Anger management

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 Anger management: how to use it when you lose it


This is day two and I’m waiting at home for an important parcel. I waited all day yesterday. It’s a computer I need before catching a flight.

The computer arrived on the docks and made it to the office of the courier. But it seems the courier had trouble ringing the doorbell and putting the card under the door. Later I found the card blown on to the road.

I called and was told: “No, they can’t come back, they’ve done their runs in your suburb.”

“But I took a whole day off. I’ve been waiting.”

“They rang the door and no one was home.”

“Yes, yes I was. I was waiting all day. I was waiting for the doorbell. When can he be here? I have a plane to catch.”

I knew the answer — just like we all know the answer when we’re waiting for people to connect phone cables, fix the plumbing, repair the roof …

Here it comes, I thought. “Sorry, I can’t say. We won’t know ’til the morning when he does his schedule.”

“But you have to know … I can’t stay home all day again. I can leave the gate open. Please …?”

“It’s a signature item. You have to be home.”

As I waited, I felt pure red rage. I spent the morning secreting hormones, cortisol, adrenalin, things you don’t want in your body. Too much cortisol depletes the immune system. Can you sue for adrenalin damage?

How does one deal with this degree of rage? And is it justified given the silly logic that runs business, and the world, today? It’s the question of the moment. In the “peace and love” 1970s it was very unfashionable to express anger. It was done only inside the therapy room or in the sand pit, or through the primal scream, curled up on the floor. Outside the room it was considered the ultimate evil. The toxic emotion that led countries to war. So, “Bottle it, man … chill.”

These days, that’s a big ask. There are too many of us too close together, and this discomfort can lead to road rage, yoga-mat rage, cinema rage. There are people parked across other people’s driveways because there is no space; people talking loudly on the phone in restaurants and on trains; or people walking too slowly in the street because they are taking selfies. There is just no space or time to think; in supermarkets, speakers blare music and hard sell at their captive audiences.

Then, of course, there’s modern technology and a DIY culture. When your internet is down, who do you scream at anyway? Someone in an overseas call centre not related to the service provider who is trying hard to be nice to the screaming lady?

It’s a world of little courtesy; few manners and less consideration; rampant narcissism and a lot of bullying. Then there are the myriad disturbing social injustices that affront us every day.

So … chill? These days it’s far more normal to let it all out, and the healing professions seem to agree that it’s better out than in. In her book The Dance of Anger, Harriet Lerner praises the much-­maligned emotion. “Anger is something we feel. It exists for a reason and always deserves our respect and attention,” she writes. “We all have a right to everything we feel — and certainly our anger is no exception.”

Lerner says anger is a signal worth heeding because often it notifies us that something is wrong or we are being abused — just as a burn does if we touch a hot stovetop. But many people, especially women, are taught to suppress their anger, to deny it entirely or to vent it in a way that leaves us feeling helpless and powerless.

Sydney therapist Jo-Anne Baker agrees anger is a sign our boundaries or ethics have been breached and that there is something that needs to be dealt with, explored and resolved. But it needs to be dealt with in a balanced way.

Suppressed anger can turn into depression, self-loathing or a feeling of powerlessness; the chemicals of brewing anger can be corro­sive. But expressing it aggressively is ineffective and destructive.

The point is to allow ourselves to feel the frustration but express it wisely. Effective strategies have to be put in place to make the difference. Communication experts say speaking one’s mind firmly helps — which includes saying “I feel” rather than “you always” or playing the blame game. Suppressing feelings for fear of rejection is poor communication and leads to people eventually exploding, causing more damage than if they had spoken their truth.

Lerner teaches us to identify the true sources of anger and to use it as a powerful vehicle for creating lasting change. Baker agrees it’s constructive to understand what is really behind the anger. Is it something from childhood? Is our reaction to another person’s behaviour justified or just triggered by past wounds? Is the anger unexpressed childhood grief? Or fear that turned into anger because we were abandoned or ignored? Are we projecting?

Anger can be petulant, blaming and unreasonable — humans have to be “right”. Or it can be fully justified and evidence of time to take action. But the point is, it can be a great teaching tool. Dissecting the truth behind the anger and taking responsibility can lead to significant personal growth and change, getting rid of toxic relationships, improving good ones and having a happier life.

And here is where the second part of the equation comes in: righteous anger. What is it OK to be angry about? I have my list: cruelty, disrespect, selfishness, rudeness and lack of manners are all fair game. I saw a man hitting his dog in the street and felt justifiable fury. It’s fine to be angry at those who seek to cause harm to us or others, or put themselves first out of a lack of empathy.

These are broadly universal standards. Drunk drivers, corrupt politicians, cruel leaders, those who bully or harm the defenceless, domestic abusers, pedophiles: anger at such people is more than understandable.

So, how do we deal with them? The man who hits the dog is a hard one. I guess you try to speak carefully to him or report it.

For greater causes, social media is a powerful, if flawed, tool. Aside from the abuses that can arise from naming and shaming, online communities probably do more good than harm, for example in outing companies for corruption, child labour or pollution. Social media is also effective in the context of tradesmen who do shonky jobs, or bad hotels: fair comment can be very helpful.

By raising our voices rather than our fists, we can be of service for the greater good. In this way, it’s a gift to be able to feel anger and use it as an instrument of transformation for ourselves and others.

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