What do you think of when you hear the word “anger”? Some people imagine yelling, name-calling and cursing. For some, anger brings to mind slapping and hitting. Anger is associated with distress and conflict. It’s an emotion that many people try to avoid, seeing anger only as out-of control and negative.
Surprisingly, anger can be a very positive and healthy emotion. (I’m not talking about road rage here!) Anger has several psychological purposes. First, it’s a signal that something is wrong, that something needs our attention. Second, anger motivates us to take action, to do something. Third, anger feels powerful and gives us a sense of control.
Many people don’t seem to realize that anger doesn’t have to be aggressive or combative. Resolving a conflict with a loved one or friend can actually make the relationship stronger and closer.
Some simple rules apply to talking about angry feelings in a healthy way. Stay calm and look at the situation as an opportunity to resolve a problem. Don’t be blaming or accusatory. Starting out saying “You…”, as in “You’re always late, you’re so inconsiderate”, will put almost anybody on the defensive. When people feel defensive, they stop listening and start fighting back. A typical defensive response might be, “You’re exaggerating, I’m hardly ever late.” The “you” statement escalates the argument and goes nowhere.
Instead, anger can be discussed in a problem-solving way. One good way to talking about anger is using the framework of “when.you…, I feel…”. For example, “When you are constantly late, I feel I’m not important enough for you to be on time, and that makes me angry and hurt.” Or “When you forget to do something you promised to do, I think you don’t care about me, and I feel angry and disappointed”. This comes across very differently than a statement like “You’re always criticizing me, I can’t do anything right”, and is much more likely to be heard.
The second part of this strategy is to say what change you want from the other person. Some examples might be: “I want you to call me if you are going to be late” or “I want you to work harder on being on time/keeping your promises/not promising things you aren’t really going to do”.
Of course, the best response from the other person would be, “I’m so sorry, I didn’t intend to make you feel that way, I’ll try harder”. But even if that doesn’t happen, it feels better to come out and say what you feel.