As a therapist, the most rewarding aspect of my work is helping to heal relationships. We all have the need to feel connected, loved, and accepted and to give our support and affection to others. Sadly, sweetness can turn to bitterness in our friendships, families, work partnerships, and romantic relationships. We sometimes wonder how it all went wrong and how to connect again.
In my personal life and with my clients, I have found that five simple steps for managing anger can drastically improve our relationships, provided that we apply them consistently enough to form a habit. These five steps are comprised of techniques I learned performing multiple family group intervention with Dr. Margaret Keiley.
Step one: Recognize your body’s signs of anger
All of us get angry, and sometimes our anger gets out of hand. We say and do things that we later regret, or we shut down and push others away. Neither of these helps us to get the closeness we want. Our bodies actually warn us that this is about to happen with signs like accelerated heart rate, feeling “hot,” shallow breathing, clenched fists and jaws, and more. How does your body let you know that you’re angry? Pay attention, because that’s your cue to move to step two.
Step two: Stop and calm down
Get some exercise. Listen to music that calms you. Take a hot shower. Pray or meditate. Especially effective is taking slow, deep breaths. This will increase blood flow and oxygen to your brain, helping you to think more clearly.
Step three: Identify the vulnerable emotion underneath the anger
All anger is actually a vulnerable emotion in disguise. If someone insults you, underneath your anger is pain. If your teen walks in three hours past curfew, underneath your anger is fear and worry. If someone publicly chastens you, underneath your anger is embarrassment. These vulnerable emotions are what you need to communicate, not the anger.
Step four: Put yourself in the other person’s shoes
When I’m upset I’m 100 percent certain that I’m right and the other person is wrong. It’s only after I calm down (step two) that I can start to see things from their point of view. Often I realize that I’ve made mistakes that need correcting and apologizing for. It’s important to realize that everyone’s behavior makes sense to them, so if I think someone’s being an idiot, irrational, or a jerk, it often means I’m not trying hard enough to understand their perspective. Even if I disagree with and can’t condone the other person’s words or behavior, I can always relate to the emotions they’re experiencing.
Step five: Express steps four and three
Tell them what you imagine their experience to be like without claiming to know what they’re going through. Trust them with your vulnerable emotion instead of manipulating them with anger. Letting someone know that you’re hurt, scared, sad, or embarrassed often helps you to connect with them, whereas anger always pushes them away.