In order to manage anger effectively, a person must develop a sense of awareness — awareness of what’s happening in their body, awareness of what feelings are underlying the anger, and awareness of the thoughts that are triggering the anger. I call this the Three-Legged Stool, with each leg being just as important as the other two.
When you get angry, you might not be aware of how and where your body is reacting to the anger-provoking incident. Your body is actually the first indicator that you are angry. In fact, your body can display signs of anger even before you realize you’re angry! Common indicators are a tight jaw, clenched fists, and shallow or rapid breathing. There are many more. The next time you begin to feel angry, tune into your body and scan it to notice what’s happening. On a piece of paper, jot down what you notice to reinforce your awareness of your personal physical signs.
Feelings comprise the second leg of the stool. Anger is a secondary emotion, and there are always primary emotions under the anger. Often people focus on, and express, only the anger, failing to note underlying feelings such as hurt, disappointment, fear, or sadness. When you express anger, the target of your anger will usually express anger in return. If you’re feeling hurt or disappointed, this is the last thing you need. However, if you take time to explore what you might be feeling under your anger and express that feeling, you are more likely to receive the response that you’re really needing in the moment. Saying “I’m disappointed that you didn’t remember to….” or “I feel hurt when you say….” may result in an apology from the other person and a commitment to remember to do things differently in the future. If you lash out in anger instead, the other person will become defensive, offer excuses, and feel victimized by your anger.
Finally, it’s important to identify the thoughts that are running through your head when you are angry. Ask yourself whether they’re realistic or distorted. Are you jumping to conclusions without all the evidence; seeing things in terms of black and white with no “grey areas”; overgeneralizing; placing all the blame on someone who’s not fully responsible? If you take the time to step back and notice your thoughts before responding in anger, you will be better able to express yourself rationally and explain your perspective of the incident that has made you angry.
Your physical signs, underlying feelings, and thoughts affect you regardless of whether or not you are aware of them. Let’s suppose you are not aware of these indicators, and the following takes place:
You feel tension in your neck when a set of circumstances arises. You think that the circumstances are out of your control, and there’s nothing you can do to change what is happening. Feeling “out of control” makes you angry, and you take it out on the person closest to you.
Contrast that with what you can do if you are aware:
You feel tension in your neck when a set of circumstances arises. You take a few minutes to breathe into the tension and consider what might be causing it. You realize that you are feeling “out of control” over a certain situation. When you examine your thoughts, you notice that you are jumping to conclusions without having all the facts. You’ve managed your anger, and the awareness process has helped you to avoid taking your anger out on the first person to walk into the room.
You have a choice: To become aware or to stay unaware. Which will it be?