If your loved one came home with a cut on his finger, you would know where to put the Band-Aid. If he had an upset stomach, you would give him an antacid. What do you do for someone who is heartbroken, enraged, guilt ridden, furious, or frustrated? Where do you put the Band-Aid? What is the Band-Aid?
We do not know. We did not learn it in school. As a consequence, we feel inadequately prepared to cope with this emotional stuff. Our education tells us that facts and figures are valid and important, but our feelings and emotions are irrational, therefore weak, therefore unacceptable.
That is why we need an education in emotional problem solving. Emotional problems are not “weaknesses” at all. They are as legitimate as a broken arm or a blood clot. They just don’t show up on the x-ray. We need to establish courses in emotional education — the competent management of our human emotions. As imperfect human beings, we overcompensate for our inadequate preparation for this task of coping with emotions. We overreact, we defend ourselves against the potentially humiliating exposure of inadequacy; we deny the validity of the anger. Instead we can offer the following remarks when faced with others’ anger:
1. “You must be very angry.” He may say, “I am not angry.” This is called Denial. He may have learned that it is acceptable to be “upset” but never angry. We are not put off by this “defense”. We bounce right back, still on our terms. We do not debate with him the truth or falsity of these non-rational retorts. “I hope you aren’t” (agreeing with him), “because anger is a very painful emotion. But if you want to talk about it, I’ll listen.” We are standing our ground, letting him know that we do not intend to force our emotional first aid upon him. We are not deceived by his denial or distracted by it. The issue here is not the name of his emotion. The issue is not “truth”. We do not say, “Yes, you are angry! Admit it!” The issue is that we are prepared to cooperate.
2. “You sound very angry. Did anything happen to make you angry?” Or, “What happened to make you so angry?” This intervention has the advantage of skipping the issue of emotions and focusing on the precipitating factors that caused it. It offers an invitation to get relief by verbalizing the event in a non-threatening, non-judgmental context. The issue is not who is right or wrong, the issue is his painful anger that needs to be drained and cleaned so the wound can heal properly.
3. “That must have made you very angry. I’d be angry if that happened to me.” By using the word “anger”, in our intervention, we are giving his out-of-control emotion a handle he can grasp. We are also giving him permission to express the emotion that he is experiencing.
4. What if they say, “I’m so mad I could punch him right in the face!” We can choose to say. “I don’t blame you. I feel that way sometimes myself.” This technique is called “self-disclosure”. It is often the last thing we think of doing. “I’m glad you can tell me how angry you are. It isn’t pleasant, but it is much better for both of us if you can get your anger out of your system before it makes you sick.” We are not glad that he is angry. We are not glad that he is being unpleasant. We are glad that he is behaving appropriately under these difficult circumstances to rid his system of this emotional pain. We are validating him as a person in spite of his unseemly behavior. We are bringing his unmanageable anger down to more manageable proportions. It is like putting an ice pack on an inflamed tendon. We cannot calm him down by calling him dirty names, giving him orders or falling apart ourselves.
5. “I’m sorry you are so angry.” Many people find it hard to say that they are sorry when someone is angry. They have learned that “I’m sorry” is tantamount to an admission of guilt. “Why should I say, ‘I’m sorry?’ I didn’t make him angry,” but “I’m sorry” is really an expression of regret. Regret is the sincere wish that things were not the way they are. We know that anger hurts, and we regret that our angry other is in so much pain. When a self-respecting individual says, “I’m sorry” with the right “music,” it is not perceived as an admission of guilt but as a sincere, heartfelt expression of empathy in a difficult time.
Man talking to therapist image available from Shutterstock.