Thank you so much for joining me on this journey to discover tools to deal with conflict. Understanding conflict can help make it so much easier to deal with. For many people, conflict is hard. But it doesn’t have to be.
At Learn2Love, we’re all about helping you stay together. I hope this article will help you better understand what anger actually is and how to deal with it.
These tools will help you feel more confident when dealing with anger. Next, you’ll overcome it more effectively. Through education and practice, you’ll be preventing most fights and managing the few that get through no time.
In the last article, What is Anger and What Drives our Actions, we discussed the neuroscience of anger and how we can use this understanding to help someone calm down. In this article, we’ll learn more about what anger represents. And how we can leverage that to manage it effectively.
I’m angry = I’m scared.
Every time you hear somebody say that they’re angry, I want you to think this:
- I’m scared
- I’m hurt
- I’m lonely
- I’m sad
- I feel unsafe
- I feel unheard
- I don’t feel valued
Anger almost often represents a deeper emotion. This is because that is often the easiest to activate. Our bodies have many tools to provoke anger. We have lots of hormones and physiological responses that are associated with it. It’s one of the most basic emotions. It’s often activated the fastest and feels the strongest when emotions overcome us.
Our anger response is ancient. It’s so ingrained in humanity that it’s experienced by almost everyone. I’m sure you can relate to this (maybe unfortunately) in your experiences. We discussed in the last article in this series about how it’s important for survival.
Anger is important to survival because when we feel it, we can jump into a survival mode. When we feel in danger, we have the open eyes to notice our surroundings. The tense muscles to move quickly. The deep inhale to give oxygen to our brains. All without thinking about it!
The problem is that in today’s society this often doesn’t apply to our problem. We are physically safe most of the time, yet our muscles get activated. But with more energy devoted to our muscles, less goes to our thinking brain. This default anger reaction prohibits us from solving the problem.
We experience a physical reaction to feeling unsafe because it’s safer to activate it by default than to wait. Our body doesn’t know if we’re physically safe or not all the time. If we’re unsure if it’s physical or emotional safety, better to assume it’s physical just in case. This is why anger is activated when we feel hurt, unsafe, or something else.
It’s best to deal with potential safety issues with a physical reaction for it may save our life in times of real danger. It’s also an easier emotion to activate for our brains, we have a lot of wiring for this.
The problem is that tightening muscles is great for dealing with physical safety. Feeling understood is better for emotional.
Scared that we are in danger, the driver of our consciousness car, the feeling brain, floors the accelerator. “The problem lies on the road! I must get us out of here!”, it thinks. We head off-road at a rapid pace. We lose control. We feel like something is taking over us.
Unfortunately, while we’re not in control and moving off-road, we can get into other problems and dangers. For example, we say things that we regret to our partner. We may react in a way that we don’t feel represents us. We may be embarrassed about the things that we text or do when angry!
This is why it’s so important for us when we’re angry to focus on first calming down before reacting. It’s hard to do this, but through practice like any muscle, you’ll get better. Trying to discover what anger represents for yourself is a great first step to get back in control.
What does anger represent?
So far we’ve discussed that anger is a basic emotion that is activated when we feel unsafe to protect us. It usually represents something that takes longer to activate, especially fear. But we also often resort to anger because it’s more acceptable in society.
It’s easier to be angry with someone than to tell them that you’re hurting. That you’re scared. That you need help.
Society portrays anger as confidence or strength. Some even call it masculine, encouraging people to resort to it more. Have you ever felt that feeling hurt is a weakness? We’re trying not to be weak. We may feel embarrassed or ashamed to tell someone that we feel unsafe. So we default always to anger. But we need to recognize that anger is often a mask for a deeper issue. And only by acknowledging what it represents we can overcome it like a pro.
Anger arises when we feel unsafe. I’m angry almost always equals I’m scared.
This is going to completely change the way that you think about it.
When feel unsafe when we feel:
- we’re not in control of the situation
- we can’t have our way when our way is vital to us
- we don’t have the space or things we need to thrive
- we’re not good enough for our jobs, families, or peers
- we may not succeed in what’s required of us
- we may lose our partner, reputation, or position
- we are treated in a way that hurts our development
We live in a very competitive environment today. Jobs are no guarantee anymore. The environment revolutionizes in the blink of an eye. What we thought we were familiar with becomes obsolete. It’s hard to feel like we’re in control. And this often expresses itself to others through anger, or to ourselves through anxiety.
What does our body do when we don’t feel safe? It activates anger response in case we’re physically unsafe. The same is true for stress. Stress activates many of the same responses as anger. And I believe much of it relates to deeper issues of fear. Anger is a mask of deeper issues. We need to get to the heart of them to overcome them.
How can we do this?
