I Can’t Talk to You Right Now … You’re Too Angry
We’ve all been there. We think we’re approaching a simple topic with someone and while doing so, the other person blows up in anger and rage. And somehow, we’ve become the recipient of an “anger release.”
So what should we do when we find ourselves in a conversation with another that has escalated, and that person has become extremely angry?
“That’s an interesting question,” Art Bowler, a licensed psychologist who practices in New York City, said. “Usually when someone is so angry, it’s not the best time to have lengthy discussions about the issue.”
He explained that the person is coming from an emotional place, not a logical one, and it is difficult for the person to reason at that point in time. “Emotional states are not always the most logical,” he said. “It’s an emotional energy that may not be accurate.”
In technical terms, Richard Blackmon, a practicing psychologist in Southern California, said, “When we are flooded with powerful emotions, such as anger, the neural pathways bypass the cortex, the thinking part of our brain.” Because they instead head for the midbrain structures, it puts people in the instinctive mode of fight or flight … it is a self-protective mode.
“So we literally respond when flooded without thinking, only self-protecting,” Blackmon said.
But that doesn’t mean just because we may understand the brain physiology behind the other person who is yelling at us, we have to put up with it.
“When the other person gets angry, it’s not the best time to communicate,” Bowler said. “When the person is yelling you can say, ‘I hear you yelling.’ Be sure to use ‘I’ statements. You should validate their emotions: ‘I can see that you’re angry, but I believe that this is not the best time to talk about it.’ Because it is actually better for both parties to get some distance to gain perspective, and to step away to see the full picture.” You can consider it a time-out for both of you to help calm down and see clearly.
Bowler said to then suggest a specific day or time to come back and work through the issues. Because sometimes after the person cools off, everyone pretends like nothing happened. The angry person released so she feels better. And then the recipient of the anger doesn’t want to bring it back up to either “rock the boat” or have to go back through another tirade. But the topic must be revisited and addressed.
The anger someone has inside probably isn’t even about the current issue; it’s a buildup of past issues. “It may be fueled by the past and may be unrelated to the present issue,” Bowler said. And by not setting a time to discuss (so that you are obligated to re-discuss), the issues will continue to build. “It then gets even harder to deal with,” Bowler added.
“Anger escalates because that person wants to do what they want when they want,” Bowler said. “It is energy that is being thrown or pushed out. For that particular person, it may be hard for her to wait to discuss the issue because there is a sense of familiarity about the intensity.” However, the person has to learn to deal with those feelings. Their anger is their anger. They don’t get to project it out onto someone else.
One approach not to take is to start yelling back. “Because then you also start coming from an emotional place.” Bowler said. Then neither of you is relating to the current issue, it just becomes more about unresolved past issues, as well as an “arguing match.” “Sometimes in the moment, because people want to be ‘right,’ individuals bring up past unresolved issues that were never worked out. Then it becomes too confusing to know what anyone is truly talking about.”
Of course, assessing the violence issue is of utmost importance. We’re assuming here it is a “yelling fest.” But should there be any hint that something could become violent, the first important step is just getting out and getting yourself to safety.
Different people deal with their anger in different forms. Some internalize it and become depressed or anxious. Some have bodily symptoms, etc. Others release it. “Some people, often those who grew up in high-intensity situations where the home environment was abusive or hostile, experience anger and get a ‘rush’ of sorts from it. It’s all about adrenaline. The anger and its intensity well up and want to be acted upon,” Bowler said.
If you find yourself in conversation with someone who is continually angry when you want to talk about issues, Bowler said it might be that the person is not willing or able to deal with her feelings. “Maybe this person needs a little more help with handling her feelings than someone like you can give. Some people want to rage; raging is a release from which they gain comfort. Some like the comfort. But it is not a good stress release, because it becomes a familiar intensity. That’s when it becomes dangerous, and could possibly lead to abuse.”
What if you are reading this and say, “I’m the one who is always getting angry.”
Bowler said, “If you always find your anger escalating, if you’re always on edge … the first good step is that you notice it.”
He suggests writing about what you are angry about. Get the release onto paper. And if you also journal in “non-angry moments,” you can notice patterns in your thoughts and feelings. You might feel a release from getting things out and onto the paper. And you should talk to someone. You can talk to friends, who can be helpful, but friends are not always the best because they don’t always know how to get down to reasons. Bowler suggested finding someone objective, like a therapist who can help identify underlying causes: depression, anxiety or irritability.
Blackmon said if we can acknowledge when we are “flooded,” then we can take time to slow down, which is helpful.
Some anger is healthy. Perhaps you didn’t get the promotion you wanted (and deserved) and work. “It’s okay to be angry,” Bowler said. “Anger is often about an injustice we feel has been committed against us. If you are angry, express it.”
It’s just about not releasing it onto another person. “If you have to yell, go into the woods and scream … scream into a pillow,” Bowler said.
Exercise is another great way to relieve anger, too. “Get your heart rate up,” he suggested. “Exercise is a natural antidepressant … releasing serotonin.
“Anger can be good. It can propel us to take action and make changes. It can be a good motivator for good things,” he said. “Many successful people have used feelings of anger to drive them to success.”
He also suggested good old fashioned talking: “Sometimes talking helps. You need to rant.” It’s when we take it out by yelling and projecting onto another person that it becomes an unproductive way to communicate.
“Individuals have choices of what to do with anger,” Bowler said. “We may not have a choice of feeling angry. We may say, ‘I’m angry, I wish I wasn’t, but I am…’ But we do have the choice of what to do with it.” And we have choices of how to treat others by not releasing our anger onto them or having to be the recipient of such.
So, when we find ourselves in conversations with angry people, we should remember to take care of ourselves. Whether it is we or someone else, angry yelling never leads to productive outcomes. Coming back to discussions when things have cooled down will help communication find its purpose.
Dr. Bowler can be reached at www.drartbowler.com; Dr. Blackmon can be reached at 818.889.1823.