Dealing Better With Angry People
We each have old brains, which are rather like an animal’s, and new brains which perform higher thinking. Both are important for our survival and personalities. If people are under extreme threat, their bodies adopt the flight, fight or freeze response. In this state, thinking and feeling are circumvented and we just respond. Our “old brain” takes over, responding the same way as animals in the wild. An animal will first try to run; if he can’t he’ll fight; if that’s useless, he’ll freeze as often that can put off or distract the predator. A good human example of this is stage fright. We’ve all heard stories of how different performers have done all three of these things depending on the situation.
Our lives are all about getting the balance right - there is a time to think and a time to act. It’s not good to make rash decisions, but equally, it’s not good to sit on things for too long or to feel ourselves getting more and more anxious about a future event. It can sometimes be good to simply do something instead of worrying or thinking about it too much, though this is never as easy as just saying it! This is how anxiety can be worse than fear. Under deep anxiety one may feel oneself to be under continuous threat or perhaps one feels a threat to one’s essential view of the self, whereas with fear, however bad, is normally about a situation that will pass soon and is dealt with, in one way or another, there and then.
It’s not easy to deal with aggressive, angry, excessively demanding or difficult people - summoning up the strength to act towards them as if there were no problem may work in the short and perhaps medium term, but in the longer term, we will need to find a more lasting solution. Generally, people will respond better to us if we act confidently. Even if it is clear that they don’t like us, we can boost our self-esteem by trying to stay in control of our own emotions and dealing factually and calmly with any insults or disparaging remarks.
The first thing we must do is to ask ourselves whether the angry person has a valid reason to be angry with us. If so then we should deal with it in a way that allows and acknowledges the other’s anger. Up to a point, that’s part of being a mature adult. That said, hopefully their anger is proportional and an expression of emotion rather than a threat.
It is vital to remember that anger is not necessarily a bad thing. Counsellors often remind their clients that it is a natural part of being human – even saint-like people can get angry. Anger can be a powerful force for positive change, depending upon the situation and the way that the anger is expressed. Some people find that they cannot express their anger and bottle it up; some that they act it out, causing problems in their relationships; others want help with constantly having to deal with the anger of an important person in their life. All of these issues are major life problems which can be eased in therapy or via a consistent and thoughtful approach.
I want to outline a few pointers for dealing with angry or hurtful people:
- An angry person’s emotions are almost certainly masking fear. Perhaps this is well founded perhaps not, but knowing that they are based upon fear can help you deal with them.
- Try to remain calm and state your point of view without attacking or putting the angry person down.
- Most angry people tend to demonise others or polarise situations. They look for ways in which you (or the world in general) are hurting them. If you are aware of this, it can help you put their anger in perspective.
- Remember that a person who has hurt you has, more often than not, done so out of weakness or selfishness rather than malice. Stand your ground, make it plain that you are unhappy with their recent behaviour, but do not act like a martyr or a victim. After making your point, it’s up to the other person to change their behaviour. If they don’t, you may have the option to stay out of their way in future – at least as much as you can.
- The Dalai Lama said that before speaking one must ask if something is true, kind and necessary. We can be truthful without appearing superior or harsh. Remember that you are not perfect either – though that does not excuse another’s bad behaviour.
- Hard times are also opportunities. In crisis situations, your real friends will appear and people will want to stick together. If you’ve helped others when they needed it, the chances are they’ll help you back when you need it. If not, then you’ve learnt that you have the wrong “friends” anyway, which is useful in itself.
- The psychology writer Irvin Yalom says, it is often better to “strike when the iron’s cold.” After you’ve done the above things, it’s best to save the analytical part of the discussion until there is relative calm and the anger has passed. Then you can pick your time and say, “I’m not happy about what happened there. How can we do improve things between us?”
- When discussing this, it is more productive to be positive - but it’s still worth asking beforehand what you might do if they don’t reciprocate that... will you calmly keep insisting upon your point, or will you back down assuming, possibly accurately, that they will later think about what you said? Both approaches have merit at the right time.
- In situations which have gone past the point of no return and the angry person is an immediate physical threat then above all PROTECT yourself. You deserve to be respected and valued. Take yourself away from the situation as quickly and calmly as possible.
- Angry people ARE responsible for their actions so don’t let them try to convince you otherwise. Whatever has happened, try to work out what’s your stuff and what’s the angry person’s. Reasonable complaints about what you’ve got wrong would be your stuff IF the anger was expressed in a reasonable manner; it is their stuff, not yours, if they attempt to control, damage or threaten you.
- Used correctly, anger can be a powerful catalyst for positive change. If you find yourself getting angry, as a general rule, remember that anger is a sign not a solution. It’s a sign that something needs to be dealt with. Learn to view your anger as a positive thing and try to channel it to change things – within yourself as well as others.
- Forgiveness is a hugely powerful thing for both you and the forgiven person. Perhaps ask yourself if you are gaining pleasure or security from hanging onto resentments and misery – if we’re honest most of us do at times. The Buddhist writer Pema Chodron said, "the greatest obstacle to connecting with our joy is resentment".
- Ask for help if you need it. Counselling is one of the best ways of doing this. Anger is such a hugely powerful emotion that at its height it blocks out all other emotions – love, sadness, fear, concern. If anger has become a monster in your life, find some support.
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