“Knowing your own darkness is the best method for dealing with the darknesses of other people.” – Carl Jung
Several years ago, I was sitting in on a management meeting for one of my public relations clients. The executive director of the organization asked the marketing director a question, to which she made a reply he apparently didn’t like.
In front of the entire management team, as well as me (a part-time consultant), he ripped her a new one. He didn’t just speak sternly to her. He yelled, cursed, and reduced the woman to tears. His angry reaction was so wildly out-of-proportion to the situation that I was stunned and appalled. But what was even more stunning was the reaction of everyone around the table.
They sat quietly while this emotional hothead had a childish temper tantrum and verbally abused one of his employees. He had clearly created a culture of fear and intimidation, and no one wanted to take the risk to call him on the carpet.
Although we all deal with anger from time to time, there are some people who wear their anger as a shield of armor — or who have frequent angry emotional outbursts. You can almost feel the anger vibrating off of them or seething beneath the surface.
There are a variety of reasons people have anger issues. Certain personality traits such as narcissism, competitiveness, and low-frustration tolerance can make one more predisposed to anger. Also, our emotional or physical state prior to a triggering event can contribute to angry outbursts. If you’re already tired, depressed, or anxious, a trigger will lead to an angry episode more quickly.
Anger and aggression are also learned behaviors, passed down to us from our parents. Those who were raised in an angry household where conflict was the norm are more likely to to be angry and aggressive adults. Says Arizona licensed psychologist, Lynne Namka, Ed. D., “The energy of self-indulgent anger is contagious just like a nasty virus. It can infect your family through one member and be passed on to the others. Each person is affected by the anger in their social system and acts it out in their own unique way, whether they cower in silence with resentment or act out their anger on others.”
Angry people may have legitimate reasons for feeling upset, but the reasons don’t make it any easier for those of us on the receiving end of their ill tempers. Anger creates tremendous suffering — not only for the person expressing it but also for everyone in its path.
If you have to cope with angry people in your life, here are 10 ways to deal with their hotheaded behaviors:
1. Know your own darkness.
You may not be an angry person in general, but it’s valuable to examine your own reaction to another’s anger. Do you bow up immediately? Feel defensive or threatened? Do you respond to yelling by yelling yourself, or fling back a verbal barb when you’ve just received one?
If you respond to anger with anger, you are allowing the other person to control you. You must take responsibility for your own anger in order to have the clarity to handle it from someone else. Seek out the deeper cause for your reactions to an angry person. What has their anger triggered in you? Why has it affected you so profoundly?
Simply by understanding yourself, you can better master your own emotions and deal with the other person in a more emotionally intelligent manner.
2. Seek to understand the other person’s darkness.
When you are around an angry person or have just been the recipient of an angry outburst, it’s difficult to feel compassion or understanding. You just want to extricate yourself from the situation — or let them know what a jackass they’re being.
When you feel your blood start to boil in response to their anger, take a deep breath and remember that you are the master of your emotions. Then remind yourself that there’s always something painful or pathological behind anger. Angry people feel discontented, resentment, wounded, and misunderstood. Even if they are narcissists or controlling, they know their behavior is off-putting and unpleasant.
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It can’t be fun to be an angry person. For most, it’s probably exceedingly painful and isolating. Try to see the wounded, insecure, fearful child behind the ire. Look for the anguish or heartache that makes someone rude, impatient, and snarky.
Also, remember that anger is often a learned behavior that becomes an entrenched habit over time. If you have any bad habits, you know how are they are to break and how bad you feel when you fail in your efforts to break them. These anger habits blind people to their own responsibility for their pain, and they lash out at others in an attempt to feel better.
3. Understand what doesn’t work with angry people.
In the heat of the moment, you might try various strategies to manage an angry person or to mitigate their anger. Some of these approaches will backfire spectacularly and only inflame the other person’s anger.
As mentioned before, getting angry in return not only exacerbates the other person’s anger, but also it strips you of your dignity and self-control. Do everything in your power to stay calm and in control of your emotions.
Confronting them about their inappropriate behavior during the outburst, even if done in a measured way, will only make them more enraged. So does telling them to “calm down” or “relax.” Don’t attempt to hug them or show pity, as they will likely feel you are being patronizing or ignoring their feelings.
If you are one who tries to appease an angry person in order to calm them or prevent their anger from getting worse, you’re only training them to use anger to get their way. Don’t be overly solicitous or reactionary by giving in to demands or threats.
