“Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves.”
Irritation belongs to the family of emotions we associate with anger, a family with a very bad reputation. We’re typically encouraged to suppress anger because being angry all the time wreaks havoc on our relationships with friends, family, and business associates. We suppress it, forget about it, and then suppress it again until we burst.
This is not an article about the perils of suppressing anger but one about listening to it.
Anger is such a finely tuned response to the outside world that it can often tell us more about ourselves than expensive personality tests, and listening to what our anger has to tell us can actually reduce the amount of anger we feel overall.
How do you feel when you’re angry?
When you are angry, you feel warm…or even hot. You feel an internal pressure; your body puffs up, and you lean forward slightly. Your voice becomes louder and carries an edge. Your brain is physically preparing you to eliminate a threat. However, it’s not a threat to you as a person but a threat to one or more of your goals.
When you experience even the slightest irritation, your brain is telling you one of your personal goals is potentially at risk, and you should do something to eliminate that risk.
How to listen
The moment that you experience anger, you have to stop what you are doing and mentally take a step back. You feel the emotion, and it’s real. Now it’s time to ask two important questions:
- What goal is being threatened or blocked?
- Is the threat real?
Sometimes the answers to these questions are simple. “My kid stepped in front of the television while I was watching the game.”
- Goal: To watch the game.
- Threat: Legitimate.
Other times, the answer to the first question is not so obvious, and it may even be something deeply personal.
Let’s say Elena feels irritation at hearing that her husband had a particularly enjoyable meeting at work. At first, she may not even realize why her brain is responding with anger. After reflecting, she realizes that a pretty coworker must have been at the meeting, one who her husband gets along very well with. That thought triggered an anger response. But the question is: which of Elena’s goals is being threatened? After some consideration, she determines, “My goal is to maintain my relationship with my husband.”
She next takes a look at her relationship and decides there is no legitimate threat to her goal. She empathizes with her husband and shares in his good mood for the moment.
It’s important to answer the question of what goal is being threatened or blocked directly. You should say, “My goal is to…” rather than “He/She/It was stopping me from….” You have to take ownership if you want to benefit from your anger’s honest communication.
Over time, by evaluating when our brain is reacting to false perceptions or responding appropriately to real threats, we start to train our mind to become more selective in its use of the anger response. As our mind becomes more selective, what our anger tells us becomes more specific and thus more helpful.
When you can’t determine what goal is being blocked
Never listening to what our anger is really telling us causes us to attach it to the people and objects around us, turning them into triggers for anger on their own. For example, meeting a person who reminds you of an irritating coworker may trigger an anger response in you. The answer to what goal is being blocked then must come from a past perceived threat.
At that point you should work your way back, figure it out, and be happy it happened. Your brain just helped you identify an anger trigger that has leaked into other areas of your life. After answering the second question, “Is the threat real?” with a decisive no, you will naturally begin fine-tuning your anger response to trigger only when appropriate.
What does this all tell us?
In a nutshell, anger tells us what our true goals are from big to small. It also gives us a chance to fine-tune our threat perception and, by doing so, reduce how often we become angry.
What is your anger telling you?