It’s startling to experience a sudden burst of intense emotion. It often feels like anger! Where did it come from? What’s it about?
It could be from unfairness, injustice or humiliation — all justified causes of anger. However, anger is often a “secondary” emotion that accompanies hurt or fear since we frequently experience more than one emotion at a time.
The amygdala in our brain helps us to survive by managing many automatic functions in our body. It remembers our experiences and assesses threats, physical and emotional. We all have experienced “triggers” — sudden intense feelings that seem to come from nowhere. Yep, that’s the amygdala working.
Here are a few examples of “triggering” experiences. I’m sure you can recall many of your own.
- A friend fails to keep an agreement, a promise or a secret.
- A child runs into the street after a ball without seeing a car coming.
- A family member forgets to include you in the picture of a family celebration.
- Your brother criticizes and belittles your daughter or spouse.
Any of these situations may cause us to feel hurt, angry or afraid. However, anger is often the first emotion we experience without recognizing the underlying feelings and, when triggered, our impulsive reactions often seem angry. This often provokes us to say or do things we later regret.
When we react without thinking we may cause emotional harm to the relationship. Better to choose our reply once we understand the situation. This is exactly why the first rule of managing anger is to stop and think before taking action. It’s not what happens that matters so much. It’s how you handle it, and what it means to you, that matters most.
I know. Easier said than done! Intense emotions usually interfere initially with our ability to think clearly. Take time to differentiate between your feelings. Anger is different than fear. Fear is different than hurt. Trust me, it is possible, and necessary to regulate your behavior so you don’t act in ways that you will later regret. Just because you feel hurt or angry, you may not kick the cat or lash out at the policeman.
Triggered? Here’s help:
- Take several slow, deep breaths! Count to 10!
- Then, identify your feelings. General categories are: mad, sad, glad, afraid. If you are unclear about your emotions, ask yourself, “Is there a mad part about what happened? Is there a hurt or scared part? Because we often experience more than one feeling at a time, this will help you decide how to respond.
- Don’t assume you know the other person’s intentions or meaning. Be willing to engage to understand what happened. State what’s true for you along with the impact or meaning. “It seems to me that…” Then, state the impact or meaning for you. “I am disappointed, surprised, worried, hurt that…” Then, listen to understand the person’s meaning.
- Sometimes, misunderstandings and mistakes occur that can be quickly cleared up and dismissed. Start by giving the person the benefit of the doubt.
- When intense feelings linger, address the matter directly — sooner rather than later. When we feel vulnerable we may fear that the person will not recognize or acknowledge how their behavior affected us. When we avoid understanding and resolving issues, we diminish and disrespect the relationship.
- Trust that the strength of the relationship will allow for repair and recovery from mistakes and poor choices. When issues, large or small, are avoided, the relationship is compromised, thus causing distance that erodes affection, respect and trust.
- If you continue to feel upset about a situation 24 hours later, know that it will not simply evaporate. It will linger and fester, contaminating the relationship.
- If the person is important to you, take time to understand the transgression. Decide what you want to have happen and initiate contact. To have an argument? To prove you are right? To request or make an apology? To repair and recover? Let that decision guide your behavior. How you respond will be based on your values and principles.
Do not rely on someone else’s bad behavior as an excuse to be crabby, to rage or ruin your day. And, certainly, don’t allow another person’s bad behavior to control you.
The good news is that — with very few exceptions — willing attitudes and necessary skills can avoid or repair difficult interactions. Carpe diem!