Sunday, September 26, 2010

Angry People

Not long ago, I had occasion to hear someone tell a story about how things had unraveled after an angry rant was blown out of proportion. He was able to indicate how everyone else involved had reacted poorly to the situation, but seemed unaware of his own part in things. Being the person that I am, I tried to point out that his way of expressing anger could be something to look at as well. That piece of insight was not very well received.

In fact, when this fellow’s anger was focused on me, I found it easy to get hooked by it. It was a bit of a challenge to maintain my composure, which is a testament to how powerful an impact it has when we turn our anger on another individual. When I realized that I was getting riled up myself, I chose to remove myself from the situation. It’s my practice to handle my anger privately, since I know that I can say some pretty harsh things when I am angry – things I don’t really mean, which are intended only to be hurtful. I want to manage my anger in such a way that I can engage with people in a thoughtful and purposeful way.

There are plenty of ways to defuse angry people, but when I am in the midst of anger myself, I honestly don't feel like it.  I don't always want to get to the heart of what is really bothering or scaring someone who is unleashing their anger on me.  Sometimes, I just want don't care enough to take the verbal assault.

To this particular individual, my withdrawal looked like “running away and not playing anymore.” And that was true, in part. I didn’t actually want to play a game of one-upmanship with angry words. His claim was that I would keep encountering angry people in my life until I learned the lesson they had for me. In that moment, I think he knew what that lesson was supposed to be. I’ve been thinking about it for awhile, and I realize that I have learned a thing or two about anger.

Anger is useful. Anger is good. Anger is a legitimate emotion. As Julia Cameron says, “It is meant to be acted upon, not acted out.” Anger can direct us toward meaningful work in our lives. It can also be expressed in a way that separates us from others. Listening to anger can help determine what actions one wants to take in life. This is different from imposing anger on others.  You can listen to your anger, but other people don't necessarily want to.

What I have learned from engaging with angry people is that it often isn't worthwhile to me to spend time and energy supporting someone who doesn't want support. When someone is in the middle of expressing anger, there isn’t a lot of room for another person’s insight or challenge. And I don’t have to engage in another person’s anger any more than I want to. Not only can I choose the partnerships that have meaningful value in my life, I can manage my anger in such a way that I bring my very best to those partnerships.

I know of organizations that have experienced great turmoil because a few people were unable to manage their anger or express it in a meaningful way. So, I don’t mean to suggest that anger should go unacknowledged. If one is unwilling to see the fear that is underneath the anger, however, festering anger can be devastating to many people. Expressing anger publicly is a way to gain power and get one’s way without much of a challenge. Managing one’s anger privately and bringing some practical suggestions forward publicly can be transformational on many levels.

It’s true that I have learned lessons from the angry people I have encountered. Not least of which, I’ve been able to make some choices about how I want to handle my own anger. But I may keep encountering angry people nonetheless, no matter how many lessons I have learned. Maybe they have something to learn from me, too.

2 comments:

  1. 1) "What I have learned from engaging with angry people is that it often isn't worthwhile to me to spend time and energy supporting someone who doesn't want support."
    2)"But I may keep encountering angry people nonetheless, no matter how many lessons I have learned. Maybe they have something to learn from me, too."
    Are these compatible statements? Can one exist while the other does? What lesson can someone learn from you if you walk away from them when they are at their most angry, most afraid?

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  2. Well, sure... there are certainly times when I do want to stick with someone, when I am not hooked by another person's anger, when it really matters to me that the other person gets whatever their anger is telling them. This has happened often in my marriage and friendships. There is a difference for me in feeling obligated to do something about another person's anger and giving myself permission to do what is healthy for me in that moment.

    And there are honestly times when another person simply doesn't want to accept anything that I have to offer. At least not in their moment of anger. Walking away from them in that moment doesn't necessarily mean writing the person off completely. It just means admitting that there's nothing I can do at that moment that will have any value.

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