Individual Therapy Bethesda, MD
How do you deal with it when someone is angry at you? The answer to this question can reveal volumes about how an individual relates to and interacts with others, and how generally successful and satisfying these relationships and interactions tend to be. Unfortunately, the question often goes unasked.
Instead, in the behavioral health field, much attention is paid to people who are angry—they must be taught to manage their anger, to control their anger, to contain their anger. We tell them to slow down, count to ten, take a deep breath, take a break, leave the room, go for a walk. We teach them to think about the negative consequences of how they have behaved in the past when they were angry. We help them to change their behavior, to avoid experiencing those consequences again. We teach them that anger is a secondary emotion: an emotion that protects and distances them from vulnerable, non-aggressive primary emotions like fear, shame, guilt, sadness, grief, etc. We teach them how to identify and express their negative emotions safely and constructively, rather than acting them out harmfully.
Good anger management therapy emphasizes (a) that anger is a normal and healthy emotion to experience as part of a diverse constellation of emotions, and (b) that the feeling itself is not bad or wrong, it is the dangerous or otherwise maladaptive behavior associated with the feeling that needs to be curbed or eliminated. In summary: feeling angry does not mandate that an individual must behave a certain way. They always have a choice.
So too does the recipient, or subject, of another person’s anger always have a choice.
Before continuing, it is important to note that there are times when anger manifests as physical violence or otherwise dangerous and abusive behavior: I do not encourage anyone to learn to tolerate such manifestations of anger in close proximity. In those situations, I advise that the wise, healthy, and correct response—in addition to self-care and self-compassion—is to separate physically from the dangerous person and to enforce that safe distance with assistance from emergency personnel and legal authorities as appropriate.
Instead what I am proposing to discuss is a well-managed response to well-managed anger: when someone we love—partner, parent, child—or someone with whom we share close quarters—roommate, classmate, colleague—tells us that something we did or said made them feel angry, what do we do with that feedback?
If anger is a normal and healthy emotion, then being the subject of anger should be considered a normal and natural state of affairs—a perhaps uncomfortable, but generally tolerable, predictable, and respectable circumstance that does not suggest anything particularly or immutably notable about the person undergoing it. Conversely, many people struggle and fail to tolerate anger that is aimed at them; this failure manifests as defensiveness, avoidance of responsibility, and, most unhelpfully, counterattacks listing why it is in fact the offended party, and not they, who deserves to feel bad.
My go-to response when someone else is angry at me is to try to hit “undo” as fast as possible, i.e. to qualify my action or justify myself, like “oh, I think you just misheard me…” or “what I meant to do/say was ________.” It may be true that I was misunderstood. It may be true that there are mitigating factors as to why I behaved the way I did. Or maybe not. In any case, telling my side of the story without first acknowledging their side and seeking reparation for the harm I caused does not convince the person who was angry at me that I was right all along, and they were wrong to feel bad: all it does is indicate that they cannot trust me to take responsibility for my actions. In my eagerness to exonerate myself, I undermine the relationship, the other person’s perspective, and my own agency.
Many of us respond to situations in which we are the subject of another person’s anger in ways that do not make us feel better, nor do they strengthen our relationship with the person in question. And like any other habitual response that does not serve us well, we can make the choice to question the response, challenge our allegiance to it, and to try something different.
Often defensiveness is triggered by core beliefs, or schemas, which impose an impossibly high standard of behavior, i.e. “if I did something bad, then I am bad.” These core beliefs condemn failure so emphatically that the individual who holds them must refuse to acknowledge the reality of their own mistakes and failures—to do anything else would compromise their entire sense of self. Holding such core beliefs makes emotions like shame and guilt—which are often associated with being the subject of anger—completely intolerable.
Shame and guilt are not pleasant emotions, and in excessive quantities they can compel and intensify problematic behavior. However, there is such thing as appropriate levels of guilt and shame—and hurting another person is an occasion that warrants them. Rather than trying to avoid being wrong at all costs, because being wrong is intolerable, consider using the occasion of someone else’s anger as an opportunity to practice compassionate self-acceptance and strong self-governance. It is normal and healthy to struggle and fail at times in the course of human relationships—another person being angry with you is a temporary condition with many factors, some of which you had a hand in. You have the freedom and authority to acknowledge the fault you did have and take steps to repair the relationship and the situation. This is not the response of a bad person; on the contrary, this response demonstrates maturity and courage, and opens the door for new and enriching possibilities.