This last weekend we had the pleasure of spending time with friends from England. In our catching up, they agreed that their trip out here has been nice, but that the American’s they’ve run into seem so angry. Very few people they encountered would stop to help, give directions or even make eye contact, let alone polite conversation. We reflected on why this has come about. After years of a bad economy, many Americans are overworked and stressed out. Gone are the pension plans and retirement at 55 or 65 that many used to enjoy. We have less vacation time, traffic is congested and according to the CDC, more than 1/3 of adults are not getting enough sleep. All of this combined is taking its toll and we’re more irritable because of it.
The truth is that anger isn’t all bad. It’s a signal that something is wrong and can energize us to change things or get something done to help improve the situation. For example, at home it can help us strengthen a marriage by motivating a partner to do something differently like open up about their feelings, take care of the bills or household chores, or help out more with the kids. At work, the anger that one feels from missing a potential promotion can get the person in gear and organized to work more diligently towards that goal. On the other hand, anger becomes a negative situation when we blame others for our problems, act impulsively or dangerously and intrude on the wellbeing of others.
As time goes on, if the person doesn’t learn how to manage the anger, it increases. This can cause health issues, a loss of flexibility, constant defensiveness and a breakdown in communication. In many cases, the individual has bought into some of the many myths circulating about anger, to avoid making a change. Some of these include:
1. Anger is inherited and can’t be altered. Actually, research shows that anger is a learned behavior from observing role models during childhood. If someone grows up in a household full of screamers, there’s a good chance that he or she will naturally follow suit. Everyone can change by learning new anger management skills.
2. Aggression gets you what you want. Aggression usually describes controlling behavior that can ultimately harm, intimidate or alienate others. This isn’t the best way to reach your goals. A more healthy and successful response is to learn to be respectfully assertive to get a need met. Learning this skill teaches how to communicate that both sides involved in the argument are important and conflict can be worked out without threatening or abusing someone else.
3. I was “out of control” so not responsible for what happened. Not true. You are responsible for how you treat others and can learn new skills by working with a therapist, reading or taking classes to get “under control” and stop the denial.
4. Venting anger will make you feel better. For years specialists believed that letting out anger in an aggressive or explosive way by screaming, breaking things or punching a pillow was a good approach to release tension. However, research shows that this becomes addicting and actually fuels the bad behavior and becomes a bad habit. Individuals don’t actually feel better in the long run but often are embarrassed by their destructive response. A more positive long-term approach is to go on a bike ride, take a long walk, go for a jog, hit the water for a swim, or garden or clean when you reach the point of no return. Exercising will help burn some excess energy and give you time to regroup before responding.