In parts one and two, I looked at how using Breakwell's model of anger can help to understand anger better, and work out how to respond more constructively when we are angry. However, some people have a pattern of anger, which feels very different to the one suggested by the model. Often described as 'bottling' anger. The person may have an awareness they are holding onto anger, and have times when they suddenly explode, often over seemingly trivial things. However, sometimes the person can feel completely calm, before exploding. Until I went through the intensive personal development that accompanies becoming a counsellor, I had a pattern very much like this.
The reason why anger can look different is not because the typical pattern of anger has changed, rather what has changed is the person's awareness of their anger. Instead of looking like the one shown in my earlier articles, it looks more like Figure 3. Anger can be an uncomfortable and a sometimes overwhelming feeling. Often we can find ourselves in situations where open displays of anger are deemed unacceptable. For instance, employees are often expected to remain calm when dealing with situations which involve high levels of arousal, such as dealing with angry customers. In this article I will be looking at a very common way people try to cope with anger,
By suppressing anger, literally swallowing it down, enables us to manage our anger in the short term so it can be dissipated at some later point. A common way people do this is by 'letting off steam' with a friend, or someone they trust, and is how colleagues support each other when working in stressful situations. One of the side effects of 'bottling' is that over time, the person while they are aware they are angry, can become unaware of just how angry they are, and find they lose their temper over seemingly small things. 'Bottling' can in effect become a habit, which is done in response to any feelings of anger, and can become so automatic that the person barely notices they are doing it.
One of the things that helps to maintain this 'habit' is a feeling that the person may become overwhelmed and lose control if they allow themselves to become angry. We can have feelings of anxiety, when we find ourselves in situations which might make us angry, such as confrontations, and may feel that if we don't control our anger, we will behave in ways that might be harmful to ourselves or others, or be shameful in some way.
The pressure cooker metaphor
One of the helpful metaphors when looking at bottling anger, is to think of it as a pressure cooker, which builds pressure over time, and just like the valve on a pressure cooker, you have to periodically let the pressure off, so you don't explode.
Doing a non-contact physical activity, such as walking, cycling, gym, or swimming can be helpful as a release valve. Listening to music can also help. Writing your thoughts down in a journal, especially if the reason for your anger is not being heard. Some people find adding a ritual such as burning the paper and letting the ashes blow away can also help. Practicing mindfulness or yoga is also useful, as it helps to build awareness.
The other important aspect to using the pressure cooker metaphor is to build awareness of when you are feeling angry. One way to do this is to think of your anger as a gauge, thermometer, or dial, which goes from 1 to 10, with 1 being completely calm and 10 being your most angry. Keep a diary and note down the number periodically through the day, noticing as it goes up and down. This can help you to become more aware of when you are getting angry. You will be much more successful at managing anger, if you are looking at the beginning of the cycle, when you have more control, than you will be trying to manage at the point when you are about to explode.
When to seek help
One of the myths about 'getting your anger' out, is that openly expressing anger helps us manage anger. In fact, being directly angry with a person or indirectly at an object increases aggression, and there is more than 40 years of research to back this up. Punching pillows does not help people cope better with their anger, it just makes them more likely to get angry in the future. The worry that people have about being overwhelmed if they allow themselves to be angry is not irrational.
For people who 'bottle anger' working with a trained professional can help them dip into their feelings of anger, and then be able to dip out, so that they do not become overwhelmed. There are several techniques that I use that can help people do this, however to be effective they have to be learnt through experience and guided practice. The other way I help is to notice the person's emotional changes, through shifts in their body language, and then direct their attention to these parts, so they can safely increase their own awareness of anger.
People generally seek help when they find they can not manage on their own. Talking to someone, can help to increase awareness, and enable you to explore more constructive ways of expressing anger.
In this extended series of articles, I have looked at how anger follows a typical pattern; that people get angry for a reason; and that people get angry because of how they understand the actions of other people. There are 3 main reasons people get angry; they get scared, their needs are not met, and/or they don't feel heard. People can become less aware of their anger by suppressing it. Coping with anger is best done by looking at the points where people have the most control, empathy is the antidote to anger, and that openly expressing anger doesn't help people to cope with anger. Coping with anger is not about being calm, it is about becoming more aware of when you are angry and developing constructive ways of responding to it, which is why many anger management courses will teach you how to be assertive.
Anger is often thought of as a destructive emotion, and I would like to finish by looking at an example of how anger can be constructive. Anger is a powerful emotion; it is the driving force behind our sense of injustice. One of the iconic moments in history is Martin Luther King's speech, and in it he says "I have a dream that even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of peace and justice." Martin Luther King takes the feeling of anger at injustice and transforms it into a dream, he gives his own anger a direction.
(1) Breakwell G M (1997) Coping with Aggressive Behaviour Leicester: British Psychological Service.
A shortened downloadable PDF of this article is available here