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The Sri Lankan Manual to the Good, the Bad and the Ugly about Anger

2018 Aug 8

Anger, like happiness and sadness, is an important emotion every human being has on a regular basis – some more so than others. It is an automatic response to a physical or emotional pain people experience when they feel rejected, threatened or when they lose something or someone. As children we first come across anger when we have to share something with a sibling or a new friend, or when we are forced to do something we don’t particularly like by our parents. It is also a product of not being in control of a situation and we learn early on to express anger to regain a control of a situation that we feel is out of our hands. In these primary years, we struggle to use language to express our feelings of hurt when our pleas are not taken seriously. We go through brief periods of resentment and silence, but forget about it in minutes as soon as something more interesting catches our attention; but as we get older, our tempers grow too.

The teenage years are often the hardest for any child. Going through a growth spurt and hormonal changes without any knowledge about how to deal with it from school or parents is tough. When adolescents feel that they are not being heard by their parents and are treated like children, not given due respect and independence it makes them angry. Most parents don’t know how to respond to an angry hormonal adolescent because they too didn’t know how to cope with their own set of emotions at that age. In addition to figuring out what their body and mind is going through, teens also have the pressure of performing well in school, in sports, learning to navigate their way through friend circles and possible crushes. If you are generally well-liked, you may not have to worry about being accepted by different groups but it doesn’t mean you will not go through bouts of anger due to peer pressure. But if you are a loner by nature, you’d have to worry about being bullied and being liked by others. Every emotion feels magnified as an adolescent. It’s hard for girls, but it’s also hard for boys because most of us learn maladaptive ways of expressing anger from young days. Harmful gender norms teach boys to express anger with aggression and violence. This can become a problem as they grow up.

Anger starts to take a more permanent residence when you’re in your teen years and you realise you have no idea how to control it. If you’ve grown up in a household where anger was openly and freely exhibited, you start to imitate it quite unconsciously. Little things can set you off and often times your anger is projected at your mother – the only person who willingly absorbs it – only to feel guilty about it later on but you don’t apologise because you think saying sorry is not cool but mostly because you haven’t seen people take responsibility for their anger. They learn that anger and violence resulting from anger is the only way to feel and behave, sometimes from what they see and observe at home and school.

As you get older and your anger goes unchecked, it has the ability to take a more sinister form. If you’re a guy who went to a boy’s school, you’ve probably learnt to extend your fists and if you’re a girl, your anger may have taken shape into malice, jealousy and vindictiveness unbeknownst to you, ready to attack as soon as you feel threatened. Around this time, we also start to use anger as a distraction for pain whether it’s emotional or physical and instead of acknowledging feelings of hurt we dive into anger. We are also completely oblivious to the fact that bottling up anger could lead to significant physical and mental health problems. As we shift to anger pointing our index finger at the other person, forgetting the other four directing at us, we start to scheme ways to ensure that the person who inflicted pain upon us gets a taste of his own medicine. While this may help us overlook our pain, it will also bury it further and distract us from dealing with our real feelings of hurt, insecurities and vulnerabilities, which most of us are more than happy to do, only to feed more fuel to the flames of anger.

The Good

Anger is an essential emotion for our survival. As human beings we may never completely eliminate anger from our lives but we must learn how to live with anger and how to manage it. Anger could serve as a motivation to strive to do and be better when we feel underappreciated or when we have not been recognised for our hard work. This gives us the opportunity to use anger to push us to work harder towards a set goal. Anger is also necessary for emotional growth to help you identify your own limitations as a person and help you grow into the kind of person you want to be. It also serves an important role in relationships, helping you learn and understand your partner, his/her needs, wants and limitations. It helps strengthen relationships, because without conflict there’ll be never be any kind of growth and no one wants to be in a boring relationship.

