Today I’m talking about anger, a very normal human emotion that can also be scary and can sometimes cause us to do things we regret. Or feel things that we’d really rather not feel. I wanted to reach out to someone who could help us think about anger in new ways and potentially interrupt any of our habitual patterns around it so that we’ve got some space to learn some new skills for dealing with them.
The person I’m talking to today is Andrea J. Lee. Andrea is the author of the blog, We Can Stop Being Abusive, the controversial article, “I Verbally Abused My Husband: Here’s How I Stopped,” published in the Washington Post, and the book, We Need to Talk, for small business owners. Andrea is months away from completing her master’s degree, which explores emotional abusiveness and romantic relationships. On top of all those things, Andrea is a master coach whom I’ve had the pleasure and honor of working with. And she’s as loving and inspiring as she is brilliant and strategic. I’m super excited to hear her thoughts on dealing with anger today.
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Andrea, welcome. I recently received a letter from a listener named Betty. And she said, “There are so many people who are always angry, especially nowadays. Every little thing sets them off and I am one of them. I really want to control it, but it’s so hard to do sometimes. I don’t want to take my anger out on my family and friends.”
Now it’s that last line about not wanting to take your anger out on the people around you that made me think of you and your work to help people end the cycle of emotional abuse. So what is it about anger that makes it like a hot potato? Something that we often unconsciously toss to the people closest to us?
What a fantastic and really honestly touching question from Betty. Great listener question. So to me, a simple definition of anger is that it is information and energy. So anger provides information. And it is actually energy itself. So we can say more about all of those things.
But a direct answer to your question, when anger has been pent up, let’s say you’ve been tolerating things for awhile over time. Or you have sudden anger. It can really flood you with a lot of energy. Almost like when water floods the river banks in a city. And that’s really the answer to that question. If we’ve left anger unattended, it can overtake us and leak onto other people.
Hm. I’ve never really thought about it as energy before, but of course it is. And as you were talking, I was like, oh, it’s like an emotional hot flash. But I think that that is just revealing that I am a menopausal woman. I would love to talk a little bit more about that bird’s eye view perspective of what anger is. So, it’s energy and it’s information.
Can you say more about that? And can you also talk about some of its functions? Nothing is a mistake, right? Anger is a natural part of the human condition. So what’s it here for? What’s that anger and information, like, seeking to do?
Think for a moment, if we were to encounter a threat in the wild. You know, I love bears. So I feel kind of sad to cast a bear in the threat position, but it’s just for a moment let’s see. Say it’s like an angry grizzly mama bear and it’s threatening us. So this fear and anger of being threatened. Let’s say this mama bear is threatening our children, or, you know, causing damage to something that we care about. We would have fear, but we would also have anger. And so the information is that we are upset. Our boundary has been crossed. We do not like this. This must stop. That’s often what is being communicated to us via anger. And almost universally we can say that anger is providing information in that vein. There can be variations, but it’s usually in that vein.
And as far as energy, the way that anger provides energy is extremely purposeful. It is so that we have the wherewithal to stand up to whatever is upsetting us, is causing us to be not okay. When we’re having a fight, whether it be with a loved one, or maybe God forbid it’s a boss or a coworker or something, we’re having a fight and we’re really angry. We can feel it like. Even if we tune in right now. We could feel the energy of that anger allowing us, empowering us to say, ‘stop right here.’ ‘You’ve got to stop being a bully,’ or ‘I’m getting outta here.’ Whatever it is, those are just a more descriptive ways of thinking about how anger is truly two things, that energy, that energetic surge, and a messenger.
Okay. So the way that you were talking about it makes it sound very constructive. Which of course, you know, the dual nature of reality things can be constructive and destructive at the same time. How do we start to work with it differently? Because a lot of times I feel like anger really makes us feel kind of out of control, right? Like the energy is so powerful that it almost overtakes us.
