Many of the clients I work with have one main goal: To stop being so angry.
Anger can be an emotional currency. Some people grow up in an angry home where door slamming and phone throwing are basic means of communication.
When we grow up in this environment, we take those thoughts and behaviors with us into adulthood and into our relationships. Your husband, wife or boyfriend might be asking you, “Why are you yelling?”
“I’m not,” you might say, not even realizing it. Oh wait. On second thought: “You’re right. I am yelling.”
Once we realize the intensity in the room and learn that a good chunk of it is coming from ourselves we want to learn other ways of handling uncomfortable situations. Maybe we have kids of our own now and want different for them.
You can learn some basics to start with like taking deep breaths, counting to 10, walking out of the room when feeling overwhelmed. Meditation can help too. These strategies tend to help manage the anger, but they don’t really help to decrease it.
Lisa Feldman Barrett, a psychologist at Northeastern University talks about the concept of increasing your emotional granularity.”
My emotional what?
Over the past 30 years, Feldman Barrett has found evidence that anger isn’t one emotion but rather a whole family of emotions. And learning to identify different members of the family is a powerful tool for regulating your anger, studies have shown.
What is anger?
There’s a common theory about anger. You’ll find it in text books, scientific papers, news reports, etc. And some scientists support the theory, says Feldman Barrett.
The idea is that anger is one of several “basic emotions” that are universal, Feldman Barrett says. It’s almost like a reflex — hard-wired in the brain. When something unjust or unfair happens to you, “your blood pressure often goes up. Your heart rate will go up. Maybe you’ll breathe heavily or you’ll have a reddening of your skin,” she says. “Then you’ll have an urge … to punch or yell at someone. That’s the stereotype of what anger is,” Feldman Barrett says.
But it’s not the full story.
What you feel when you’re angry depends on the situation, what your past experiences are and how your culture has taught you to respond, she says. As a result, there is actually enormous variation in the types of anger in the U.S., like exuberant anger when you’re getting pumped up to compete in sports, or sad anger when your spouse or boss doesn’t appreciate you.
When you look at other cultures, the variation explodes.
Germans have a word that roughly means “a face in need of a slap”or backpfeifengesicht. “It’s like you’re so furious with someone that you look at their face, and it’s as if their face is urging you to punch them,” Feldman Barrett says. “It’s a great emotion.”
Ancient Greeks differentiated between a short-term anger that doesn’t stick around (ὀργή or orge ) with a long-lasting anger that’s permanent (μῆνις or menin).
Mandarin Chinese has a specific word for anger directed toward yourself, 悔恨 or huǐhèn. It’s literally a combination of regret and hate, says linguist Yao Yao at Hong Kong Polytechnic University. “You regret something you did so much, that you’re angry at yourself,” she says.
Thais have, at least, seven degrees of anger, says linguist Yuphaphann Hoonchamlong at the University of Hawaii. “We don’t walk around saying “I’m angry.” That’s too broad,” she says. “We may start with ‘I’m displeased’ and ‘I’m dissatisfied’ and then increase the intensity,” she says.
And India has a treasure trove of angers.
“There’s a common form of anger which means like ‘when eggplant hits the hot oil,’ ” says Abhijeet Paul, who teaches South Asian literature at the University of California, Berkeley.
“You suddenly become, like, really angry at hearing something shocking or learning something that you really, really dislike,” Paul says.
Indians also differentiate between political anger, which you have for the ruling class or “boss man,” and personal angers, which you have for a friend, family or neighbor. You would never mix the two and express political anger in a personal relationship, Paul says.
“There’s also a very interesting anger that is a loving anger,” Paul says. You express this emotion toward a spouse when your spouse has angered you but you can’t help them, only love them, he says. “It’s a mixed bag of love, grief, sorrow and anger.”
So let’s personalize this a bit.
So in many ways, anger is like wine. There are these major varieties — such as chardonnay and pinot noir — but each vintage has its own unique combination of aromas, flavors and potency. The more practice you have at detecting — and naming — these nuances, the better you understand wine.
And if you learn to detect all the various flavors and nuances of anger and label them, you can start to handle your anger better, says psychologist Maria Gendron at Yale University.
“There’s definitely emerging evidence that just the act of putting a label on your feelings is a really powerful tool for self-regulation,” Gendron says. It can keep the anger from overwhelming you. It can offer clues about what to do in response to the anger. And sometimes, it can make the anger go away.
The idea is to take a statement that’s broad and general, such as, “I’m so angry,” and make it more precise. Take the Thai: “I’m displeased,” or the German “Backpfeifengesicht!”
Psychologists call this strategy emotional granularity. Studies show that the more emotional granularity a person has, the less likely they are to shout or hit someone who has hurt them. They are also less likely to binge drink when stressed. On the other hand, people diagnosed with major depressive disorder are more likely to have low emotional granularity compared to healthy adults. “There’s a whole arm of research showing how functional it is to have finely tuned categories for our experiences,” Gendron says.
Emotional granularity is like watching HDTV versus regular TV. It lets you see your anger with higher resolution, Gendron says. “It gives you more information about what that anger means, whether you value that experience and choices about what to do next,” she says.
This last part is key: Being granular with your anger helps you figure out what’s the best way to handle the situation — or whether you should do anything at all.
For instance, if you are feeling a quick burst of anger, which you know will fade rapidly, then maybe doing nothing is the best strategy.
Getting clear on the description of how you feel also requires some thought. And that’s not a bad thing. Studies show that when you spew out anger our IQ drops between 15 and 30 points. So, we actually become more stupid for that period of time. Allowing yourself to articulate how you really are feeling keeps your brain working and helps you stay calmer.
And you don’t have to limit yourself to the labels that already exist, Gendron says. Be creative. Analyze what’s causing your various angers, give them specific names and start using the terms with family and coworkers.
“If you’re making a practice in your family of coming up with words and then using them together, that actually can regulate physiology,” she says. “That can resolve the kind of ambiguity about the situation.”
This strategy can be really helpful. When you start to pay attention to what typically triggers your anger you might notice it more at work and at home. Here are three major types:
Illogical anger: This emotion happens when somebody at work makes a decision that seems completely illogical. Once you label this anger and start tracking what happens afterwards, you can quickly realize that trying to convince an illogical person of logic is often futile – and a waste of time.
Hurry-up anger: This is the anger you can feel when someone else is not doing something fast enough — yes, I’m talking about the driver of the gray Prius at the stoplight this morning or the 3-year-old who will not put her shoes on fast enough. Once you label it, you realize that cars, people and toddlers eventually move. Huffing and puffing doesn’t make it faster.
Overwhelmed anger: This one has a big impact on yelling in the house. Start paying attention to what often occurs right before the screaming begins. It could be as obvious as the dog is barking and the toddler is screaming. Basically two loud sounds simultaneously.
Then you and your spouse can make up your own special word for what kind of anger that is. So when you or your spouse says “I have overwhelmed anger”, you both know exactly what to do: Put the dog on the porch and pick up the baby. What you really wanted was just wants some peace and quiet.