Its as if you swallowed a hot coal and been burned by acid. Violated and abandoned, a victim of life’s cruel sense of humor. At times you just want to die: there is no escape, no light at the end of the tunnel, and no one to turn to for advice. You know… that undignified, soul crushing feeling of being somebody else’s anger target.
So you hold it inside because if it’s your boss then “you better keep quiet” and if its your loved one then its just plain damn embarrassing to admit to someone you are being treated like this. You stay patient, stuff it all in the dark dungeons of your soul and hope it will pass, but at times you want to explode into a google of pieces and strangle someone to death.
Dealing with angry people can be down right debilitating and exhausting. Without any doubt – anger brings an enormous amount of suffering. Not only to the one who’s expressing it but also to everyone who’s in its path. Like wildfire, it can consume friendships and burn merits that took years to accumulate.
It is said that it can take years of hard work to build a house but one single spark can burn it down in minutes. Once a king came to Buddha for advice about ruling his kingdom. This is what the enlightened mystic said:
“People are caught in their suffering as if they are caught in a house on fire. When you understand the source of your suffering it can no longer bind you. If someone is angry at you, you can get angry back at them but that will only create more suffering. If you follow the way of cultivating awareness, you will not react with anger. Instead you will quiet your mind in order to discover why that person is angry at you. By looking deeply you can uncover the causes that led to the person’s anger. If you see that you bear responsibility for angering the person, you will accept that your own misconduct contributed to their anger and will not get angry in return. If you are without blame then you can try to see why that person has misunderstood you. Then you can find a way to help him understand your true intentions. This way you will avoid causing more suffering to yourself and the other person.”
Ancient wisdom traditions, especially Buddhism, invites us to take matters into our hands and look deeply into the nature of our mind in order to find the true source of our suffering. Buddha’s advice on how to deal with angry people is simple, profound and involves three steps:
1. Examine your own mind,
2. Examine the mind of other person,
3. Use skillful means to make peace.
Examine Your Own Response to Anger
Do you spark up like a Chinese firecracker in response to other people’s anger? For example, do you tend to shout in response to someone shouting at you? If yes then I have a surprise for you. Years of researching, working with my own anger issues and studying Eastern philosophy has led me to one stark realization – the best way to deal with angry and difficult people is to work on one’s own anger.
I observed over and over again how every time I got angry in response to someone being upset at me the situation created more misery and any possibilities of resolving the conflict in an amicable manner were flushed down the toilet. But you know what really bothered me sick… I mean to the bone? The fact that someone was able to “make me angry” felt like that person could control me.
Being an independent person, that gave me the backbone to start looking deeper into the root causes of my own anger and take full responsibility for it. Only after I was able to cope with my own fiery emotions I was able to gain more mental clarity to deal with other people’s problems.
Buddha’s advice to examine your own mind first is fantastic. Without taking responsibility for our own emotions we stand no chance in self-mastery. This is ALWAYS the first step. After you are done reading this article, pay a visit to the anger management techniques page. You’ll find some good advice there.
Examine the Driving Force Behind Other Person’s Anger
When your own emotions are in check, then you’ll have the clarity to deal with other people’s anger. Even better, when you have a surplus of patience and mindfulness you will not be affected by “their” anger and you can then actually help them.
Generally, angry and difficult people have a lot of resentment and discontent. They like to take it out on others. They are usually insecure, confused and driven by an unconscious sense of shame or inferiority which they hide under the facade of cunning comments. They can also be in a lot of physical or mental pain and/or have simply run out of patience to deal with life’s challenges.
Many times I’ve observed a lawyer being able to present the most sophisticated argument and win a tough case but be a total slop when it comes to personal relationships at home. Being successful in one area of life does not make one a successful human just yet.
It’s also good to remember that anger is an addiction. It’s a physical process in the body with your mind behind the wheel. Chronically angry people can be so “overrun” by anger that they are unable to imagine themselves acting in any other way. They can be blindly depressed and blame others for their problems to the point that they forget their own role in the situation. As my spiritual teacher says – they forget that they are the ones who planted the cactus that they sit on.
On the other hand, anger addicts can be the sweetest people in one moment and total monsters two minutes later when something triggers their rage. Its a terribly shocking experience. I often hear of someone saying they met a sweet person who had few anger issues but turned into a Godzilla later in the relationship. Guess what… they have not changed. They have always had the anger habit but it was either suppressed or overridden by their love for you and the family. Its like taking a narcotic pain killer – it masks the pain by a pleasant sensation but does not heal the source of pain. Now that your partner feels safe around you their anger simply erupts without having to go through the angst of controlling it. Now that all the cards are dealt, they simply say “This is just who I am.”