I find myself getting angry a lot at this four way stop at the bottom of my street because it’s kind of new. And some people just blow right through it. And my kids cross that intersection and I drive through that intersection and I often have my kids in the backseat. But even if I don’t, there’s something about people not stopping at that stop sign. And it’s like, I’m a crazy person in my own little bubble of my car. So how do we deal with the energy surge so that it is ultimately constructive instead of destructive? And I don’t end up getting into a road rage incident, which hasn’t happened yet. But you know, I could see how it could be possible. You honk your horn, you roll down your window, you yell, they yell, you know.
You flip the bird, all of a sudden there’s fisticuffs and hospital and the whole thing. Yeah, It happens. It takes less than that sometimes to create violence, real physical violence. So this is why I like to quote Shrek from the movie. Incredible wisdom, which I turn to again and again, and it is “Better out than in.” And how that applies to anger is, truly like in that moment, when you come up to that stop sign Kate, let yourself be angry with one caveat. And that is that you not harm others in doing so.
So if your kids are in the car, you might not want to let yourself make all sorts of noises and cuss words or whatever your style would be. Because that probably would cause fear and stress in their physicality and not create a good relationship with them. So if you’re in a place where you can do so where it doesn’t cause other people harm, I am a proponent of letting that anger through you and out into expression.
So angry journaling. I can’t tell you how many pages in my journal are torn because my pen was pressing so hard. Angry art. I mean, think of some of the most passionate painting and like finger painting or throwing down sculptors and clay and. Or angry speed walking, stomping your way through that speed walk. Angry lifting of your weights, right? Let it go through you in the moment and also after like you’ve driven through.
So what Betty was referring to is like a growing low grade state of anger in society. And I think of that as like a pH level. Like a high acidity level of anger in society. We need everyone to get a punching bag and do some working out on that thing. Play some loud heavy metal music. Whatever it is to move this energy through in a proactive way will lower the breaking point where your anger comes out involuntarily.
Okay. Sounds like the energy just needs a place to release. Like it’s, it’s got to have somewhere to go.
I love how you put it, the rising acidity of anger, just kind of in the ether, in our culture and the air outside. And talking about finding practices that you can do somewhat on the regular before you have the triggering event at the four-way stop sign.
What about in the aftermath of anger? When we felt our done or said something that we wished we hadn’t, what do we do then?
Yeah. So this depends a little bit on the severity of things. As you mentioned in my intro, I work with people who have chronic issues of real abusiveness and sometimes outright domestic violence. So I’ll answer this question more for the moderate cases of this, rather than sort of full fledged. Like the domestic violence issues. Cause I think that that’s more appropriate here. But if you’ve done something and you regret it, and it’s an occasional thing. It’s not a regular thing that you’re constantly doing something terrible and you regret it. It’s just an occasional thing. You did something and you’re like, oh crap.
Well, the first thing to do is really pause, take a moment to reflect on what this regret is. Why do you regret it? What is it that you wish you had done instead? What harm do you think that you may have caused by taking that action or being angry in that way? And then pause. And the reason for this is so that you really let it be real and not gloss over it for a very important reason.
Studies show that if you will pause and ask yourself why you feel that regret, you are so much more likely to not do it again. So let me say that again. If you gloss over your regret, it’s much easier to forget. And then whoops, find yourself a week later doing the same damn thing. So pausing. And even though it might feel kind of crappy to be like, oh man, I wish I wouldn’t have raised my voice. Or the name I called that person, I wish I hadn’t done that. Let yourself feel that.
It’s not because I’m trying to send anyone into a depression. Like feel it to a light degree, but feel it. And then the second step is to let that real feeling, having processed it, guide you to make amends. And whatever that looks like. It might be, you write an email to own the thing that you did. It might be that you ask to speak to the person and apologize for your angry outburst. Or it might be that you outline that this is what happened, and this is what you’re doing to ensure that you don’t do it again.
