By Clay Tucker-Ladd

- Don't react impulsively, be sure your anger is justified and have clearly in mind exactly what needs to be changed;

- Decide in advance how far you will go, e.g. can you and will you fire someone over this issue if it isn't worked out? Are you willing to quit over this issue? Will you demand a hearing or press charges?;

- When ready, state specifically and firmly what you want changed;

- Don't accuse or blame others;

- Show anger and strong determination but don't get overly emotional;

- Expect to get some flack and opposition;

- Sit down with others involved and work out detailed plans for making the changes needed; and

- Use "I" statements ("I feel hurt when you ..." or, "I feel belittled when you ..." rather than, "You're dreadful!" or, "You're always ...")

steps to stop anger

It is helpful to think of 5 steps - or choices! - taking us from the initial frustration to intense anger in which we feel justified to express primitive rage:
  1. Deciding to be bothered by some event;
  2. Deciding this is a big, scary issue or personal insult;
  3. Deciding the other person is offensive and evil;
  4. Deciding a grave injustice has been done and the offender must be punished - you must have revenge; and
  5. Deciding to retaliate in an intensely destructive, primitive way.
By blocking these decisions and thinking of the situation differently, we can learn to avoid raging anger. Examples of helpful self-talk at each step:
  1. "It's not such a big deal."
  2. "Calm down, I can handle this rationally."
  3. "There is a reason why he / she is being such a [fill in blank]."
  4. "Let's find out why he / she is being so nasty."
  5. "I'm not going to lower myself to his / her level ... is there a possible solution to this?"
When you practice these self-control responses in fantasy, you are using stress inoculation techniques.

what will help?

Lerner lists four useful approaches:
  1. Finding out what is really bugging you (your needs, frustrations, regretted choices, blocked dreams, etc.);
  2. Learning to use new, better communication skills, such as "I" statements;
  3. Gaining insight into your "dance of anger" and adopting new "steps" out of the old routine;
  4. Recognizing both parties' efforts to maintain the status quo of destructive fighting or passive withdrawal, rather than maturely resolving the underlying problems.
Resistance is a common barrier to changing the anger "dance". When desirable changes are initiated by one person in a relationship, Murry Bowen, a family therapist, says the partner frequently opposes the changes.

For example, if the wife decides to develop her own social life, rather than beg and badger her reluctant husband to go out more, the husband's opposition to change often takes these forms:

- "What you are doing [or about to do] is wrong."

- "Stop being this way and it will be okay."

- "If you don't change back, some serious things will happen."

It takes courage to stand up to these challenges and threats, and proceed with improving your life, rather than keep on dancing the anger waltz.

There are various dances of anger. There may be disagreements - how much to socialize, spend, see relatives, watch TV, have sex - and anger flares, but nothing changes. One may seek more attention and love, while the other is emotionally unresponsive; both may get irritated, but nothing changes. One partner is over-involved with the children; the other is under-involved, and both complain, but nothing changes. One partner tries to change the other person but can't.

Actually, the frustrated partner could change his / her own behavior and meet his / her own needs in other ways, but too often this independent action is not seriously considered and / or the partner strongly resists such changes.

To meet your own needs requires a clear sense of purpose, confidence, independence, and persistence.

This willingness to be our own person and to move in our own direction, alone if necessary, is important but very scary (even in this age of sexual equality). It stops us from clearly expressing our basic disappointments in a relationship, so the troubles never get resolved.

Also, we are often afraid of unleashing our own anger, as well we should be, but the fear frequently inhibits our clear thinking about alternative ways of resolving the problems, including tactfully asserting our rights and preferences in that situation.

The anger and these fears (of separation and destruction) also interfere with our exploring the sources and background of our own anger. This lack of self-understanding also reduces the keenness and flexibility of our problem solving ability. Some quiet contemplation of our history, our situation, and our true emotions might help.

