“…But words can definitely hurt us”
In the the previous blog, I discussed ways to recognize anger in ourselves and to employ methods to control or manage the anger such as recognition of signs of flooding, deep breathing, and taking a timeout as needed to calm the physical response and reengage our logical side. But what about when we do not or cannot control it and the angry words fly? How do we repair the damage done?
Anger is a natural emotional response. On its own, anger is simply felt. But it is what we do with our anger that causes the issues we experience in our relationships. The Bible tells us “Be angry and do not sin and do not let the sun go down on your anger (Ephesians 4:26, NIV).” This verse proves that it is not wrong to feel the anger in the moment. We counselors tell our clients that they are allowed to feel what they feel. However, the part where we are instructed not to sin is imperative in handling our angry emotions correctly and ensures that we reach resolution and repair in the relationship. Referring back to the resentment bank filled with unresolved conflict, we may find that we have created new resentments when we do not work to intentionally reach resolution and repair. Then, even more detrimental is how we can sometimes begin to take a negative moment that causes us anger and apply it across the board to our entire experience with one and another.
When our anger is more person directed rather than situation driven, anger management becomes finding ways to converse with the person angering us. Gottman and Gottman (2016) discuss interventions in couples therapy based on the presence of criticism which triggers defensiveness. In any interaction, especially related to something a partner, friend, or child is doing to make us angry, criticizing or blaming will only worsen the problem and increase the tension. The other person will immediately begin working to defend themselves or their actions. In couples therapy, we teach our clients to use “I” and “I feel” statements to discuss emotions as these convey the feelings without accusing or criticizing instead of angry words, like: “you’re the reason…” “you always…” “you never” even “you’re so stupid.” In the heat of the moment, we feel justified by our level of frustration to make these comments. But what we do not see is how our words affect the receiver and their personal narrative.
Depending on childhood traumas, relational traumas, and/or emotional coping abilities, how we process angry words said to us will differ vastly. Potential outcomes from angry words include accepting and internalizing the words to apply them to internal narrative and our self-image. This is especially true in children. This can be seen later in life as negative self-esteem and low self-confidence and/or in high anxiety especially in relation to social situations.
James reminds us that the tongue is a small part of the body, but it can do the most damage (James 3:5-6, NIV). James also exhorts us to be “quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry. Because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires. (James 1:19-20, NIV). My pastor recently stated, “when you speak while angry, you will make the best speech you will ever regret.” While we may be justified in feeling angry, we are still responsible for the results of our actions.
So how do we work to repair the damage done by our wayward tongue when we feel angry and lash out verbally? As a parent, one of the hardest things for me to do is admit that I was wrong to my children but taking responsibility for a bad choice allows my children to see that I make mistakes too and can own them. This tends to be an excellent example for them to emulate with others and carry forward into adulthood. The second step is to be sincerely remorseful and apologize for the harsh words. In relationships, we must be able to take ownership of what we say and be sincere in our apologies to others. In addition, as the one making the repair, acknowledging your internal feelings and reaction to a situation should provide insight into what you may need from the other person. For example, making the statement “I will try to be more aware of my reaction from now on. It would help if I felt like I have your support,” communicates an action plan to be more mindful as well as a request for a feeling of support from the other person. The last and hardest step of all is to be mindful of our anger and employ anger management techniques to prevent angry words the next time the emotion floods us.