It is said that if you know your enemies and know yourself, you will win in a hundred battles; if you do not know your enemies nor yourself, you will be defeated in every battle – Sun Tzu’s Art of War.
My advice? Understand what anger is. Learn everything about it so that it’s not a mystery to you. If you know your enemy, it is less likely to hurt you because for every weapon thrown at you you will have a weapon of your own to counter act and neutralize it. Yes I know, this is straight out of a Kung Fu movie but it works! Understanding what makes people tick is an incredibly empowering experience.
Skillful Means and Creative Approaches to Deal with Angry People
Remember the story of the enlightened sage in the previous post – if you have control over your mind and understand the nature of reality then not accepting someone else’s insults can be as simple as well… not accepting someone else’s insults. Their anger is their problem. If “they” try to give it to you but you do not take it, then who does it belong to?
Having said that, I realize we’re not enlightened yet and only starting the learn about our minds. Hence, I’d like to share with you a few creative techniques to help you deal with angry people in your life.
What Does Not Work
Eye for an eye makes the whole world go blind – Gandhi.
1. Getting angry in return. You may fight it out, maybe even figure something out but more and more you will feed off of each other’s negativity and have a shorter fuse till none of you are able to handle it anymore. Then you will take those habits to another relationship, infect the other person and continue on the same miserable path.
2. Insulting them – most angry people have HUGE insecurity issues that they cover up with an angry facade. Insulting them further fuels their anger and needlessly escalates the situation.
3. Blocking their movement in a doorway in order to confront them about their anger. In fact, don’t even try to hug them at this stage. While the body is in the flight or fight mode they will not be open to your warmth.
4. Asking them to breath and control their anger, telling them to relax. This flames their anger even more because they feel their emotions are being ignored. In addition, this sounds like a command to a rebellious ego.
5. Constantly trying to appease their anger or accept blame for how they feel. By doing so you only train them to think that anger is an effective tool to get what they want. Don’t do it, no matter what it takes.
1. Relinquish any hope that you can control other people’s behavior. Simply let go of that idea entirely. With some people, there is just NO way to make them happy anyways. They are angry when they get what they want, they are angry when they don’t. They often blame others rather than assume responsibility for their own misery. Unlike what most therapists will tell you, anger is not a choice. It’s a habit. The only person who can change that it is the owner, not you. You can not work out their anger issues, you can only encourage them.
2. Protect yourself from being hurt physically but do not be afraid of anger itself. Anger is a baby’s cry in adult language. It is a sign that someone is hiding a weakness, lost control, feels inadequate, threatened and is driven by fear. When dealing with angry people, always try to figure out what’s feeding their anger. If you understand the source, you can be much more creative at dealing with it.
3. If you know its coming – prepare yourself. A fascinating new research from a team of Stanford researchers shows that the state of mind in which a person listens to an angry outburst has a big effect on whether or not they actually get upset. A common anger management technique I teach here is to view an angry person through a different lens. So if someone is yelling at you, you might tell yourself that they’ve just received some bad news and are now taking it out on you, or maybe its just their Mount Kilimanjaro size ego talking or perhaps they are simply overwhelmed by their responsibilities or events taking place in their life.
The Stanford research shows that this technique also works before the angry outburst has even begun. They call this pre-emptive action the “re-appraisal.” They concluded that “Emotional processing proceeds from the front to the back of the brain, and the reappraisal is generated in the front of the brain and proceeds toward the back, where it modifies emotional processing. If you’re trained in reappraisal, and you know your boss is frequently in a bad mood, you can prepare yourself to go into a meeting. He can scream and yell and shout, but there will be nothing.” In basic terms: The researchers found that “reappraising” – in effect, making excuses for the angry person and expecting them to get angry – was able to reduce negative emotions when faced with the nasty situation later on.
4. Practice being unaffected. This is very very hard but even if you are freaking out inside, stay gentle and keep a kind tone. Stay cool. Breath deep into your abdomen. Don’t sob, don’t cry, be strong and don’t let them get to you. Anger feeds on other people’s power. It’s an ego trip at its worst. There is nothing more confusing to the angry person than sensing that his anger does not affect you. I mean subconsciously the mind freaks out. Anger feeds on submission, on ridicule. When the feeling of having the power to belittle someone is missing anger subsides. The angry person himself may even start feeling stupid for their behavior. It really is like this. So remain calm, use calm tone and keep a good p-p-p-poker face… Mum, mum, mum, hah…
Do not argue with an idiot. He will drag you down to his level and beat you with experience.
