
Why Do We Get Angry?
Anger is an evolutionarily adaptive emotion that drives physiological and behavioral “survival” responses aimed at protecting ourselves and/or other people from a threat. Thus, a person expressing anger is feeling afraid and threatened in some way. The problem is, when we are hijacked by anger, we can’t access the thinking part of our brain that helps us choose an effective response.
The first step to being able to intentionally respond versus defensively react to anger (or any emotion), is to validate what makes sense about the emotion, and then to have compassion for the more vulnerable emotion, like the fear, underlying the anger. Even though compassion is the last thing we feel like giving, either to ourselves or another person who is expressing anger, it’s exactly what’s needed to down-regulate the emotion.
The Upstairs Brain and the Downstairs Brain
Dr. Daniel Siegel talks about the upstairs brain (the logical part of our brain) and the downstairs brain (the survival brain or the brain stem). When we “flip our lid” and get angry, the downstairs brain overwhelms our logical brain, the frontal cortex. So when someone is expressing anger in destructive or inappropriate ways, that person is reacting from their downstairs brain; the survival brain is seeking to keep them safe.
The tricky part is that a threat is perceived, and a person’s past experiences influence every person and how they interpret others’ actions. It can be challenging to remain calm or be compassionate toward an angry person when we ourselves may be uncomfortable with anger or triggered and preparing to fight, or running “downstairs” to hide.
When we feel threatened, then we need to care for ourselves and assert healthy boundaries.
Related reading: “How to Deal with Anger Effectively.”
If you feel unsafe when another person is lashing out, taking care of yourself is imperative. Setting boundaries is necessary whenever we need to self-calm, regroup, or don’t feel like our support would help resolve the conflict. It’s best to leave a situation that feels unsafe to you; trust your gut. Ensure you are not jeopardizing your safety.
So the first step begins with checking in with yourself. Do you need self-calming? Are you upset or feeling unsafe? Is the person’s behavior escalating? If so, take care of YOU; remember you are your first responsibility.
Another reason you may want to disengage or “fight back” is if the anger has reached a level where no healthy and reasonable conversation is possible. Sometimes the person needs space or something you cannot give them. To disengage gracefully, say something like, “I want to understand and I’m willing to have a conversation when things calm down.”
When a person isn’t ready to accept or own their emotion, they can blame you for their distress. Step aside and don’t engage in the blame game. Gently maneuver to care for yourself and revisit at a time when you are both calm.
Diffusing Anger through Validation—Help the Person Feel Heard
However, when you are able to be present to another person’s upset, compassion is helpful for those who are feeling big emotions that they may not be able to handle on their own. If you feel stable and can be present to another’s emotion, it’s very reassuring to someone angry.
The goal is to help the person feel understood, which often diffuses emotional upset. Try as much as possible to be specific and act like an accurate mirror. Listen for key words like “frustrated,” “ticked off,” “exasperating” that can assist you in accurately naming what they might feel. Simply naming the emotion can help soothe the person.
Avoid judging how they’re expressing themselves—remember, they’re acting from the downstairs brain. Since anger hijacks common sense as their brain perceives threats, they may act irrationally, at least initially. Anger causes the person’s cognitive scope to narrow, which in turn, narrows their perception of how they’re viewing the world.
Here are some common responses that do not help an angry person feel heard and rarely result in positive outcomes.
Avoid these actions:
- Don’t tell a person to calm down – this rarely works.
- Don’t get angry back. If you can’t remain calm, take whatever space is needed and come back to the interaction when you are not also feeling “hijacked.”
- Don’t stay in an unsafe situation if the other person is acting aggressively. (Know the difference between healthy anger and aggression.)
- Don’t just walk away. If you need to remove yourself from the situation, say you need a break or a moment to self-calm. If it’s someone close to you, let them know you love them and will hear them out when they calm down.
Listen. Really listen and allow the person to empty. Encourage the expression of their feelings and validate what makes sense about feeling the way they do. In that moment, even when acting irrationally, their feelings are real for them. Feeling heard and understood creates safety for the brain and most likely will begin to soothe their emotion and widen their perspective. Many times, there are more vulnerable feelings hiding underneath anger, such as hurt or sadness.
Here are a few possible responses that may help:
- “You have every right to be angry. It makes sense that experience really upset you.”
- “Wow, it sounds like that really upset you. What about the experience made you so angry?”
- “I can see how you could feel that way. Walk me through your experience step by step.”
- “I’m here to help. Tell me what’s upsetting you.”
One of the things that interfere with being present and supportive of an angry person is personalizing what they are saying. Try reminding yourself that just because the person is upset doesn’t mean it’s about you—depersonalize the anger.
To respond firmly yet compassionately when a person is angry, it’s important to remember that they are actually trying to get a valid need met. Whether the person is your spouse, child, friend, or co-worker, anger reveals an unmet need. It can be their need for safety, a loss of some sort, the need to be loved, heard or valued, or simply seeking understanding for an experience that is overwhelming and stressful.
Understanding that emotions are driven by legitimate needs will increase your compassion for them and the ability to be present. When a person is angry, they need compassion and sometimes, healthy boundaries.
Learning to set effective boundaries and protect your sense of emotional safety when dealing with anger takes practice like any skill. Our Healthy Boundaries, Happy Life mini-course can help.
And to get personalized support, learn more about emotional intelligence, or for transformative coaching, contact us at Heartmanity at firstname.lastname@example.org.