Getting “Under” the Anger

I’m sure we’ve all been in the circumstance where the level of someone’s anger seems out of proportion to what is going on. In those moments, it is very difficult to hold our own in the face of the other person’s outburst. They think their anger is justified, and that you’ve done something to provoke it..

It’s never easy to be on the receiving end of this kind of emotional discharge, especially when it is vented at us. There are often good explanations for why the angry one is behaving this way.

Three ways to understand seemingly overblown anger:

  1. This person was already frustrated and irritated with something you said or did, but chose to hold onto their emotions. In this case, the anger has had the opportunity to build up within them. Even though just mildly triggered, it takes very little for them to blow.

Anger, pushed down for a while, often does not get resolved. It just gets stuffed. It can take a very minor provocation to set it off. In this case, the anger was simmering until you did or said something that sparked the flame. You probably missed tell-tale signs, like muscle tension, a changed facial expression, or a clenched fist. Indicators of what they were feeling inside.

  1. What can be taken from this? That what seems like an overblown reaction had lingered inside for a while, waiting for a release. It valuable to know what was going on for them before their outburst. It’s important to validate their anger to help calm the situation. You don’t need to agree with them. If you can see where their upset is coming from, you can recognize that they are entitled to their feelings. If you remain calm and show that you care, that can go a long way to quell their anger.
  2.  You knowyou didn’t do anything to provoke them, but someone else did, and they are now taking it out on you. They could just be having a bad day. One in which it seems everything is working against them. Then someone else said something insensitive. In that moment they kept their cool. As soon as you looked at them “funny,” they let you have it. Feelings of powerlessness can bring on these kinds of reactions.

“It can be exceedingly difficult in these instances not to react negatively. For, after all, you may yourself be struggling with uncomfortable emotions, such as feeling belittled, threatened or (gratuitously) attacked.” (Psychology Today, Leon F. Seltzer, PhD)

If possible, the most helpful reaction is to try to get them to share what they believe was the thing that set them off. Try to find out what occurred beforehand that might have been the tipping point for them.

  1. In the third scenario, some words or action on your part, no matter how innocent, may have brought up something from their more distant past that never got completed or resolved.

You seem to be the object of their upset, but in this case, it has little or nothing to do with you. If you sense this is going on, do your best not to personalize their distress.

The physical side of anger

Psychoneuroimmunologists such as Candace Pert (Molecules of Emotion1999) have shown that emotions actually have a physical existence—as neuropeptides residing chemically inside us. They’re just awaiting opportunities to be revived (Psychology Today).

Our physical response to these old “ghosts” are expressed in anger and rage. They, themselves, may have no idea where these outbursts came from. If you can, without analyzing them, get them to go a little deeper into their feelings,. There is often pain and sadness beneath the surface. Sharing these feelings can go a long way towards healing some old material. Validating and showing concern can be very healing.

In all of these cases, the best path to take, if possible, is one of compassion, and a desire to understand. This is not always easy to do, but it can make for the best possible outcome, supporting them to release their anger, with your compassion and caring.

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