5. Pick your battles. Do not try to get your point across or prove your truth to someone who’s drunk with anger. They are just not rational at this stage. Wait it out till they calm down, then find a spot for an intelligent dialogue and sneak your point across when they least expect it. You got to be smarter and have a strategy.
I would like to make one exception for acting “civil.” When you witness someone physically abusing another being (especially a lady or a child), please feel free to punch them in a blooming nose if you can. Sometimes you just have to. In some desperate cases the only way to interrupt one’s rage is to send them into a shock or physically disabling their ability to inflict damage onto themselves or others. The key here is to do it without anger and with least amount of damage.
6. Acknowledge their anger. “I can see you are angry.” Acknowledging their feelings is a kind thing to do and don’t worry, its not the same as validating their anger. Saying “I understand how you feel,” is not the same as “You have good reasons to feel like this.” By relating the fact that you know how they feel opens the gates for a mature conversation.
7. Leave them be, give them space to cool off. If they are not wise enough to do this then you do it. Do it before you get in a heated argument and exchange lots of hurtful words. Its kind of like putting a fire out on a match rather than the barn.
8. Use others to confront them. Angry people are just like drunkards, many of them do not realize the kind of damage they wreak while they are on their mental trips. Find a moment when they are calm and even in a good mood. Then bring a family member or two and confront the person kindly. The reason you don’t want to do it alone is because it may look like you have personal issues. However if you have allies to help you address your concerns, they will more likely accept this as their issue.
9. Set your boundaries and enforce them. As described in detail in a previous post about personal boundaries, this is one of the most effective anger management techniques. Make sure you are firm and set up consequences if this gets out of control, for example all the family moves leaves him for a few days. These are not easy options but this is not an easy problem as well.
10. Write a letter. The thing is, if you try to talk to him he will interrupt you, you will get flustered and not say what you want to say so write a letter. Sit down, think things through and write from your heart.
11. Make an inventory of everything that makes them angry. What..? Why? Let me explain. Most angry people will blame you or others for their anger. “It’s all your fault!” Start secretly making a list of everything that “brings the anger on.” Seriously, go for it. It’s fun too. You’ll be surprised how many and how ridiculous most of those things are. Then present the list to the angry person and ask them if this is all and whether you got this right. They’ll be like… “What the…?” Ask them whether they think that other people would agree with these as reasonable reasons to get all pissed off and bothered if you printed this on a large canvas and posted it at the bus stop. It’ll be an eye opening experience for them. 🙂
12. Make it “Interesting…” Angry people are usually decorated narcissists. They can blow your mind with their creativity in finding just the right words that will strike at the core of your sensitive spots, sometimes rendering a full knockout. Whether they try to deliver a sucker punch compliment or an outright insult, don’t get sucked in. Instead, shrug your shoulders and say one word: “Interesting.”
I learned this from my American “Godmother” Heather, who worked as a psych nurse most of her life. She explained that this is the best response when someone comes at you out of the blue and you need time to think without reacting. Once you’re collected, you’re free to respond with any dignified action you see fit. It shows the angry types that, nope, you’re not taking the bait and they can’t get to you so easily.
If none of the above techniques work… well, then take a sledge hammer and put them out of their misery! (Joking of course, I hear while this is very effective it is also illegal in some countries.)
“OK,” you may say, “This is a ton of work on my part and they have to do nothing? This is unfair!” Yep indeed, it sucks but would you say the same if you were dealing with an illness? Anger is the mind’s disease. At times, your own ego may get in a way and you will simply want to give up. Its OK to feel like this because it IS a lot of work. When you feel its too much, simply ask yourself whether this person is worth it. If he/she is, then fairness should not be an issue, you simply assume the role of a more mature partner and take the lead in acting like a grown up.
Allow me to conclude by sharing with you wonderful words from the book Old Path White Clouds by Thich Nhat Hanh:
Mindfulness nurtures the capacity to illuminate the true nature of our mind and environment. With that illumination comes understanding. With understanding comes patience, with patience comes compassion, and with compassion comes a sense of wonder, happiness and joy. Within this realm of existence, anger has no place to dwell.
Dealing with angry people requires a correct attitude, a set of skillful methods and a lot of patience. If you forget everything what you read above, remember the simple advice I got from my spiritual teacher: “People act the way they feel.” Life can be crazy; people are just people, some can cope better than others, and some have been treated better than others. Angry people suffer. Be mindful of that, be kind, and always give them the benefit of the doubt.
P.S. Got anger? Download my FREE report called “7 Secrets of Anger Management from Ancient Wisdom.” I’ve spend years gathering the advice that is presented in it. If you’re on a spiritual path this could be a life-changing e-book for you. (You’ll find it in the upper right corner.)