Triangles often play a role, without our awareness, in the creation of conflict and anger with a person. That is, we suppress anger towards one person (a boss or a spouse) and displace it to a scapegoat (a supervisee or a child). The scapegoat often never suspects that the anger is generated by someone else; he / she just feels disliked and persecuted.

This arrangement permits us to use displacement to avoid facing and working on our own interpersonal difficulties. Whenever anger becomes a chronic condition - an unending dance - ask:

- Where might all this emotion come from?

- Is it a "left over" from your original family?

- Is this displaced anger yielding a payoff to someone, e.g. do you and your spouse get to work on a "problem child" together?

- Is over-involvement between two people (say, father and daughter) a cause for mom and dad to fight?

- What would happen if the third party avoided forming a triangle and stayed out of any conflict between the other two people, e.g. if mom let father and son resolve their own fights?

- Does constantly worrying and working on relationship problems (yours or someone else's) divert your attention away from running your own life wisely?

The major unhealthy roles we tend to act out under stress and when angry are:

- Blamer, critic, or hot head;

- The withdrawn, independent, or emotionally unreachable person;

- The needy "Let's talk!" or overly demanding partner;

- The incompetent, "sick", or disorganized one; and

- The know-it-all - "I have no problems; I'll handle yours!" rescuer.

Do you recognize yourself and the people you have conflicts with? Try to avoid these roles.

Start to change in small, carefully planned ways using good assertiveness. Also, avoid talking to anyone (beyond a brief factual consultation - no gossiping) about a third person who is upsetting you; if your underlying purpose is really to recruit support for your side, it may set up a triangle which is unhealthy. Deal directly with the person who is bothering you; keep others out of it (unless you seek therapy).

Of course, older children or relatives can be told that you are having marital problems, if that is needed, but don't ask them to take sides.

methods for handling anger

Avoid frustrating situations by noting where you got angry in the past;

- Reduce your anger by taking time, focusing on other emotions (pleasure, shame, or fear), avoiding weapons of aggression, and attending to other matters;

- Respond calmly to an aggressor with empathy or mild, unprovocative comments or with no response at all;

- If angry, concentrate on the undesirable consequences of becoming aggressive. Tell yourself: "Why give them the satisfaction of knowing you are upset?" or, "It isn't worth being mad over.";

- Reconsider the circumstances and try to understand the motives or viewpoint of the other person;

- Train yourself to be empathic with others; be tolerant of human weakness; be forgiving (ask yourself if you haven't done something as bad) and follow the great lesson of mankind: do as we would be done by.

self-help methods must be tailored to each person's needs

First of all, it seems clear that we have two basic ways of dealing with our own anger. We can prevent it, i.e. keep anger from welling up inside of us, or control it, i.e. modify our aggressive urges after anger erupts inside.

The preventative approach sounds ideal - avoid frustrating situations, be assertive when things first annoy you, eliminate irrational ideas that arouse anger, etc. But, we can't avoid all frustrations and all thoughts that arouse anger.

Secondly, in the situations where we haven't, as yet, learned to prevent an angry reaction, we seem to fall into two easily recognized categories:
  1. "Swallowers " or repressor-suppressor; or
  2. "Exploders " or hotheaded expressers.

Do you recognize yourself and others you are close to? The "swallowers" haven't prevented the anger, they have just hidden it - suppressed it. (Don't let the fact that "swallowers" may eventually erupt in fits of rage, much like the "exploder," confuse you.)

In "exploders", angry feelings and aggressive responses are immediate--little time for prevention, little time to think about avoiding anger, the emotions just spew out. In time we will probably have a much better classification system.

Abraham Lincoln to a large lady visitor who accidentally sat on and crushed his favorite top hat: If you'd just asked me lady, I could have told you it wouldn't fit.

anger or aggression-control methods that focus on simple behavior and thoughts


You know who makes you mad, what topics of conversation upset you, the situations that drive you up a wall, and so on. Can you avoid them? This could be the best way to prevent anger. Even if you can't permanently avoid a person whom you currently dislike, staying away from that person for a few days could reduce the anger.


