Posted on March 25, 2009 by


A friend of mine recently put a shout out on Facebook, asking for advice on dealing with anger constructively. I was going to respond to him there, but I found that I had more to say than I could fit in a little Facebook box, so I’m going to post my thoughts about anger here instead.

First, everyone has a worldview. Your worldview is your sense of the way the world is and should be. For example, your worldview might include sentiments like, “I’m a hardworking, dependable person — I should be able to find a job,” or, “I’m a decent human being — people should treat me with respect.”

Anger is what happens when our experiences defy the expectations set by our worldview. If the hardworking, dependable person above can’t find a job, or if the decent human being is treated poorly, then anger is going to be one of his or her emotional responses. Sometimes anger is focused at a specific person, and sometimes anger is just directed to the universe generally.

angergridflatAnger is not good or bad on its own. It is how we respond to anger that makes it good or bad. The benefit of anger is that it can be a very motivating force. The disadvantage is that it often motivates us to do dumb things.

When anger is focused on a specific person, we want to respond, to either stop the person’s behavior or to at least keep ourselves from being affected by that person’s behavior. I find that angry responses toward people generally fall into one of four categories.

Disruption (confrontational, helpful)

I took the word “disruption” from Paul Axtell, whom I’ve mentioned previously. He explained disruption as addressing an issue with the person causing it, taking ownership of the problem, and then changing your own behavior in a way that the offender can choose to respond to.

When I was in eighth grade, one of my good friends had a very foul mouth, and it made me uncomfortable. I explained to him, “I’m not comfortable with you using that kind of language. I’m not going to hang out with you during lunch anymore because of it.” I didn’t try to change his behavior or assign blame to him for it. Rather, I explained that I would be changing my behavior, and that he could choose to change himself as well if he wanted to. After a couple days, he told me that he wanted to maintain our friendship, and he stopped swearing around me.

This example illustrates a few points about disruption. First, it requires clear communication. If I had just stopped hanging out with this person, he wouldn’t have gotten the message — he’d have just been confused and perhaps hurt. Second, it only works if you follow through on your part. When you set boundaries, you need to enforce them. Third, you need to take ownership of the problem. If I had blamed him and told him that he needed to change, he probably would have gotten defensive. Instead, I accepted that his language was my problem, not his, and that I was going to have to change my behavior. Disruption only works if resolving the problem is more important to you than getting back at the person whose behavior is making you angry.

Metabolize (non-confrontational, helpful)

Metabolizing anger means taking time to reflect in order to explain the action that caused the anger. Metabolizing anger generally starts with the assumption that most people are good people, and that people do hurtful things out of ignorance rather than spite. It means trying to understand where the offender is coming from, and understanding why he or she feels that the offensive behavior is appropriate and acceptable.

Metabolism is not usually a short process. It requires emotional commitment to the problem, and a willingness to see the offender in the best light possible. It usually ends when you see that the offender’s background and culture make it unrealistic for you to expect him or her to act according to your standards. At that point you can either accept and be reconciled to the situation, or you can start disruption in hopes of resolving it.

Exploding/Ignoring (not-so-helpful)

I don’t think I need to say much about these two — they’re pretty self-explanatory. The only observations I want to make are that, in comparison to disruption and metabolism, they are both quick and easy responses. That makes them appealing. Exploding can seem especially appealing, since it gives you a chance to vent your grievances and heap all responsibility on the offending party — in other words, it lets you get back at them. Ignoring, on the other hand, lets you out of addressing the situation at all. Of course, neither works very well.

So there you go. That’s everything I know about anger. What do you think? Is it as clear-cut as I make it look here, or did I miss some vital details? How would you respond to my friend’s request for advice on dealing with anger constructively?

Posted in: Musings