There are a variety of ways to actually address it. But the most important part really comes before the apology. People want to apologize right away, but the apology is only genuine if it has real reflection in it. So first step, reflect on why it is you have regret.
Okay. All right. I think that this ownership piece is really important, right? Because when you’re angry, you feel really righteous. I think in the moment of like, I am so right and you are so wrong. And that can make it feel like your anger is justified and if you do something that you regret, well, it’s just kind of a natural consequence of your justification.
But it sounds like this exercise that you’re suggesting is a way to kind of penetrate that hard candy shell of indignation. And kind of letting in, oh right, I had a role in this too. And perhaps I did something to trigger someone else’s indignation. Which then helps you bring empathy to the whole situation.
Yeah. Kate, you nailed it. I like to say that when we’re in an argument and there’s two people that are angry, both those people are right. They’re both right within their own worlds. And two things can be true at the same time. So what you said is absolutely true. Even if you’re feeling you’re right, if you feel that your anger hurt somebody or you didn’t like how you expressed it, then you can feel indignant and also compassionate and empathetic to the other person’s rightness.
So our interview’s going a little bit longer than I normally have these go, but I do want to ask one more question before we wrap up. You talked about kind of some practices for giving that anger energy a place to go so that it doesn’t boil over. And we talked about what to do in the aftermath of having your anger boil over.
But what about in the moment when you are in conversation with someone and you’re starting to feel it come on. And you can’t like pause and go angrily lift weights, which I just got the best visual in my mind when you suggested that. But you know, kind of in the moment, could you talk about that?
That is the most pointed part of all of this, right? It is difficult. There have been a lot of studies done on anger. The vast majority of it has to do with how we prevent ourselves from getting to that spot. But so that I’m not dodging your question, I would say that, think of when you lose it in your anger as almost like passing out, like fainting. Because when that happens, we’re basically blacking out, like where we become unaware of our behavior. People often lose time. They don’t remember what they did when they lost their temper. And that’s a very difficult thing to stop.
Like when you are in that basically blacked out state, it is extremely difficult. But I will say in my work with people who have stopped the cycle of emotional abuse, we work on creating touchstones that can penetrate that blacked out state. Whether it’s like a simple as a rubber band that they’re always wearing and they can snap it if they feel themselves, quote, passing out, blacking out into anger.
Or it might be that you have a painting of some kind that’s in front of you, you know, where you most often sit. Some people can develop sort of a biofeedback mechanism where if you’re that angry in that moment and about to snap, almost certainly your heart rate is up. And so we do biofeedback exercises to help them notice that their heart rate is up. And then it goes back to that same phrase is like, I need a time out. It’s like, I’m about to faint, stop everything, just stop. I’m about to black out, stop, don’t move. That’s the same thing as if you’re in that spot with anger.
I would love to mention a book that addresses this quite a bit in a lot of detail, I think would be quite helpful. Would that be appropriate here?
Oh, for sure. We’d love to hear it.
Okay. So there’s a book that’s really fabulous. It’s called, Letting Go of Anger: the 11 Most Common Anger styles and What to do About Them. And it is a classic it’s written by Ron and Patricia Potter Efron. It’s fascinating because it breaks down the types of anger into 11 styles. And for each one, it offers exercises and tools for diffusing those most angry moments.
Ooh, that sounds like a really brilliant book. I love a book that can help you kind of individualize the advice. Thanks for sharing that resource. And speaking of resources, do you have any that you can share with folks and for people who’d like to hear more from you just in general, where can they find you?
You bet. I have a fun new checklist. I call it a challenging conversation checklist. So it applies to all sorts of different challenges. Whether at work, or in your romantic relationship, with your kids, whatever. And it’s called what to say and how to say it when you want to be powerful and kind. Including six things to avoid. And I know I’m biased, but it is my favorite new free resource that I’ve created in a long time. So I hope you’ll go grab it. It’s at my website at andreajlee.com/whattosay.