Having no goals can be uncomfortable. Having impossible goals can be infuriating. You may need to plan ways of surmounting barriers in your way. Reduce the environmental support for your aggression. How aggressive, mean, and nasty we are is partly determined by the behavior of those around us (Aronson, 1984).


These include gangs or friends who are hostile, TV violence, action movies, etc. More importantly, select for your friends people who are not quick tempered or cruel and not agitators or prejudiced.

Examples: if you are in high school and see your friends being very disrespectful and belligerent with teachers or parents, you are more likely to become the same way. If your fellow workers are hostile to each other and insult each other behind their backs, you are more likely to be aggressive than if you were alone or with tolerant folks. So, choose your friends carefully. Pleasant, tactful models are very important.


It is remarkable what a difference a little understanding makes. For example one of Zillmann's (1979) studies shows that a brief comment like, "I am uptight," prior to being abrasive and rude is enough to take the sting out of your aggressiveness.

So, if you are getting irritated at someone for being inconsiderate of you, ask them if (or just assume) something is wrong or say, "I'm sorry you are having a hard time." Similarly, if you are having a bad day and feeling grouchy, ask others (in advance) to excuse you because you are upset. This changes the environment.


Although we may feel like hitting the other person and cussing them out, using our most degrading and vile language, we usually realize this would be unwise. Research confirms that calmly expressed anger is far more understandable and tolerable than a tirade. Almost anything is better than destructive aggression.


If you are a yeller and screamer, try quiet tolerance and maybe daily meditation. If you are a psychological name-caller, try "I" statements instead. If you sulk and withdraw for hours, try saying, "I have a problem I'd like to talk about soon." If you tend to strike out with your fists, try hitting a punching bag until you can plan out a reasonable verbal approach to solving the problem.


These responses seem to help us calm down. Such responses include empathy responding, giving the offender a gift, asking for sympathy, and responding with humor. Other constructive reactions are to ask the offensive critic to clarify his / her insult or to volunteer to work with and help out the irritating person. This only works if your kindness is genuine and your offer is honest.


Preoccupation with the irritating situation, including repeatedly talking about it, may only increase your anger.

I am too busy with my cause to hate - too absorbed in something bigger than myself. I have no time to quarrel, no time for regrets, and no man can force me to stoop low enough to hate him.

- Lawrence James Guard


"Things are equal" and not "I'll teach them a lesson!" - feels better in the long run than excessive retaliation. Better yet, walk away from the argument, let them have the last word.


As with all behaviors, you need to know:

- The learning history of the behavior (angry reactions);

- The antecedents or situations that "set you off";

- The nature and intensity of your anger;

- Your thoughts and views of the situation immediately before and during the anger;

- What self-control methods did you use and how well did they work; and

- The consequences (how others responded and other outcomes) following your emotional reaction.

If this information is carefully and systematically recorded for a week or two, it could be enlightening and valuable.

Lady debater: Mr. Churchill, if I were your wife, I'd put arsenic in your tea!
Winston Churchill: Lady, if you were my wife, I'd drink it.

skills involved in avoiding or reducing anger

It may be reasonable to assume that aggression and violence occurs when we do not have a better way of responding to the situation. In other words, we lack problem-solving and interpersonal skills. Isaac Asimov said, "Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent."

If the only tool you have is a hammer, you tend to treat everything as if it were a nail. Learn to be assertive with others. Assertiveness is tactful but firm; it is reasonable. Aggressiveness is inconsiderate, unreasonable, abrasive, and often an unfair angry over-reaction. Obviously, there will be less anger if you can be assertive rather than aggressive.

Again the distinction between "swallowers" and "exploders" is useful. Swallowers need to learn to express their feelings, to stand up for their rights, to state their preferences and opinions, to immediately negotiate minor inconveniences or irritants. This is assertiveness. Quick effective action avoids the build up of anger, ulcers, and explosions.