4. Don’t be afraid of anger.
For some highly sensitive people (like myself), experiencing someone’s anger is extremely uncomfortable. Angry people can sniff this out and use your sensitivity as a way to control you with their behavior. You must train yourself to remember that anger alone won’t hurt you. It’s just an expression of emotion, and although it’s uncomfortable, it doesn’t have to be threatening unless you allow it to be so.
Of course if someone expresses their anger through physical violence, then this is cause for alarm and a reason to extricate yourself from the person entirely. However, you don’t need to be controlled by a raised voice, loud demands, and angry comments. Stand your ground as you would with a school yard bully. Many angry people will back down when they see they can’t control you or get a reaction.
5. Prepare yourself in advance.
If you know you’re about to encounter a person who is prone to anger, you can prepare and protect yourself from reacting emotionally by attempting to view the person differently. A recent Stanford University study reveals when we seek to understand the reasons behind the angry person’s behavior, we are less likely to get angry ourselves.
Find another way to look at the angry person — for example consider they’ve just been fired, had a death in the family, or had a really bad day not related to you at all. The researchers call this “reappraisal,” which is basically making excuses for the angry person’s behavior. You can even do this preemptively by expecting anger from a typically angry person in advance of encountering them. It simply negates your own potential for an angry reaction.
6. Acknowledge their anger.
Angry people often simply need an outlet for their pain. They want to be heard and acknowledged. They want others to know how they’ve been wounded, mistreated, or misunderstood. Sometimes all you need to say is, “I see you are very angry about this. I can tell you are really upset.”
This acknowledgement may release another surge of anger, and this is a call for you to simply say, “I hear you.” The angry person may be frustrated that you’re not engaging in an argument or stooping to their reactive behavior.
At this point, simply tell them you’ll be ready to hear them fully and discuss the situation once they are able to have a calm conversation. Then give them the space to cool off. This allows you to maintain control of your emotions while not further inflaming the other person.
7. Find a calm time for discussion.
If the angry person is someone in your family, try to talk with them during a calm time to discuss their anger issue. It might be smart to have another family member (who has also experienced the person’s anger) with you during the conversation, so it’s clear you aren’t alone in seeing the problem.
You don’t want to attack or criticize them, which will likely inflame their anger. Instead, let them know how their angry outbursts or demeanor are impacting you. For example, you might say, “When you yell and call me names, I feel hurt and insulted. It makes me want to get away from you.” Then state your request that they work on a better way of communicating.
This is also a good time to calmly explain your personal boundaries. You might say something like, “I love you, but I can no longer tolerate being bullied or insulted.” Or you might say, “I’m going to have to leave the room when you start to raises your voice and get angry because I don’t like being around you.” You have a right to have boundaries related to how you are treated by your loved ones.
8. Strategize coping with an angry boss.
Dealing with an angry boss is difficult because your career and livelihood is in the hands of this person. If your boss is usually rational but prone to angry outbursts, then you may be able to have a calm conversation to let him or her know how the outbursts are impacting your performance.
If the boss is irrational and controlling, the best thing is to respond calmly and professionally, and refuse to engage in a reactive response. If it’s possible to report the behavior to other decision makers without it negatively impacting your career, then make notes about your boss’s behaviors with specific times and dates and set a meeting to review these.
If you fear a reprisal for having a conversation with your boss or reporting their behavior, then for your own peace of mind and health, begin to look for another job. Living under the specter of an angry, aggressive boss is soul-crushing.
9. Reward positive behavior.
If the angry person in your life is making an effort to manage their anger, offer them positive reinforcement and praise. Remember, anger is a learned behavior and a habitual response to negative feelings. It takes a concerted effort to break the habit and learn new ways of coping with unpleasant emotions.
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The person who works to change their angry behaviors is highly motivated to improve, because it isn’t easy to maintain self-control after years of letting it rip. Let this person know you see how hard they are trying and offer forgiveness when they backslide. By reinforcing their positive behavior, you’re helping them retrain their brains to support more mature actions.
10. When all else fails, just be kind.
People’s behavior is generally a reflection of the way they feel inside. Angry, contentious people are likely unhappy people. They probably need kindness and love more than most. Kindness in the face of anger is quite disarming and actually might diffuse the other person’s rage. Without being patronizing or condescending, just show decency and understanding. It will go a long way in helping an angry person see a better way to react in a world they find threatening.
Do you have an angry person in your life? Or do you deal with anger problems yourself? What strategies have you found effective in coping with anger or an angry person? Please share your experiences in the comments below.