by Harriet Lerner
We women have long been taught to avoid anger, not only the expression of it, but the experience of it. We swallow our anger (“it’s not worth fighting over”), or we deny it entirely because we are supposed to be the nurturers, the soothers, the peacemakers, the steadiers of rocked boats. We can keep peace and hold relationships in place as though our lives depended on it.
Or, if we do allow ourselves to experience and express our anger, we soon learn that it’s not easy to manage our anger effectively, with dignity, clarity, and strength. We may experience and express our anger too intensely, too quickly, and that gets us nowhere.
Though feeling anger signals that there is a problem at hand, venting anger does not help solve it. Venting may even prevent change by reinforcing old rules and patterns in a relationship. When emotional intensity is high, many of us seek to change the other person (“it’s your fault!”), and we fail to exercise our power to clarify and change our own selves.
Those of us who are locked into ineffective fighting, complaining, and blaming suffer as deeply as those of us who dare not feel or express anger at all. These two styles of managing anger may look as different as night and day, but they are two sides of the same coin. In the end, we both end up feeling helpless and powerless. And nothing changes.
Here are 12 do’s and don’ts from my book, The Dance of Anger. Our goal is to learn to use the energy of our anger as a tool for change, in the service of strengthening both ourselves and our important relationships. We can all learn to identify the true sources of anger and to use our anger as a powerful vehicle for creating lasting change.
Anger Do’s and Don’ts
1. Do speak up when an issue is important to you. Obviously, we need not personally address every irritation or injustice that comes along. Simply letting something go can be an act of maturity. But it is a mistake to stay silent if the cost is to feel bitter or resentful. We devalue ourselves when we fail to take a stand on things that matter to us.
2. Don’t strike when the iron is hot. If your goal is to change an entrenched pattern, the worst time to talk about it may be when you are feeling angry or intense. If your temperature starts rising in the middle of a conversation, you can always say, “I need a little time to sort out my thoughts. Let’s set up another time to talk about this some more.” Seeking temporary distance is not the same as a cold withdrawal or an emotional cutoff.
3. Do take time out to think about the problem and to clarify your position. Before you speak out, ask yourself these questions: “What is it about this situation that makes me angry?” “What is the real issue here?” “Where do I stand?” “What do I want to accomplish?” “Who is responsible for what?” “What, specifically, do I want to change?” “What are the things I will and will not do?”
4. Don’t use below-the-belt tactics. These include: blaming, interpreting, diagnosing, labeling, analyzing, preaching, moralizing, ordering, warning, interrogating, ridiculing, and lecturing.
5. Do speak in “I” language. Say, “I think,” “I feel,” “I fear,” “I want.” A true “I” statement says something about the self without criticizing or blaming the other person, and without holding the other person responsible for your feelings or reactions. Watch out for disguised “you” statements or pseudo-“I” statements. (For example, “I think you are controlling and self-centered.”)
6. Don’t make vague requests. (“I want you to be more sensitive to my needs.”) Let the other person know specifically what you want. (“The best way you can help me now is simply to listen. I really don’t want advice right now.”) Don’t expect people to anticipate your needs or do things that you haven’t asked for. Even people who love you can’t read your mind.
7. Do appreciate the fact that people are different. We move away from stuck relationships when we recognize that there are as many ways of seeing the world as there are people in it. If you’re fighting about who has the “truth,” you may be missing the point. Different perspectives and ways of reacting do not necessarily mean that one person is right and the other wrong.
8. Don’t tell another person what they think or feel, or what they should think or feel. If another person is angry in response to a change you’ve made, don’t criticize their feelings or tell them they have no right to be angry. Better to say, “I understand that you’re angry, and if I were in your shoes, I might be angry, too. But I’ve thought it over and this is my decision.” One person’s right to be angry does not mean that the other person is to blame.
9. Do recognize that each person is responsible for their own actions. For example, if you are angry about the distance between you and your dad since he remarried, it is your responsibility to find a new way to approach the situation. Don’t blame your dad’s new wife because she “won’t let him” be close to you. Your dad’s behavior is his responsibility, not his wife’s.
10. Don’t spin your wheels trying to convince others of the rightness of your position. If the other person is not hearing you, simply say, “Well, it may sound crazy to you, but this is how I feel,” or, “I understand that you disagree, but I guess we see the problem differently.”
11. Do avoid speaking through a third party. For example, if you are angry with your brother, don’t say, “I think my daughter felt terrible when you didn’t come to her school play.” Instead, try, “I was upset when you didn’t come. You’re important to me and I really wanted you to be there.”
12. Don’t expect change to come about from hit-and-run confrontations. Change occurs slowly in close relationships. If you make even a small change, you will be tested many times to see if you really mean it.
And one more. Don’t get discouraged if you fall on your face several times as you try to change the way you manage your anger. You may find that you start out fine but then blow it when things heat up. That’s part of the process, so be patient with yourself. You will have many opportunities to get back on track and try again.
Harriet Lerner, Ph.D, is a psychologist and psychotherapist. An expert on relationships, she is the author of 11 books, including the bestseller The Dance of Anger, The Dance of Fear and most recently, Why Won’t You Apologize?: Healing Big Betrayals and Everyday Hurts. Lerner’s books have been translated into more than 30 foreign editions. For more information, see www.harrietlerner.com.