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Dr. Gary J. Oliver

Dr. Oliver has over 30 years experience in individual, premarital, marital and family counseling and for the past 20 years he has had an extensive nationwide teaching ministry with Promise Keepers and The American Association of Christian Counselors. read bio

Constructive Steps for Dealing With Anger

by Gary Oliver, Ph.D. and Carrie Oliver, L.P.C.

One of the most effective ways to make the emotion of anger work for you rather than against you is to decide in advance that when you experience anger, you will choose to invest the anger-energy and express it in a healthy way. When we are angry, the power of that emotion can block our ability to think clearly. Think back to the last time you experienced strong anger. How objective were you? How clearly were you thinking? It is important to develop a plan for dealing with anger before we get angry. Here are some simple steps that you can take to help your anger work for you.

Step 1: Be aware of it:

If you had met Greg, you would not have considered him to be an angry person. He rarely appears to be angry. One of the many myths regarding anger is that if a person doesn't look or appear on the outside to be angry, then they don't have a problem with anger, they are clearly not an angry person. While Greg does not appear to be an angry person on the outside, he can be like a battlefield on the inside. When he feels misunderstood by Karen, or when she contradicts him in public, his anger is right there. How often are you aware of being angry? What situations do you encounter that might make you more vulnerable to anger? How does your body respond to anger? What are your physical manifestations of anger?

Step 2: Accept responsibility for it:

Someone has said that one of the major effects of sin is seen in our tendency to blame someone else for our problems. When God confronted Eve in the garden and asked her what happened she blamed the serpent. When God confronted Adam he first blamed Eve and then he blamed God. When we are angry it is easy for us to blame someone else, to say "It's your fault, you made me angry." This is ESPECIALLY true in marriage. While it's true that other people can say or do things that cause hurt or frustration, we are responsible for how we choose to respond. If we are angry, it is our anger.

Step 3: Determine at the outset who or what is going to have control:

This is a critical step. When we become aware that we are angry, we are faced with a choice. We can either allow the emotion of anger to dominate and control us or we can choose to control the anger and invest the anger-energy in a healthy way. While we can't always control when we experience anger, we can choose how we express the anger.

Step 4: Define it! Identify the source and cause of it:

While there are almost limitless situations that can lead to anger, most causes of anger can come under three major categories: hurt, frustration and fear.

Hurt is usually caused by something that has already happened… something in the past. When we are hurt, we feel vulnerable and open to more hurt. This is especially true of people who are very sensitive. Believe it or not, even men can be sensitive. For many people, anger is an automatic defense mechanism to protect against hurt. When I get angry at someone, it tends to erect a wall between us and then I can hide behind that wall. The unhealthy expression of anger produces distance between individuals, and many feel safer with that distance.

Frustration is an emotion that takes place in the present. We can become frustrated by blocked goals or desires, or by unmet expectations. Frequently, the things that lead to the greatest frustrations have one main characteristic… they really aren't that important.

In my (Gary) own marriage, one situation that has frequently led to my expressing unhealthy anger is when I'm trying to communicate with Carrie and she doesn't understand what I'm trying to say. I'm especially vulnerable to frustration when I'm tired, weary and in a hurry. When she doesn't seem to "get it," I can assume she's not trying, she's not listening or she just doesn't care. When I let my unhealthy anger take over, I can become sarcastic, cold and in times past, even mean. I'm not proud of it, I don't enjoy it, I've apologized on numerous occasions for it, I've made great progress with it, but it still happens.

What kinds of situations cause you to become frustrated? Are there any specific individuals whom you find more frustrating than others? What situations or individuals have frustrated you this past month? When are you most vulnerable to experiencing frustration? How do you usually respond when you are frustrated?

Fear is an emotion that tends to focus on things in the future. Many people associate fear with vulnerability and weakness. Some people, especially men, find it more comfortable to express anger than fear and so many respond to situations in which they are anxious or afraid by getting angry. When you are experiencing the emotion of anger and aren't sure where it is coming from ask yourself, "is there something that I am afraid of that could be triggering my anger?"

Step 5: Choose your response. Are you going to spend your anger-energy or are you going to invest it?

There are many ways to deal with anger. Some are constructive and some are destructive. Some of the destructive ways to deal with anger are to stuff, deny, suppress or repress. One of the most destructive ways of dealing with anger is to ventilate it or dump it on someone else. The problem is that for most of us, the more we talk about it, the more worked up we get. Ventilating the anger tends to increase rather than decrease it. Paul Hauck has stated that "attacking someone else is like throwing cactus with your bare hands, they may get hurt, but so will you."

When you are angry, one of the first steps is to start by asking yourself the question, "Is this really that important?" If it isn't, then simply let it pass. If it is important, then ask yourself, "How can I express my anger in a way that will enhance the probability of resolution?"

Taken from When Anger Hits Home by Gary J. Oliver and H. Norman Wright, Chicago: Moody Press, 1992. Used with permission.

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