If practice made perfect we’d all be experts at getting angry. Still, not many of us do a very good job of it. Either we lash out and harm others, or we stuff our anger inside and try to ignore it, for fear of reprisal or fear of what we might do if our anger were unleashed.
Unleash it, advised the late anger management expert Alice Eldred, a family and child counselor in Santa Monica who created workshops on appropriate use of anger. “Anger has a very bad name,” taught Eldred, “but it’s a very good emotion. It helps you understand what is really going on inside you.”
The trick is learning to get the anger out away from the people you’re angry with. “Then,” explained Eldred, “you have a choice of speaking to them in person or on the phone writing them a letter, or doing nothing at all. Later, when you do speak to them, you’ll do so gently, without endangering the relationship or forcing them into a position of self-defense.”
When I interviewed Eldred back in 1991 she had been teaching the right way to get angry for 13 years, in the USA and abroad. “Violence,” she told me, “is perpetrated by people who never learned any other way to handle anger.”
When we are angry, our body is geared for action. But in most families we are expected to quell this powerful feeling by force of will or face dire consequences. “Look at that face!” Eldred’s mother would warn her, “Nobody will want to marry you with a face like that!” While family abuse is often due to an inappropriate release of anger, according to Eldred stuffing anger is a form of self-abuse that expresses itself through lethargy, depression, guilt, fear, body pain, worry, and disease.
Anger can be an automatic reaction to a perceived threat to self-esteem or security. Therefore, it is important to develop a repertoire of ways to handle anger before you become angry, so you can override the knee-jerk reaction. To allow for time to practice new behavior, begin with easy and repetitive responses to what’s going on in your life:
Squeeze aluminum cans and stomp on them.
Write the initials or name of the person with whom you’re angry on the bottom of your shoe and stomp around all day.
Keep a small towel in your car for in-absentia neck wringing.
If a strong emotion erupts while driving turn on the radio, roll up the windows, and yell loudly at the person whose neck you’d like to be wringing.
A temper tantrum is an acceptable way for a child to express anger, in the house and preferably in the child’s own room. You may have a tantrum, too, standing up or lying in bed, kicking your feet and yelling.
If two children are fighting, be aware they probably feel guilty about losing control and need help to feel okay about themselves. It may help to create a special place for children (and adults) to release anger, perhaps a ‘mad box’ in which you keep items for crushing, hitting, or tearing.
If you and your mate are angry with each other, have each take a newspaper section and tear it up while swearing, complaining, or speaking gibberish. When you’re through tearing, throw the shreds of newspaper at each other. According to our anger expert, it’s difficult to remain angry while laughing.
Before you say anything to anyone, cautioned Eldred, ask yourself “TNT? Is it true? Is it necessary? Is it timely? Respond, don’t react. You can respond from a place of calmness and encourage communication instead of violent words if you’re already separately released your anger by these handy methods, or others you in your creativity devise for yourself.