In the past few days, I have been reading a book called Overcoming Hurts & Anger (How to Identify and Cope with Negative Emotions) by psychiatrist Dwight L. Carlson M.D. The book was published in 1981, so it is not hot off the press, and there are many references in it to the Christian Bible, which generally took place sometime before 1981 ;P
Nevertheless, the most important thing about books is how they affect our life and how much useful information we find in them, and this book turns out to be quite useful to me. By writing about it here, I hope to make it useful for you too.
Here’s a quick summary of the key ideas in the book:
- Anger is the result of unresolved emotions, like frustration, disappointment and rejection. When negative emotions are dealt with, anger does not develop
- Anger builds up in layers. We are all creatures of habit and relive our patterns every day. Any dysfunctional situation we encounter is likely to take place again and again, each time adding another layer to what the book calls our “unresolved anger fund”
- Regular tantrums, even violent outbursts involving breaking things, are not the same as resolution. They are a desperate attempt to get attention that may lead to resolution, but they resolve nothing. In fact, as you might expect, they make things worse and even worsen the violent person’s feeling of self-esteem, safety and human connection
- Our society frowns upon open expressions of anger. Dr. Carlson’s patients come from a Christian background that has taught them to turn the other cheek and to love their enemies. When they (and countless others) find themselves in conflict, they immediate add to it some guilt and disappointment in their weakness of the spirit. Under these circumstances, things can only get worse
- Anger does not go away. In some people, it boils under the surface until it erupts suddenly. Eruptions may occur after some minor inconvenience and may seem to be disproportionately strong. They may also be destructive and leave relationships in ruins with no hope of recovery
- In others, the anger is never expressed outwardly, so it burrows into their body and soul instead, draining of energy and hope, making them depressed and sick, sometimes seriously sick, and eventually killing some of them
- Through years of denial, some people stop recognizing anger and other negative emotions. Even when asked directly how they feel, they repeatedly claim they are fine. These people may find themselves confused and uncomfortable without knowing why, until one day, something compels them to jump off a bridge
- When something makes us feel frustrated, disappointed or hurt, it is best to spend some time recognizing the nature and source of our feeling before we try to deal with it. A toddler wetting her pants requires different handling from a teenager making overseas phone calls for hours or from our partner arriving late
- We live in a web of relationships and everything we do now can affect others, which will affect us later. Sometimes, our aggravation was partly due to something we have done ourselves and our best approach is to accept (partial) responsibility, learn and move on. Other times, the matter may be small in comparison to the potential conflict needed to resolve it, and we might as well let it go for the sake of peaceful coexistence
- If we feel we know why we are angry, we feel the matter is important enough and we feel there is enough justification for some corrective action, we should proceed with caution. Since there is a good chance the other person also has feelings related to the incident, it is best to find a mutually convenient time and place to maximize the chances of success
- We should separate facts from fiction and only stick to facts. We only know for sure what we have experienced and what we are feeling about it. We know nothing about what happened to the other person, what they intended and what they feel. Therefore, we should use “I” statements (see “Seeing I to I“) to describe your views and emotions, e.g. “I didn’t feel my opinion was being respected”, instead of “You never respect my opinion”
- We should expect the other person to have a different take on events and different emotional needs. We should also expect that their views and emotions matter to the discussion. Therefore, we should put ourselves in a position of curiosity and try to learn as much as we can about the other person’s way of thinking
- Once things are cleared up, forgive and forget. This means no emotional baggage anymore. Yay!
A great thing about this is that life sure seems heavy sometimes and past hurts may account for some of that weight. Why not spend some time going over your life and finding significant events that may have left a mark on your soul? Why not think them over and then attempt to let them go or sort them out with any other people who may have been involved?
I have been doing this in the past couple of days and I already feel lighter. I have been thinking about my parents, my sisters, my in-laws, Ronit, employers, colleagues and other people in my life and seeing some unpleasant events in a new light through the accumulated knowledge and experience I have gained since they took place.
Another great thing is identifying what makes us angry and handling it quickly and effectively. By spotting the types of words or events that set us off regularly, we can start catching ourselves early and preventing a potential blow up. We can also find ways to handle these situations (during or after) in a mature and productive manner and either deal with them or let them go without much effort.
I have noticed that when someone talks to me and I do not understand what they mean, I fall behind in the conversation and get gradually upset while trying to figure out what I have missed as they keep talking. Now, I notice it a lot sooner and say, “Sorry, what did you mean?” or “I’m not sure I understand. Can you please explain?”
One more great thing is giving another person the freedom to be angry. Since most people are afraid of expressing anger directly, they resort to “the silent treatment”, sarcasm, hints and other indirect maneuvers. Knowing which signs to look out for, we can help other people let go of their anger more directly by giving them permission to do so.
I have tried this a few times by saying, “If you’re angry with me about this, it’s OK. Why don’t you tell me simply how you feel?” I was even surprised at how easily this worked. It relieved the other person of some pressure and made them feel validated, while knowing what bothered them saved me the guesswork and helped both of us move forward without overflowing our “unresolved anger fund”.
As parents, being able to handle hurts and anger productively and maturely means creating a much better environment for our kids to grow up in, as well as modeling a crucial life skill to our children. Parents with angry teenagers might want to double check how they behaved while their teens were younger and reassess their present interactions with them. After all, angry parents raise angry kids who become angry teenagers who become angry parents who raise angry kids…
And while we are on the topic of parents being angry with their children, our daughter Eden is conducting research into the discipline habits of parents and how they affect their children. Ronit and I are incredibly proud she has chosen a topic so close to our own hearts.
Eden and her research partner are looking for kids aged 9-12 and their parents to answer an online questionnaire (takes about 10 minutes). While giving the questionnaire a test run, I found it a chance to reflect on my own parenting choices and secretly made some notes to myself (but don’t tell anyone).
If you would like to participate, please visit the research page and sign up. You will receive an anonymous user ID and password for the child and each of the parents and your answers to the questions will remain anonymous.
Have a relaxing and cheerful day,