Exploders need to reduce their impulsive, hurtful anger, find better tactics for reducing conflicts, and, perhaps, learn ways to be more positive and empathic. Both swallowers and exploders need to be assertive.

Anyone can become angry. That is easy. But to be angry with the right person, to the right degree, at the right time, for the right purpose and in the right way - that is not easy.

- Aristotle

be empathetic

The least angry people are the most able to understand others, able to put themselves "in the other person's shoes" and realize their motives and pain. It is a life-long, unending task to know or intuit the inner workings of others and to view every human life as a kindred spirit, in the sense of "but for the grace of God, go I."

The most soothing reaction to hostility (your own or someone else's) is genuine empathy. Practice emotional control by role-playing. There is no better way to learn new and better ways of interacting in difficult situations than to practice over and over with a friend. Watch how others handle the situation. Try out different approaches, get feedback, and practice until you are ready for real life.

When you find our someone has been lying to you, you may feel like yelling at them or even hitting them. That isn't very smart. A reasonable solution is unlikely to come out of a big nasty verbal or physical fight. So, chill out.

To fight fairly, first of all, you need to know why you are mad. For example, if you are over-reacting because you have had a bad day or because you are displacing anger from another person, that isn't fair. Then you and the other person (who lied) need to talk about how to fix the situation:

- You can even cry and shout about how upset or hurt you are;

- No name-calling, no nasty put downs, no terrible threats, etc.;

- Find out his / her viewpoint;

- Get the facts;

- Stick with the current problem, don't dig up old grudges;

- State your views, hurts, fears, and preferences clearly; and

- Arrive at an understanding, if possible, and an acceptable arrangement for the future.

Here are some steps to consider when planning how to handle a situation that upsets you:
  1. Have we chosen a time and place where both of us feel free to discuss our problems? If the other person brings up the problem at a bad time, tell him/her that you are also eager to resolve the problem and suggest a better time or place.
  2. Have I tried to find out how the other person sees and feels about the conflict? Ask questions to get his/her point of view. Give empathy responses.
  3. Don't counter-attack. Put yourself in his / her shoes. Understanding will replace anger.
  4. Have I asked the other person to listen to my point of view? Be specific and accurate (no self-serving exaggerations) about what was said and done, explaining why you are upset. You should talk about your feelings (you are the expert here). But, do not blame, analyze or "psychologize" about the other person's motives, feelings, or negative traits (you are not the expert here);
  5. Tactfulness and respect are important, so clearly communicate your needs and preferences but not your rage and resentment. There are ways of constructively communicating your unhappiness without going into an accusatory tirade;
  6. Have I made it clear to the other person exactly what I want done differently? (Making it clear that you are willing to change too);
  7. Have I asked the other person to tell me exactly what he / she would like me to do differently? (Without implying you will do whatever he / she wants);
  8. Have the two of us agreed on a mutually acceptable solution to our difficulty?
  9. Am I sure he / she knows exactly what I have in mind?
  10. Do I know exactly what he / she thinks the plan is? (Better put the agreement in writing);
  11. Have we planned to check with each other, after a given time, to make sure our compromise is working out?
  12. Have I shown my appreciation for the positive changes the other person has carried out?

Williams (1989) and Williams & Williams (1993), advocates of reducing your level of anger for health reasons (heart disease and immune deficiencies), give this advice about expressing or suppressing your anger.

When angry, ask yourself three questions:

  1. Is this worthy of my attention?
  2. Am I justified?
  3. Can I do anything about it (without anyone getting hurt)?
If you can answer all three "yes," perhaps you should express your feelings and try to do something.

If any answer is "no," better control your emotions by thought stopping, attending to something else, meditation, reinterpreting, etc.

every human being should be respected

The Quakers might be right, God may be in every person. No thought or feeling is awful, it doesn't hurt anyone until it gets transformed into action.

