How we express anger is a learned response. There are several influences that may impact how we express our anger. We learn from personal experience, from watching others, from the way our family expresses anger, from the media, from cultural and gender stereotypes, from our role models and from so many other sources. You may have heard someone claim that they inherited their tendency to yell from their father, or their passive-aggressiveness from their mother. However, anger is not something inherited, like eye color. Dealing with anger is something that can be, as previously mentioned, learned through experiences throughout our childhood. Think back to your childhood. How was anger expressed?
At times as children we are given the message that our emotions are wrong, not acceptable, or that they need to be hidden. Were you told not to cry growing up, not to feel angry, or that anger was bad? Perhaps you witnessed your older brother engaging in physical conflict with another child instead of dealing with the loss of your family dog. Maybe you saw someone seemingly gain power over another by using aggression, or saw anger as uncontrollable, scary, and something you need to avoid. You may have learned some unhealthy habits of dealing with anger while growing up.
Regardless of where or how you learned your behavior, it is important to realize that it can be changed and that this change is up to you. Self-awareness will play a huge part in managing anger, not just of holding yourself accountable for your own actions, but also of your own needs.
But Really, Where Does Anger Come From?
We touched on the destructive nature of anger expression in the previous section. It is clear that managing your experience of anger in a healthy, caring and peaceful manner can take awareness, planning, skill, and at times creativity. When anger becomes intense, unhealthy or even destructive, chances are it is because some need inside you has not been met. This could be a basic need such as food, money, a roof over your head, stability, or sleep. It’s easy to recognize, for instance, that a toddler will become cranky if he or she is hungry, sleepy, or the environment is unstable.
These needs do not go away as we grow. In fact, they multiply.
Humans have a need for:
- Connection with others
The list is seemingly infinite, because we are all different, and needs include not just the things we require to survive, but also our wants and desires to create a meaningful and peaceful life.
When needs aren’t being met, there is a tendency to react in an unhealthy or destructive manner, instead of responding in a healthy way. This is especially true if you are in need of food or sleep, as these needs not only can trigger a survival response but also impact our production of what our brains need to feel good.
Do you remember studying Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs? Check out what About.com has to say about Maslow here:
Consider the following:
Imagine yourself facing an auto collision. You are in the driver’s seat. Your mind reacts instinctively, making your hands steer out of the way, and making your foot stomp on the brake. Time may slow down or speed up, your heart races, your body is pumped full of adrenaline. Your need for safety is immediate. You are in survival mode. All rationale has flown out the window at that point.
Now imagine yourself during a busy day at work. You were running late getting ready for work, you didn’t bother with breakfast and you are so busy that you have forgotten to eat lunch. Now the copier has jammed for the sixth time this month and your first urge is to kick it or to yell. You may even decide to give up entirely on the copier and avoid your duties at work. You are reacting, driven by instinct, and reverting back to learned behaviors, perhaps from your childhood.
How are these two situations similar?
In both situations, your body is in a kind of survival mode. You are reacting instinctively and not responding thoughtfully. While this may prove effective for the near car accident, it is not as effective with social interaction.
Not all needs drive us into survival mode, but most unmet needs are surprisingly taxing. Thinking that a photocopier is good-for-nothing, could be a reaction to a need for ease or effectiveness, that was made worse by a need for food or exercise.
Section 15: Exercise
How did others express anger during your childhood? What are some of your beliefs about anger? Can you find characteristic behaviors you may have learned from your family growing up? How did women express anger when you were growing up? How did men? How did your role models or your close friends? Think about possible needs these people were attempting to fulfill while expressing anger.
Think back to the previous exercise. Try to recognize some needs that were not being met that may have contributed to the conflicts you have written about. Be as objective as possible with this.
Meanwhile, continue to track conflicts. Along with these conflicts, write down unmet needs of both you and others. For your own needs, think in both the broad scheme of things and in individual circumstance. Think about reaching broader needs as a goal. Maybe you want consistency in your life or maybe you want closeness. Imagine what your life would look like with these needs met. Write it down.
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