There are both methods which can be used together for optimal results:
The first is through physical touch. The great news is that feelings are associated with physical sensations. We can leverage this to our advantage. For example, feeling stabbed on the back often actually feels like being stabbed on the back. Feeling lonely often actually feels like you are alone. The emotional sensation brings a physical one. (This is why they’re called feelings – because we feel them). And it goes both ways. The physical brings about an emotional!
The next is through emotional connection. With physical touch, we are creating physical sensations to evoke emotional ones. Through emotional connection, we can evoke emotional responses to create physical ones.
Applying this to your relationship: Physical touch
Once we understand that anger often represents fear, we can overcome it by creating a sense of safety. The opposite of feeling scared is feeling safe. And we often feel safe when we are a part of a group. Being close to our partners or peers helps ensure that we are not alone – that there are people out there who care about us. That there are people interested in protecting us and helping us thrive.
We can create this sensation through physical touch. One can create that sensation of feeling connected through actually being connected. What am I referring to here?
Remember to ask first before giving one.
Holding our partners helps them feel close to us. This is especially if physical touch is their love language. If we stroke our partners’ cheek, for example, they feel like somebody is with them. That at least they’re not alone. That someone notices them and cares for them.
Physical sensations lead to emotional ones.
An interesting addition to this is that often the more vulnerable the place being touched, the closer we feel. This is because sensitive areas on our bodies are, well, sensitive! Why do we have so many nerves under our armpits? Because there is little protection there for our shoulder joint. Our necks? Because there are so many essential components right under the skin. Our fingers? Because tiny cartilage holds all the little bones together. Our lips? Because we need them working right to taste and speak!
Tickling leads to joy through facilitating connection. As does kissing!
Where do romantic partners like to kiss each other? The lips. The neck. The chest – sensitive areas with lots of nerves. Where are people most ticklish? Under the armpit or feet – again, nerves!
The same is true for our faces – we have a lot of nerves there because they’re very vulnerable to injury. For example, some partners love it when their partner strokes their cheek or under the eye. Or holds their hand, or strokes their back.
After asking if it is okay first, we can use these extra sensitive regions to ease more connection. Does your partner feel lonely? Offer to give them a hug. Do they want to cuddle? That’s great, your bodies then are touching with so much surface area that lots of nerves are being fired! Do they want you to hold them? Ask if you can stroke their cheek with a stroke soft as feather.
An even better solution is to ask our partners where they want to be held. They know their bodies best!
Creating physical contact in sensitive areas is sending an ancient message to our partner. That we know where their vulnerable parts are and don’t want to hurt them. That we want to help them, to care for them. That we love them and want to help them feel safe.
We can create a sense of safety by bringing about connection. People feel safer when they are not alone. We are a social species and need each other to survive. So by making our partners feel connected, we can help them feel safer. And safety is the opposite of anger. The good news is that emotions create physical responses and vice versa. So we can use physical sensations to create emotional closeness.
Applying this to your relationship: Emotional connection
In the last section, we focused on using physical touch to create safety. In this one, we’ll focus on using an emotional connection to create safety.
Remember throughout this section that we cannot engage with the passenger of a car with an angry driver. We need to first deal with the driver to help them bring the car back on the road first. When all is calm down, we can start a conversation with the passenger. And the driver is the feeling brain. We are going to learn in this section how to connect with the driver through our words.
We create this connection by:
- allowing our partners to express themselves with us
- probing to understand them more
- letting them think and process things as they speak
- assuring them that we’re here for them and with them
- assuring them that everything is going to be okay
We often feel unsafe when we feel like we’re not in control. We’re worried that a danger is looming. That something isn’t going to be okay and we need to act to protect ourselves. That things are getting out of hand. With today’s changing and competitive world, it’s easier than ever to think this way. And when we keep it in, it builds up inside us for weeks before exploding outwards.
A great way to overcome this is to talk about it.
It’s so nice to get the weight off your shoulders – to feel so valued that someone cares about what we have to say. That you can talk about something and understand it in a new light by doing so.
Feelings are felt as physical sensations. Evoke a physical sensation by creating an emotional one. It’s hard to be angry when we feel safe and in control.
So how do we help somebody feel safe if they’re scared from an emotional perspective? A great way to do this is to let them speak and communicate what they feel.
People think while talking. Talking about something or writing about it is an excellent way to process it in your head. A bit of processing will lead to understanding the situation in the new light. And this will lead your partner to feel so much better.
If our partners are angry, so many of us get angry back and walk away or don’t want to deal with them or call them names. But this is doing the opposite of what our partner needs from us. Angry people often need to vent. They want someone to talk to, to help them process something that’s been bothering them. That they can’t hold in anymore.
By walking away, we’re pushing away something that needs to be talked about. We can help our partners understand something in a new light by letting them talk about it! They need to get it out! And we, their partners, can help them! This will also help us know them better. And the more we know our partners, the more we can love them.
Encouraging our partners to keep something inside is going to build up the pressure. And what happens when the pressure gets too big? It can lead to an even bigger explosion later.
