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Understanding Anger

Article by Perth Psychologist, Patricia Robertson

Anger is a normal, healthy, and valuable emotion that we all feel from time to time. The emotion of anger is linked to our survival instincts, and is like an alarm bell signalling us that we have been wronged, threatened, or treated unfairly in some way and the situation needs our immediate attention. Unfortunately, most people don't use their anger as a warning that problem resolution is needed; they simply react to the bell in their own individual style. Some people explode in a rage and unleash a verbal attack on whoever is nearby, some become irritable and grumble obscenities under their breath, while others try to ignore the alarm altogether to avoid feeling uncomfortable. What these reactions have in common is that they are all unhealthy ways of expressing anger, usually make the situation worse, and do little or nothing to address the problem. Thus, it is not the emotion of anger that is the problem, but how we express and resolve our anger that determines whether or not it creates problems in our lives, and in the lives of those close to us.

What Does Your Anger Look Like?
Some people may think, "I don't have an anger problem. I never shout or swear or slam doors". But not all expressions of anger look the same. The first step in getting a grip on your anger is learning to recognise your particular style and pattern of expressing anger. The Faces of Dysfunctional Anger listed below can help you determine if you, or someone you know, has an anger problem.

The Faces of Dysfunctional Anger

Passive-Aggression
Characteristics: 'Forgets' or does not follow through on promises or commitments; withholds affection, compliments, and attention; chronic lateness; may temporarily withhold intimacy when angry at their partner; engages in behaviours that are known to cause problems for, or be upsetting, to another. Passive-aggression is one of the most frustrating faces of anger to confront and resolve. Although the passive-aggressive person blocks or withholds what another person wants and needs, they deny their anger or malicious intent.

Sarcasm
Characteristics: Deliberate attempts to embarrass, publicly humiliate, or belittle someone under guise of 'humour', cutting remarks, or divulging embarrassing personal information to others. Sarcasm is punctuated by a tone of voice that conveys disapproval, disgust, or superiority. People who express their anger through sarcasm generally take pride in their biting intellectual wit, and often accuse their victims of being 'thin skinned' and not able to take a joke.

Cold anger
Characteristics: Expressing anger toward another by turning off and withdrawing physically and emotionally; may punish the person they are angry with by giving them the silent treatment or avoiding intimacy for lengthy periods. There is a tendency to avoid emotional discussions when angry, and a refusal to reveal what is wrong. People who use cold anger often grew up in families where the expression of anger was strongly discouraged, or in which one or both parents were distant, cold, and rejecting.

Hostility
Characteristics: Hostility is an intense form of free-floating anger that has no clear object and can be triggered by the slightest provocation. People who express their anger through hostility convey an inner intensity and sense of time urgency. Referred to as 'hot heads' or as having a 'hair-trigger temper', these behaviours are frequently observed in people with 'Type A' personalities. People who display hostility are easily irritated and impatient when others fail to move fast enough or live up to their unrealistically high expectations. Their venting of intense anger is often related to the level of stress in their lives.

Aggression
Characteristics: There is a clear intent to harm, cause pain, or intimidate another person emotionally and/or physically. Verbally abusive behaviours marked by name calling, swearing, and blaming are common. Verbal abuse may lead to physical abuse such as slapping, pushing, hitting, or blocking. People who exhibit more diffuse hostile anger may at times cross the line to outright aggression by verbally attacking or becoming physically violent toward others, particularly their partners and children. Aggressive acting out is generally followed by regrets and apologies-a cycle frequently seen in domestic abuse.

If you would like to learn more about Understanding Anger or if you would like to make an appointment, Patricia can be contacted by phone or email.

Contact Details
Phone: (08) 9409 5563
Email: patrilee@optusnet.com.au

Patricia Robertson works from Wangara Psychology Services in Perth, Western Australia.

Wangara Psychology Services
3/7 Prindiville Drive
Wangara WA 6065

Adapted from Nay, W.R. (2004). Taking Charge of Anger. New York:Guilford Press.


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