So, accept everyone as an important, worthy person, regardless of what they have done. Be tolerant of all ideas and feelings. Concentrate on solving the problem at hand rather than on any personal affront you may have suffered.

Live a non-aggressive, loving, and forgiving philosophy. There are many possibilities:

- A Christian "love thy enemies" or, "love one another" or, "turn the other cheek" philosophy;

- The Quakers', Gandhi's, and Martin Luther King's non-violence philosophy;

- The Kung Fu or Yoga philosophy of detachment and acceptance of the inevitable;

- Humanistic psychology's "unconditional positive regard" for every person;

- Martin Buber's prescribed reverence for others, as implied in his title, I and Thou.

This involves a deep respect for every person, considering them priceless, irreplaceable, vital, and a fascinating, unique miracle to be cherished, even if you don't like all that they have done.

Every person has a right to be different, perhaps a responsibility to be his / her unique self.

To be wronged or robbed is nothing unless you continue to remember it.

- Confucius

Anger consists of our bitter responses to insults, hurts, injustices, rejection, pain, etc., and the bitterness is repeatedly rehearsed and remembered.

Hatred is a memory that we are unwilling to let go, to dismiss, to forgive. If we could forgive the person who offended us, we would no longer be so angry and stressed. For many of us, however, forgiveness is especially hard because we confuse it with other reactions.

Making these distinctions may help you become forgiving:

- Forgiveness is not forgetting nor is it a promise to forget. You can never forget being hurt. In fact, if you had forgotten, you couldn't forgive;

- Forgiveness is not promising to believe the other person was not guilty or not responsible for the wrong things he / she did. If he / she were blameless, there would be nothing to forgive;

- Forgiveness is not praise or a reward - no reward was earned, none is given;

- Forgiveness is not approval of what was done. You are not saying that the wrong he / she committed is viewed any less seriously; and

- Forgiveness is not permission to repeat the offense. It does not mean that your values or society's rules have changed. It is not based on an assumption that the hurt will never be repeated on anyone but it implies such a hope.

Forgiveness, as defined here, is your decision to no longer hate the sinner; it is getting rid of your venom, your hatred; it is your attempt to heal yourself, to give yourself some peace (Smedes, 1984).

There is research evidence of a positive relationship between forgiveness and self-acceptance, i.e. the more you accept others, the more you like yourself, and the reverse.

Be sure you really want to forgive. If you are still boiling inside and feel there could never be even a partial justification of what was done, you aren't ready to forgive. You still have unfinished business with this person.

If and when you want to get these bad feelings off your chest, want to remove some of the emotional barriers from the relationship, and want to see the other person's side of the situation, you may be ready to consider the remaining steps in forgiving.

To get to the point of forgiving someone, try expressing the anger and pain with people you trust, but follow this with a genuine discussion of how and why you may be "nurturing and prolonging the pain." Then consider what you would gain if you let go of the resentment.

Ask yourself if you have ever let down or hurt someone. Are you ready to give up your revenge against this other person?

Make a serious effort to understand the circumstances, thinking, motives, and hopes of the person who hurt you. Look for background information - cultural influences, painful childhood experiences, abuse, addictions, psychological problems, resentment, envy, ambitions, etc. - that would explain (not excuse) the resented behavior.

Talk to relatives and friends of the person who offended you, get their opinions about the offender's situation and motives. Had he / she had experiences that made his / her actions towards you likely to occur?

Use this background information to look at what happened from the other person's point of view.

- As best you can tell, what was his/her psychological condition and educational background?

- What do you suppose he / she thought would be the outcome of treating you the way he / she did?

- What loss might he / she have been trying to handle or prevent?

- What emotions might have been dominating the other person?

- How do you think he / she saw you and your situation at the time?

If you can stop carrying a burden of resenting and blaming, if you can emotionally heal yourself by getting rid of this poison, it probably is worthwhile. It is not a decision to be made lightly.

But what a blessing to lay down the load!

Copyright 2002 Clay Tucker-Ladd.

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