Expressing anger (and a look at boundaries as another way of considering assertiveness!)

Published Categorized as A look at one emotion, Anger, emotional literacy
As I have said in earlier posts, healthy emotions arrive and leave. In other words: they flow .  That makes emotions sound really easy but as I said in the post :  The inhibitors of emotional intelligence we don’t always receive conditioning in our childhoods that means our emotions are that straightforward. For emotions to flow, they need to be processed and this usually involves some form of expression.
In this post,  I am going to look at the expressions of anger. If we have been taught that anger is an ugly emotion or if expressing it received a negative backlash, we might well learn to suppress it. That doesn’t mean it goes away, it means it’s buried in our psyche and will resurface in some other way (e.g. a continued discomfort with the person who triggered the anger, a later more aggressive outburst, a nervous tick). Another slightly less unhealthy but damaging approach to anger is inappropriate expression. Inappropriate expression can be aggressive behaviours that hurt others either emotionally or physically. Inappropriate expression also tends to blame others for the anger and not take any responsibility for their part in what happened. There seems a distinct and fine line between turning an expression inwards (repression) and expressing it too forcefully outwards towards others (inappropriate expression).
So what might be more appropriate? To understand that we might need to look at the purpose of anger. Anger upholds boundaries. We feel angry when someone has metaphorically overstepped the mark. Anger indicates to us that we want and need to restore the firm boundary that someone affronted. So if this is our aim, repressing the emotion will achieve nothing and inappropriate expression will potentially attack the boundaries of others and cause further anger and things can escalate. The anger is certainly not processed effectively either way (not always entirely helpful for addressing whatever the issue is). The idea of finding this balance agrees with the idea of assertiveness: the ability to state your needs without affronting others.
So how does this help children to manage their anger resourcefully? I think we can teach older children about boundaries and their relationship to anger. (Not using my diagram, that looks complicated. I got a bit carried away with a ‘model’!) We can repeat all the messages we already say about anger (e.g. anger is normal, everyone feels angry now and then, what we feel physically when we are angry, etc) and then link the idea of boundaries what might trigger anger (someone ignoring our boundaries) and the most resourceful responses to feeling angry (our need to uphold our own boundaries but also respecting  others’ boundaries).
We can ask them to consider a time when they felt angry. What would have happened if they shouted at the person who triggered the anger?  (aggressive response). What would have happened if they did nothing? (passive response) And then ask is there a middle ground? (assertive response). What did you want to happen and how best could you have made that happen? (You can explore, of course, what they actually did).
You could try considering a situation using the following questions:
  • What triggered the anger? e.g. a friend insulted me and then laughed.
  • What boundary was overstepped for you? I don’t deserve to be insulted and laughed at.
  • What would be a way of dealing with the situation that would almost definitely make the other person angry too and attack their boundaries? (aggressive response) e.g. Insult them back
  • What would happen if you did nothing? (passive response) e.g. they might insult me again. It will affect how I feel about and respond to my friend from now on and not in a good way.
  • What do you want to happen? e.g. I would like an apology. I would like to know the person still likes me. I would like the other person to understand how they made me feel. (Upholding your boundaries)
  • How could you make this happen? e.g. When calm, explain to your friend how you felt and clearly state that you want to feel the same about the friendship as you did before and to know there will be no more insults.