The Bad

Ever been in a situation where everyone’s enjoying a healthy debate about the Sri Lankan cricket team, politics or religion and then all of a sudden it turns into a heated argument and within minutes it turns into a ‘big scene’? Fists are thrown about, chair fly across heads, and the healthy debate descends to a big shouting match with everyone trying to get in on the action. This tends to be quite a regular theme in Sri Lanka, especially at matches or anywhere a large group gathers to consume copious amounts of alcohol in the name of having a good time. The party might be fun while it lasts but the aftermath of it is scary with sore fists, bruised faces and the possibility of broken friendships. While the alcohol may be of concern, it only did what it has been chemically created to do – reduce our ability to think, narrow our focus of attention and give us tunnel vision. But people with unchecked aggression gathered together provides the perfect ingredient for a disastrous episode of this nature. This is just one example of a variety of situations, starting from domestic abuse, violence, rape and even murder.

The Ugly

While domestic abuse, violence, rape and murder are all ugly consequences of anger, it is the stubbornness to acknowledge anger issues and aggression as a problem which needs to be dealt with. Our sheer determination to sweep things that make us uncomfortable under a rug is the root cause to many of our problems in life. Our inability to take a closer look at ourselves, discover our shortcomings and weaknesses not just to improve the quality of our lives but the quality of our relationships is perhaps the ugliest side of our ego which anger so vehemently protects.

So now since you know the good, the bad and the ugly, how do you overcome anger and control it?

1. Take time out Your body is always aware when you get angry, your breath becomes shallower and your heart rate quickens. Your boss, colleague, significant other, friend or parent may have said or done something to upset you, you feel threatened, defensive and you want to give them a piece of your mind. As soon as you get to that stage, remove yourself from the situation. Excuse yourself to the bathroom, take a short walk or just leave the room till you can gather yourself together. When we’re angry we get defensive and say and do things, the worse possible things to make a point – to hurt, in order to protect ourselves. So before you do that, take some time out so that you can ride through the waves of anger and respond rationally.

2. Take deep breaths – When we get angry, we forget to breathe or rather our breath becomes much shallower than normal. Our body goes into survival mode – ready to fight or flight. When someone or something angers you, take a couple of deep breaths. This might be the last thing you want to do but try it out anyway. Many people resort to smoking a cigarette when they get angry to help them calm down. But actually smoking is the more hazardous version of taking deep breaths. Next time around forget the cigarette and just take deep breaths and save some money.

3. Study your anger – Learn about your anger, what topics trigger you, who triggers you the most, the surrounding you lose your temper most frequently. Identify these so that you can not only understand your anger better but also help you deal with it better. If there are people who trigger you, try spending less time with them until you’ve developed better coping skills, if there’s an environment you find negative and anger inducing, avoid them or prepare yourself to deal with them better.

4. Be mindful of your emotions – During the span of a day, we zig zag through our emotions. We are capable of bouncing from sad to happy, excitement to anger, in under two hours. Learning to be mindful of these emotions will help us understand ourselves and help us cope with them much better. When anger is upon you, you have the choice of letting it sink in and observe your thoughts and feelings about it, figure out why you’re angry and then let it go or you have the choice of shouting, projecting, aggression and making a show of it. Which person would you rather be?

5. Engage in a mindful activity – While meditating might be the last thing on your mind when you’re feeling angry, it is possibly the best thing for you and your body. Engaging in a mindful activity, be it meditation, listening to soothing music while paying attention to your breath can help you relax and bring you back to the present moment. Writing, drawing, playing an instrument, punching a pillow or punching bag, screaming into a pillow, using a stress ball, all these can help you deal with your anger better.

6. Train your mind – Patience is not everyone’s cup of tea but it does serve a purpose and is most valuable when you’re angry. You could either let anger rule your life, dictate your words and actions with the possibility of ruining your career and relationships, or you can train your mind to deal with it better. Just like the traffic light, which most of us stare at regularly, notice when your anger is in amber mode so that you will know how to deal with it when you hit read. It’s not the easiest route but it will definitely lead to a healthier and happier life.