“I’m not angry. You’re the one yelling. Nothing I ever do is good enough for you. I can never do enough.”
The conversation began with talk about some badly needed home repairs, but—as Josh and Annie so often did—the conversation quickly heated up and disintegrated into something less-than-productive.
It began when Annie said she was tired of reminding Josh to call the plumber and talk to an electrician. Josh retorted that if he hadn’t been doing all the other things Annie requested, he might have had time to take care of it.
“What things are you talking about, Josh?” Annie questioned. “Helping fix supper one night a week and picking up the kids on Tuesday and Thursdays is hardly an unreasonable request.”
And then, with that, the conversation took a turn for the worse and both knew nothing would be resolved anytime soon. Josh simply slammed the door, walked out of the room and refused to answer Annie in anything but mono-syllables for the next two days. He was angry, although he wouldn’t have called it that because he was not yelling like his father did. He simply wanted Annie to know he was upset, and in his opinion, it was her fault.
Angry But Not Yelling
You really wouldn’t describe Josh as a guy with a temper, but Annie, his wife knew different. Although Josh rarely lost his cool by yelling or raising his voice, he still became angry. Annie always knew when Josh was angry from his stone cold, silent sulk.
Josh didn’t roar when he was mad; he retreated—sometimes for days. No matter what she did, no matter how much she apologized, even when it was as much (or even more) his fault than hers, Josh refused to end his pout until he was good and ready. Annie learned that she simply had to wait him out. Eventually the good-natured Josh would return.
Two Sides of Anger
We all recognize the red-faced, stomping, screaming, swearing, name-calling side of anger. It’s not easy to miss and sometimes it’s terrifying. We might call that the “fight” side of anger. The angry person feels threatened—inadequate, put down, disrespected—fearful in some way. The response is to fight against the perceived threat.
But anger also has another side—flight, or running away. When someone is unable to flee from what feels like a threatening situation, such as in an argument with an intimate partner, then a typical response may be to withdraw, shut-down and avoid any further interaction.
This is what occurs with Josh. He feels criticized by Annie’s questions and flooded with emotions, which create a strong desire to get as far away as quickly as possible. When leaving is not an option, Josh simply stops talking and creates a wall of silence around him. Usually Josh’s anger cools with time, his heart stops pounding and his blood pressure goes down. His body begins to relax and he feels calmer. Sometimes, however, it’s hard for him to let go of the strong feelings he has, and the tension in his body lingers for days. It’s the kind of stress that impacts Josh and Annie in a negative way. Left unchecked and unresolved, it can damage both their bodies and their relationship.
It’s not wrong or bad to be angry. We really can’t avoid it. Anger is a normal part of life. You might think of it as in the car of your life, but best left out of the driver’s seat. Unchecked, unresolved and unrecognized, anger can be very damaging to us and our relationships.
So How Do I Know If I'm Angry?
There are several ways to know if you’re upset—typically a milder version of anger. Here’s a brief list:
· Elevated heart rate with more rapid pulse
· Clenched jaw
· Tight muscles
· Quicker breathing
· Knot in your stomach
· Sweaty palms
These are all signs of stress indicating that your body has perceived a threat and is preparing to react. Those who withdraw are experiencing the same threat, but choose to avoid rather than attack. Often this is the wisest choice because the portion of our brain that interprets danger, the amygdala, doesn’t do the best job of clarifying a true threat from a perceived one. The problem for those who withdraw, however, is that often they internalize their anger and fail to deal with the actual or perceived threat. Over time this can lead to a host of serious problems, including depression, anxiety and damaged relationships.
The topic of stress and anger is too big to cover in one blog post, so for this week, focus on deciding whether you are mostly a “fighter” or “flee-er” in the face of a perceived threat. Do you approach the problem and possibly overreact, or are you more likely to shut down and check out? If you’re not sure, ask those closest to you. They probably know and they will likely tell you if you ask with a sincere desire to understand.
Paying attention to what’s going on in your body when you are upset can reap rich dividends over time. Knowing yourself and how you respond can help you have healthier relationships and a healthier body. It can also prepare you to make a change for the better. Finally, it can help others around you, especially your children, learn how to manage their anger in healthy ways too.
Check back next week to learn more about helpful ways to deal with anger.
Dr. Jennifer L. Baker is a licensed clinical psychologist specializing in marriage and family therapy. She is also the Founder and Director of Good Dads. She can be reached for question or comment at firstname.lastname@example.org.