When I was trying to control my reactions that led to domestic violence, I found that anger management techniques were really helpful. Still, I discovered some “conventional wisdom” that turned out to be anger management myths. Knowing what notions to accept and which ones to ignore can really keep us on track for positive change.
Here are four of the most common anger management myths—supposed wisdom that turns out to be not wise at all. Some contain elements of truth, but either don’t work or lead us into dangerous territory. I’ve also shared some alternatives that do work.
Certain things “make” us angry
I kept a mental list of people and circumstances that “made” me angry. When my counselor challenged me by saying, “No one can “make” you angry—your mind determined your emotion,” it made me angry! He was right, of course.
Seeing others respond differently to the same situation proves that becoming angry does not have to be automatic. How we interpret events is what “makes” us infuriated, and oftentimes the story we tell ourselves is wrong or too limiting. Challenging these erroneous beliefs and thoughts leads us to different emotions and reactions.
Let’s use a traffic jam as an example. Some people blast their horns and curse the drivers ahead of them. Others turn their frustrations inward, scolding themselves for not leaving earlier or taking a different route. Still others sit patiently in their cars, listening to music or a podcast while accepting that freeway gridlock happens. The situation remains the same for everyone, but how each person thinks and therefore reacts to it is different.
This concept frees us from becoming a victim to our circumstances or other peoples’ actions. We determine by our thoughts how upset or calm we’ll feel. There is no need to be helplessly stuck with anger.
We don’t have to be helplessly stuck with anger.
Frustrating events, injustices, and difficult people still exist. Expecting to encounter annoyances, then interpreting them as inconveniences rather than awful events, leads to more peace. When we own what we think and feel, the power to be happy returns to us.
Another one of the anger management myths is the belief that it is necessary to get things done or protect myself. If I don’t get mad, no one listens. Or, I need to become angry to get others to back off or I’ll end up as their doormat.
It’s true that anger can help us get what we want in the short-term. What we get in those situations, however, is compliance. People may cave to our demands to avoid the uncomfortableness of having to deal with an enraged person.
What we should really want is not compliance but agreement.
What we should really want, however, is not compliance but agreement, so we don’t have to fight the battle again and again. Over the long-term, the people who regularly submit to our wrath become distant, resentful, and bitter. In other words, it destroys our relationship with co-workers, friends, family, and lovers as they find ways to cut us out of their life.
While negotiating a resolution to conflict takes more time and patience, these same relationship damages do not occur. Rather, we gain their respect and influence because we’ve taken an approach that respects them. The relationship is preserved and grows, resulting in long-term benefits to us rather than just a one-time solution.
Blowing off steam is good
When frustration builds, it feels awful. We sense the tension in our body, and we’ve read that stuffing stress is not good for our health. If we get it off our chest, we’ll feel better, says another one of the anger management myths.
This lie justifies telling someone off: they deserved it, we didn’t, and this will shut them down so their vile injustice stops. Some therapists suggest that we take out our outrage on a pillow or punching bag so we don’t hurt anyone or ourselves. It’s a bad strategy and terrible advice.
Venting anger is a bad strategy and terrible advice.
Venting anger accomplishes neither of those goals. Yes, studies show that containing anger is harmful, but angry outbursts actually add to the health damage. Expressing rage increases heart disease risk and has been shown to cause artery damage.
The research also shows that displaying anger leads to more anger and violence, not less. We may feel better as the tension is released, but the effect is short-lived. Practicing anger builds neural pathways to anger responses—it simply makes us better at getting angry.
We must also consider the social impact of our rage. Instead of compliance, sometimes people retaliate, which quickly spirals into a no-win pissing match. Forcing others to withdraw or retaliate ruins the kind of relationship connections that we need to thrive.
Get away from anger
At the other end of the spectrum is the anger management myth to walk away or avoid any situation that makes us angry. It certainly prevents us from regretting something we said or did while our fury burns out of control. Unfortunately, misapplying this strategy can lead to avoiding situations and people that we have a conflict with, which is potentially everything and everyone. This is called stonewalling and it can be as damaging to our partners, relationships, and us as a blow-up.
We can’t avoid all relationship conflict; it is inevitable when two people are together.
We can’t avoid all relationship conflict; it is inevitable when two people are together. Ducking conflict doesn’t solve problems, so they persist and often fester into bigger troubles. Our friends, family, and co-workers expect (and need) us to work through these difficult situations with them.
Taking time to cool down when we’re really heated is good advice, but only if the time-out is temporary and we later re-engage. The Ananias Foundation recommends using a time-out strategy to avoid out-of-control rage that can lead to violence. Returning later to work through the conflict is an essential part of that process, however.
Healthy strategies that avoid anger management myths
So what are the alternatives—the good advice we should pay attention to in reducing our irritation and its impact? I’ve touched on some of these, but they are worth calling out again. Good anger management strategies result in reducing both the frequency and the intensity of our aggravation.
Good anger management strategies result in reducing both the frequency and the intensity of our aggravation.
First, accept that your anger is the result of how you’re interpreting a certain situation—remember how different people experience a traffic jam? Our thoughts determine our emotions; so therefore thinking differently about our circumstances will lead us to a different and more manageable emotion. It takes time to reveal our underlying thoughts and change these patterns, but the effort is well worth it.
Second, recognize the terrible cost of using anger to get compliance. The long-term damage to relationships and how others view us means this strategy must be avoided at all costs. Don’t allow yourself to be short-sighted.
Similarly, dump any ideas that releasing your anger by airing it on others or some inanimate object is good. Instead, practice processing your displeasure in your mind. Then, if you think it’s necessary, discuss it constructively with the other person.
Finally, sidestep the anger management myth of avoiding situations that could irritate you. Take a time-out if you become really irate to let the strong emotions drain away. Commit yourself to resolving conflict peacefully rather than evading it. Your relationships will benefit, and therefore, you will too!