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Why Are People Mean?

“Friggin jerk!” Cecily screamed. Even though her two young sons were in the car, she raged on, “What are you, a moron?! Where did you learn to drive?! I hope you rot!!”

Cecily wanted help controlling her reactions. She knew instinctively her temper was damaging to her children and contributed to her high blood pressure. When Cecily described her road rage to me, she described herself as being angry with the man in the Blue Volvo. “Of course you were,” I validated, “After all, the driver scared you to death.” But then, I explained to Cecily how she acted out that anger by yelling.

Cecily grew up in a family with lots of shouting and sometimes some hitting. Cecily naturally thought yelling and hitting WAS anger. I clarified for Cecily, “From an emotion science standpoint, ‘anger’ refers only to an internal experience. Anger is a core emotion that biologically alerts us. When your parents yelled, said mean things, or hit you, they were acting out their anger, which is very different from experiencing it.” The distinction between experiencing anger and acting out is an important one for us all to understand. Most people fear anger because they equate it with hurtful, scary and destructive actions. It’s an easy mistake to make. Anger happens so fast that the internal experience and the actions that follow appear to be one and the same.

We feel it! We act!

With a little (or a lot) of practice, we can slow down the whole experience of being angry into the two steps it actually is. By slowing down just a little bit, we gain awareness of what the anger is doing to us, giving us time and space to think BEFORE acting out. But, if we don’t actively slow down, the fuel inherent in our anger will speed us up and we will react almost immediately after the emotion is triggered in our middle brain.

I suggested to Cecily, “Let’s break down what happens into two steps. Step 1 is your internal experience; and Step 2 is how you express that anger."

Step 1: What does it mean to experience anger?

First, it means we notice and validate that we are angry. You may sense your anger in your face or jaw, as a jolt to your body, as a rush of energy from your core, or in other ways. Eventually, when you get angry, you will notice it immediately and be able to think to yourself:

“I notice I am angry because the clerk just helped someone else even though I was next in line.”

Or, "I am furious that my husband just left his socks on the floor."

Or, "My child's disrespectful tone of voice is really irritating me."

Or, "I am enraged at my co-worker for snubbing me!"

Or, "I notice I am angry and I do not know why."

Second, if we slow down enough, we can sense the physical sensations of our anger and describe them. And that is exactly what I help people to do.

I say, “Notice what is happening to you physically. Notice the sensations in your body that anger generates. Where do you notice the anger in your body? What is it like? Can we struggle to put some language on it.”

Third, anger has wired-in impulses. The impulses of anger are mean and aggressive by nature. Anger wants to be nasty, even though other parts of us may want to be nice or calm. We can strive to notice our impulses, i.e. wanting to yell at drivers, to say mean things to co-workers and family members, or to lash out physically. By becoming aware of impulses, the chance of acting on them diminishes.

Staying with the experience of anger without doing anything is a challenge. And that’s one reason so many people discharge their anger by yelling, insulting, blaming, hitting, or abusing others. Some of us act out reflexively to get rid of the bad/painful/scary/angry feelings inside of us. And it works in the moment. But there are usually negative consequences to acting out.

There is also a term called acting in. Acting in means we turn the anger against our Self, causing us harm. Types of acting in include cutting, starving, binging, doing drugs, or blocking our anger with depression, anxiety, guilt, and shame.

To review, what helps us thrive in life is to learn to fully experience our anger internally and have control over how, when and if we choose to communicate it to others. When someone angers us, we need to slow ourselves down, tune into our physical reactions and validate to our Self that we are indeed angry. We need to know who angered us, what we are angry about, and to listen to our impulses. The very last step is to think through a constructive course of action. A constructive course of action is an action that is in sync with our values and long-term goals for wellness and health.

Step 2: What are constructive actions?

Asserting needs. Imagine putting all of your anger into your backbone and being direct about what you want. You say, for example, “It’s important to me that you help out with the housework” or “It’s important to me that when I say NO you back off and don’t continue to try to get your way.” Or, “If you’re going to be late in the future, please let me know.” The calmer the tone, the more you will be heard.

Setting boundaries. “I don’t want you criticizing me or calling me names. If I am doing something that is bothering you, let’s talk about it respectfully.” Or, “I do not like it when you borrow my things without asking.” If you get pushback, it is ok. Just stay calm, firm, and repeat your statement until you are heard.

Tending to childhood wounds. Sometimes we have blocked anger from our childhood that leaks out in the present. If you suspect you have unaddressed anger that is negatively affecting your life today, it is a great idea to seek support. With a trained therapist, pent up anger can be released in a safe way.

Not taking any action at all. When nothing can be done to change a situation, like in the case of Cecily's road rage, no action is the best action. Although it is not easy, we can strive to have self-compassion. Anger is painful and hard to sit with as we resist the temptation to act out. As an example, Cecily's Self talk might sound like this:

"That driver was totally in the wrong. It is ok that I am angry. Screaming will only hurt the kids and make me feel bad about myself later so I am going to work hard to control myself. It's really hard to feel this way and not take any action. I am just going to breathe deeply for a few minutes, imagine something calming, and later treat myself to something nice since I had such a bad day."

So…why are people mean?

Because people act out instead of first experiencing their anger internally. They react from their primary angry impulse, which wants to be mean and aggressive.

You do not need to be in therapy to work on your anger. You can get to know your internal experience any time you want. Noticing your internal experience is a practice honed over a lifetime.

What physical sensations do you have when you’re angry?

A+ for the courage to find out!

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