If you’re as much of a Facebook junkie as me, you’ve probably read dozens of quotes about emotions and anger. Stuff about how you choose your reactions. Statements about how emotionally reacting to another person’s words is giving away your power.
This used to leave me feeling guilty whenever I got angry with someone else. But I don’t buy it anymore. At least, not completely. An emotionally healthy person DOES react.
Some emotional reactions are healthy. Others aren’t. How do you know the difference?
As a school psychologist, one of my roles is counseling kids. I’ve been using a curriculum called “Strong Kids” to teach social-emotional skills to middle school students. Personally, I did not learn this stuff as a kid. And honestly, I find it helpful to review now!
Specifically, I’ve been thinking about the role of anger. You see, I recently fought with a friend. He asked about a specific situation I was going through. I shared the grief that I was feeling. In his response, I felt like he minimized my grief, talked as if I shouldn’t feel that way. I immediately burst into tears, and then got angry with him.
In hindsight, I realized there are some guidelines I’ve been teaching that I could apply to understanding my own situation. Emotions are usually an instantaneous, gut response. Yet they’re always linked with our thoughts about the situation.
Here are three questions to ask yourself when someone offends you:
- Was it intentional? Intention matters. If someone bumps into you accidentally, it’s easy to forgive. If they shove you on purpose, it’s a different case. Interestingly, this is the number one mistake aggressive kids make. They become aggressive because of a mental error – they think the other kid did it intentionally. Most of the time, that’s not the case.
This is true for us as adults too. The friend who offended me? I’m confident he wasn’t trying to be offensive. In fact, several days after the fact, I found out his response was influenced by CONCERN for another friend. Oops! Was he careless? Maybe even inappropriate? I think so. But he wasn’t trying to hurt me.
- Is the person threatening you or someone else? One of the purposes of anger is protection. It provides the energy for you to stand up for yourself or someone else. It keeps you from becoming a victim.
In my situation, there was definitely no threat! In fact, the conversation started with my friend expressing love and concern for me. Again… oops!
- Could you be reacting to a previous experience, falling into an old pattern, or getting upset because of other stressful situations? We know that these are things that can influence us. Oftentimes, we don’t stop and think about the impact. Stress in other areas of your life may make you react much more strongly than you normally would. Or maybe the situation triggered a greater response because it reminded you of a similar, past experience.
Personally, THIS question triggered an “ah-ha” moment for me. In the argument with my friend, I was reacting based on my history with this person, not based on the specific interaction.
In considering each of these questions, I had to admit that I overreacted. I was hurt. However, my reaction was out of proportion to what actually occurred. I ended up apologizing to my friend.
Ironically, though, I also pulled away from the friendship. Not because he offended me this one time. But because of the history that my own response forced me to acknowledge. In this case, my anger was a clue that helped me identify a problem in the relationship that I needed to address.
Do you feel guilty when you get angry with someone? Have you experienced a situation where these questions might have helped you choose how to respond?