Do you ever get angry? What a silly question. Of course you do, and I do too. Everyday, we see the results of uncontrollable anger from the streets, to the schools, to the sidewalks, to the stadiums. And only too often, we invite the behavior we hate.
Anger wears a variety of masks. One form, I call compliant anger. We do what the “authority” tells us, whether we like it or not. “Mow the lawn! Pick up your clothes! Wash the car!” We do what we’re told, because we prefer obedience over punishment.
Now, tack on 35 years. Our mate insists, “Clean the garage. Lose some weight. Quit drinking so much!” To avoid an argument, we do what we’re told and stuff our anger in our gut.
Then one day, we rebel. “Don’t tell me what to do! I’ve had it with your nagging!” Our partner will reel in amazement and fear. Unless corrected, this escalation might continue until someone gets hurt, either physically or emotionally. Such behavior solves no problems, only irrigates and irritates them.
Obviously, not every rebellious act leads to violence. We’re more subtle than that. We prefer name-calling, back-biting, labeling and gossiping.
This behavior, sooner or later, leads us into the third form of anger: withdrawal. Either partner may choose to get out of harm’s way by pouting, getting drunk, leaving the house, having an affair or you name it.
Withdrawal also solves nothing. By now, we’re too scared and covered by anger to make the first move toward healing the broken pieces. We choose, instead, to blame others forever.
We can dream or hope that this will magically transform itself. No way. Our behavior will change when we decide to change, and not one minute sooner.
Healthy ways to deal with anger do exist.
• Take responsibility for your anger. No one makes us angry without our complete cooperation. Blaming someone else drives our misery deeper into despair.
• Choose to respond with courtesy and kindness. As a pastor, I had many opportunities while visiting parishioners who had serious disagreements with me. I approached them with this commitment to me and to them: “What is the kindest most loving thing I can say or do at this minute.”
I believe that humans and animals have only two primary feelings: fear and joy. All other feelings, including anger, are secondary. Also, about 90 percent of our communication is nonverbal through body posture, facial expressions and voice inflections.
The 10 percent verbal focuses on the following: What I say. What you hear. What I think I say. What you think you hear. What I want to say. What you want to hear.
Before he turned 16, my son taught me how to put all of this into practice. One day, my wife and I came home to an empty house. Where was Steve? He was supposed to let us know if he went anywhere after school. In a few minutes, he called to tell us he had been visiting a friend. “Pick me up, Dad.” “I’ll see you in 10 minutes, Steve.” I had one mile to think what I would say. First, I processed how my dad would handle a similar situation with me. He would say nothing, give me the evil eye and discipline me. I chose not to saddle Steve with that approach. (Before continuing, take a few minutes to decide how you would respond.)
When I first saw Steve, I rejoiced! “I’m really glad to see you, Steve!” No response. “I was afraid (not worried) that something had happened to you.” No response. “I was disappointed (mild sadness) that you hadn’t left a message with the sitter.” Notice. I did not use anger or guilt — these are not the issues. The primary issue is fear (mine). (I invite you to guess what Steve did say when he finally spoke — pause.) “Dad, I did leave a message with the sitter.” “Really?” “Really.” She forget to leave us Steve’s message. We phoned her immediately, insisting that we no longer needed her service.
Anyone can learn the skills of healthy communication and behavior.