Everywhere you look in today’s world, we are hearing about people expressing anger, often in a destructive, inappropriate way. “Rage” used to be a term reserved for strange, out-of-control people, but now we have road rage, workplace rage and even airplane rage. Violent outbursts are commonplace on TV talk shows. Gun rampages in public places have become a typical news event.
What’s going on?
American culture has a bizarre relationship with the energy of anger and its inappropriate expression as violence. In our consumer lifestyle, we know that violence sells. The promotion of violence is a multi-billion dollar business, affecting virtually every aspect of our lives. Think for a moment about the expressions of violence on TV, movies, video games, professional sports, and many forms of recreation. We dare not show a single naked breast or penis on TV, but we can show hundreds of horrible, bloody murders every day of the week. A startling statistic is that by the time they finish elementary school, the average American child (who watches just 3.5 hours of TV a week) will have witnessed 12,000 murders and more than 150,000 other acts of violence on TV.
We teach our children to not hit their siblings and then roar in delight at the vicious fight at the hockey game or the bone-crushing tackle at the football game. The top stories on our local news are often nothing more than a review of the most sensationally violent acts in our community in the past day. By virtually any measure you use, American society is the most violent society in the history of recorded civilization.
This is some evidence that we are modeling what we learn through the media, where violence is often presented with few realistic consequences. The National Television Violence Study in 1995 found that 47% of the violent acts shown resulted in no observable harm to the victim; only 16% of violent shows contained a message about the long term negative repercussions of violence; and in a whopping 73% of all violent scenes, the perpetrator went unpunished. The study found 44% of the shows on network stations contained at least some violence, compared with 59% on basic cable and 85% on premium channels. It’s interesting to note that the more money people pay for a television service, the more violence it contains! Studies by George Gerbner, Ph.D. at the University of Pennsylvania have shown that children who watch a lot of television are more likely to think that the world is a mean and dangerous place; they become less sensitive to the pain and suffering of others; and they are more likely to behave in aggressive or harmful ways toward others.
With adults, people who cannot deal appropriately with their anger teach their children that violence is an acceptable way to deal with conflict. Men who have witnessed their parents’ domestic violence are three times more likely to abuse their own wives than children of non violent parents, with the sons of the most violent parents being 1000 times more likely to become perpetrators of violent acts toward women. During each year women were the victims of more than 4.5 million violent crimes, including approximately 500,000 rapes or other sexual assaults. In 29 percent of the violent crimes against women by lone offenders the perpetrators were husbands, former husbands, boyfriends or former boyfriends.
So why as a culture do we teach, promote, and model destructive, inappropriate, unrealistic expressions of anger? We are fascinated with anger and violence because we are terrified of and uncomfortable with our own power. As a culture, we try to make nice, to make believe that we are not angry people, and harshly judge others that are. Our anger is the shadow side of the positive, upbeat, prosperous American psyche. Violence sells because it is tapping into a deeply repressed aspect of the American psyche. We tuck our anger away in the darkest, most shameful recesses of our minds and hearts, and then are horrified and surprised when it comes blasting out. Yet it is a fundamental principle of psychology that whatever we disown, cut off or otherwise repress in our psyche becomes stronger than it actually is, and eventually will force us to recognize its existence by coming to the surface in a distorted, exaggerated or impulsive manner.
So if there is an answer to this issue of anger and violence, it is that we all must recognize, befriend and own our own power, our own potential for anger and even violence, and come to terms with that energy. Anger is an energy that can be harnessed and channeled in any number of ways, some of them very constructive. But that can only happen if we’re willing to look our own anger straight in the eye without fear, denial or minimization. Anger is the elephant in our collective living rooms that no one wants to talk about other than in harsh, judgmental terms about other people.
Anger is a natural, adaptive response to threats; it inspires powerful, often aggressive, feelings and behaviors, which allow us to fight and to defend ourselves when we are attacked. A certain amount of anger, therefore, is necessary for our survival. On the other hand, we obviously can’t lash out at every person or object that irritates or annoys us. So expressing your angry feelings in an assertive, not aggressive manner is the healthiest way to express anger. To do this, you have to learn how to make clear what your needs are, and how to get them met without hurting others. Being assertive doesn’t mean being pushy or demanding; it means being respectful of yourself and others.
The goal of any type of anger management is to reduce both your emotional feelings and the physical arousal that anger causes. While you can’t always change the situations or people that upset you, you can learn to control your reactions. Here are some great tools to try:
1. Relaxation – simple relaxation tools, such as deep breathing and relaxing imagery, can help calm down angry feelings. Books such as The Relaxation Response by Herbert Benson and Full Catastrophe Living by Jon Kabatt-Zinn are excellent sources for instruction in meditation and relaxation. Once you learn the techniques, you can use them in anywhere to quickly calm down.
For additional help with relaxation, practice breathing deeply from your diaphragm; breathing from your chest doesn’t tend to elicit nearly as deep a sensation of relaxation. Picture your breath coming up from your diaphragm while you slowly repeat a calm word or phrase such as “relax,” “take it easy.” Repeat it to yourself while breathing deeply and putting attention on your breath. Use imagery: visualize a relaxing experience, from either your memory or your imagination, with as many senses involved in the visualization as possible. Hatha yoga is also a great method for relaxing your muscles and making you feel much calmer.
2. Change Your Thoughts – Angry people tend to think negative, critical thoughts about themselves or others. When you’re angry, your thinking can get very exaggerated, overly dramatic and irrational. Try replacing these thoughts with more positive and rational ones. Remind yourself that getting angry is not going to fix anything, that it won’t make you feel better (and may actually make you feel worse). Also, when angry, people often feel victimized. So it’s helpful to reflect on what’s happening and take responsibility for whatever you are doing to partially create the situation that frustrates you.
3. Communicate Directly After you Calm Down – when angry, people make assumptions that may not be true about others’ intentions. So slow down, calm down, and speak clearly about whatever it is that is frustrating you to the person(s) involved. Talk about your feelings and perceptions rather than blaming others. At the same time, listen carefully to what the other person is saying and take your time before answering.
4. Take Time for Yourself – make sure you have some “personal time” scheduled for times of the day or days of the week that you know are particularly stressful. One example is the woman who has a standing rule that when she comes home from work, for the first 15 minutes “nobody talks to me unless the house is on fire.” After this brief quiet time, she feels better prepared to handle demands from her kids and husband without yelling at them.
There are some excellent self-help books available on the topic of dealing with anger. Two of our favorites address specific gender issues that men and women face: The Dance of Anger: A Women’s Guide to Changing the Patterns of Intimate Relationships, by Harriet Lerner and Beyond Anger, A Guide for Men: How to Free Yourself from the Grip of Anger and Get More Out of Life, by Thomas Harbin.
Anger is an expression of our life force. When manifest in an appropriate manner, it can be an intelligent expression and reaction to the circumstances of our lives. When we befriend our anger, we tame its impulsive expression and give ourselves a valuable tool to create constructive change for ourselves and the world. We encourage you to start wherever you are, with compassion and love for all parts of yourself, and begin to explore your own relationship with this powerful and necessary life energy. And be honest with yourself in the process: if you cannot understand this energy, if it feels like a wild beast or a scary monster, seek out help from those who can guide your journey of healing and discovery in a safe and constructive manner.
The Relationship Institute has several programs to help people learn to manage their anger constructively. Please call (248) 546-0407 for more information if you or someone you care about has had problems in this area.