We don’t want to keep in our own feelings too, for this will also lead to an explosion within us. But if we can, by allowing our partner to speak first when they are angry, we can help them calm down. Then, they can have the physical and emotional capacity to help us. It’s hard to do this, yes, but all the good things in life are generally hard at first.
Allowing our partners to vent gets their driver back on the road. Back to reality. The emotional hijacking stops. The brain goes back to normal. Then, we can communicate with more understanding. First, get the car on the road. Then continue.
Allow your partner to feel safe by inviting them to vent. This occurs through communication and making them understood. You could do this by telling them things like:
- What do you feel?
- Where do you feel that in your body?
- Paint me a picture of what’s going through in your head
- What’s that like for you?
- Tell me more
- What can I do right now to support you?
- I’m here
In using these prompts, we’re giving our partner the opportunity to express themselves. We’re going to be curious and probe to see if we can understand them more. Allowing them to share how they feel, they’re going to start to make more sense of it in their head. Letting them speak without interrupting will relax the situation already. With little work from you!
We make the situation better by allowing our partners to share their side of the story. They need to vent. Venting is thinking. That’s often what they need from us. Next, we can assure our partners that we’re with them – that they’re not alone. That we want to help them. Doing this creates a sense of emotional safety, which is the opposite of anger.
Example role play
Let’s say that your partner says to you:
“I feel like you don’t understand me. I feel like you don’t even care about me. I ask you every day to help me in the kitchen and unload the dishwasher and you want to do your own thing. You yell at me and make me feel like I’m not enough. You have no idea how hard I work around here! You have no basic respect for me! How do you even call yourself an adult when you can take basic instructions? You never do what I ask you! You don’t play your role in this house! You don’t even appreciate me! I can’t take this!”
What would your reaction be here? so many of us would get mad and say things like:
“Are you crazy! You have no idea how hard I work to maintain this house. My work is so stressful and I work like a dog to keep this house going. Don’t ever tell me that I don’t work hard enough for you.”
This doesn’t work though, because it’s going to aggravate the situation. We don’t want to make it more intense. You can stand up for yourself, but do it once you get the car back on the road. First, get their driver and control, and then you can start to talk to the passenger.
Better ways to respond by saying this:
“Oh my goodness honey, it seems to me that you’re upset right now. I care about you and I want to help make the situation better. Can you tell me what I could do to support you right now?”
Let’s see what they say:
“You never listen to me! I work so hard and I’m so tired! I can’t take this anymore, I need a break too! I have no time for myself! Feel like I’m working like a dog and no matter what I do there are always problems!”
Then you can respond by saying:
“Oh my, that must be so hard. I’m here for you. I’m with you. Can I give you a hug? I want to work with you to make this better. I’m on your side. We’re a team. It seems to me that you need a break for yourself and you feel like you’re working so hard, but there’s always more to do. It’s all right?”
Let your partner respond, and then keep proving to ask questions to help them communicate what they feel. In doing so, you help them communicate what they feel. As they vent, the pressure builds down inside them, and they feel like a big weight was lifted off of them.
Good probing questions from the list mentioned earlier are:
- What does that feel like for you?
- Where does it feel in your body?
- Tell me more…
Our partners are going to be amazed that somebody cares so much about us to ask these questions. They’re going to feel like they matter, that their feelings matter, because somebody cares enough to get to know them.
Once things calm down, share how you feel. It’ll make it so much easier if we just let things out, especially before they are realized in conflict!
Anger is so often evoked instead of the true reasons for it because we have more wiring for it and it is more socially acceptable. By recognizing that anger is primarily caused by an absence of safety, we can spring into action to make the situation better. Overcome anger by seeking a connection with your partner and trying to discover the underlying reason it’s there.
We can create connection physically through physical touch, or emotionally through our words. In either case, we must be curious to discover our partner and see our role as a helper. Moments of anger are excellent opportunities to re-create dissipating connection. When our partner is angry with us, they are trying to re-engage with us. This is critical, for, without it, the relationship would fizzle out.
Whichever path you chose to take to re-establish safety with your partner, remember that they are often the experts of themselves. Whether it is through physical or emotional connection, our partners often know what’s best for them. Ask them what you can do to support them in the situation, and give them what they need. By modelling this behaviour, they will be more likely to do the same for you eventually in times of your anger.
Remember to express yourself and share your side of the story too. By holding it in, you will also explode in anger or implode in anxiety. But try, if you can, to first calm down your partner, then they will have the emotional and cognitive capacity to be there for you too.
I hope this article completely changed the way you understand anger. In the next article, we’ll get back into some neuroscience and discover mirror neurons. We’ll learn about the stories we see the world by and how to leverage them to benefit our heated interactions. Then, we’ll discover how we can prevent most conflict by applying limits and check-ins.
Thank you for joining me on this journey to build healthier relationships and stronger families.
Conflict is hard. But it doesn’t have to be.
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