When we’re angry, we yell, criticize, judge, shut down, give the silent treatment, isolate or say, “I’m fine!” (without of course being fine). These actions end up hurting both the other person and us. They feel bad, and we might feel worse. We might regret the insults and judgments we hurled their way. We might feel frustrated that we didn’t articulate the real reason behind our anger. We might feel frustrated that we weren’t heard.
Maybe we’re even afraid of anger in general because we associate it with aggression. But as Alexander L. Chapman, Ph.D, RPsych, and Kim L. Gratz, Ph.D, write in their comprehensive book, The Dialectical Behavior Therapy Workbook for Anger: Using DBT Mindfulness & Emotion Regulation Skills to Manage Anger, “Aggression involves actions or statements that might be harmful to someone or something, whereas anger is an emotional state.”
Anger is an important emotion. It can be extremely energizing and motivating, write Chapman and Gratz. Anger “helps us protect ourselves, fight injustice and unfairness, defend our rights, and confront those who are mistreating us.” It also gives “you the fuel you need to break through barriers, persist, and work hard to achieve a goal.”
In The Dialectical Behavior Therapy Workbook for Anger Chapman and Gratz share thoughtful, powerful skills for helping us express our anger effectively. Below are several spot-on tips from their book.
Use non-judgmental language
Judgmental language includes words like “bad,” “wrong,” “jerk” or “selfish.” When someone uses these words to communicate their anger, most people get defensive or shut down. Plus, these words are inherently subjective and only fuel arguments. That’s why the authors suggest using facts, which people are more likely to respond to. Telling someone “When you said I was lazy, I felt hurt” is very different from telling them “You were a jerk last night.”
When you’re talking to someone, describe what angered you in neutral way. According to Chapman and Gratz, “For instance, rather than judging the person as ‘rude’ or ‘mean,’ objectively describe what that person said or did and how it made you feel.”
Because practice is key to expressing your anger effectively, they suggest writing about a recent experience that angered you. Write about the situation in the same way you’d describe it to a friend. Next circle your judgements and opinions. Then rewrite the description and replace those judgements with objective language and descriptions.
Use a non-aggressive tone
Again, people are more likely to listen and respond calmly to you when you approach them calmly and respectfully. “If you approach someone in an aggressive manner, the natural response is to shut down, leave, or act aggressively in return,” write Chapman and Gratz. Avoid raising your voice or being aggressive in other ways.
The authors also suggest watching yourself in the mirror or recording yourself as you express your anger. This helps you get a better sense of your tone and demeanor. Another option is to practice in front of a loved one or therapist and ask them for feedback.
Assert your needs
The first step in asserting your needs is to figure out what your needs actually are. The authors suggest asking these questions:
- Do you want the person to do something different in the future or to change her or his behavior in some way?
- Do you want this person to understand where you’re coming from and apologize for some action?
- Do you want the person to work with you to come up with a solution to an ongoing problem?
Next create a script. Talk about what angered you (again in a clear and objective way). Tell the person how you feel, using “I feel” and “I think” statements. State your needs and what you want as clearly and specifically as possible. Finally, mention how the person will benefit from doing what you need. For instance, it might make your relationship stronger or help you reduce conflict.
In addition, think about what compromises you’re willing to make if the other person can’t or won’t give you everything you want. And be sure to practice your script.
(For more information on the above skills, the authors suggest reading the Skills Training Manual for Treating Borderline Personality Disorderand DBT Skills Training Manualby Marsha Linehan. She developed dialectical behavior therapy.)
Anger is a valuable emotion, even though we tend to see it as a problem. We think of anger as destructive. But anger is actually instructive. What deems it destructive or instructive is what we do with our anger. In other words, it depends on the actions we take. When we express our needs calmly and without judgement, we show respect to others and to ourselves — and maybe we even get our needs met.
Angry woman photo available from Shutterstock