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Friday, 25 November 2011

How to Deal Better with Angry or Hurtful People

When our bodies are under extreme threat, they adopt the flight, fight or freeze response.  Thinking and feeling go out of the window and we just respond.  Our “old brain” makes us respond the same way as animals in the wild.  First, an animal will try to run; if he can’t he’ll fight; if that’s useless, he’ll freeze as often that can put off or distract the predator.  One good example of this in action with humans is stage fright. We’ve all heard stories of how different performers have done all three of these things depending on the situation.

In our lives, it’s about getting the balance right - there is a time to think and a time to act.  It’s not good to make rash decisions, but equally, it’s not good to sit on things for too long or to feel ourselves getting more and more anxious about a future event.  Although it isn’t easy, it can sometimes be good to simply do something instead of worrying or thinking about it too much. Deep anxiety is often much worse than fear because one feels oneself under continuous threat or perhaps one feels a threat to one’s essential view of the self, whereas fear, however bad, is normally about a situation that will pass soon.

When dealing with aggressive, angry, excessively demanding or difficult people, summoning up the strength to act towards them as if there were no problem may work in the short term and perhaps medium term – longer term, we will need to find a more lasting solution. Generally, people will respond better to us if we act confidently.  Even if it is clear that they don’t like us, we can boost our self-esteem by trying to stay in control of our own emotions and dealing factually and calmly with any insults or disparaging remarks.

When dealing with angry people, we must first ask ourselves whether they have a valid reason to be angry with us.  If so then one should deal with it in a way that allows and acknowledges the other’s anger. Up to a point, that’s part of being a mature adult.  But even so, hopefully their anger is proportional and an expression of emotion rather than a threat.

Other than relationship and self-esteem issues, more clients come to me with anger issues than any other problem.  It is vital to remember that anger is not necessarily a bad thing.  I remind my clients that it is a natural part of being human – even saint-like people can get angry.  Anger can be a powerful force for positive change, but again it depends on the situation and the way that the anger is expressed. Some people find that they cannot express their anger and bottle it up; some that they act it out, causing problems in their relationships; others want help with constantly having to deal with the anger of an important person in their life. All of these issues are major life problems which can be eased in therapy or via a consistent and thoughtful approach.

I want to outline a few pointers for dealing with angry or hurtful people:
  • Remember that an angry person’s emotions are almost certainly masking fear.  Perhaps their fears are well founded perhaps not, but knowing that they are based upon fear can help you deal with them.
  • It is important to remain calm and state one’s point of view without attacking or putting down the other person.
  • Angry people tend to demonise people or polarise situations.  They search hard to find ways in which you (or the world in general) are hurting them.  Being aware of this can help you put their anger in perspective.
  • If a person has hurt you by their actions, remember that more often than not they have done this out of weakness or selfishness rather than malice.  Stand your ground, make it plain that you are unhappy with their recent behaviour, but do not act like a martyr or a victim.  One can make one’s point in a dignified way and then it’s up to the other person to change their behaviour.  If they don’t, you may have the option to stay out of their way in future – at least as much as you can.
  • The Dalai Lama said that before speaking one must ask if something is true, kind and necessary.  Truth does not have to be said harshly. We can be truthful without appearing superior. Remember that you are not perfect either – though that does not excuse another’s bad behaviour.
  • It is important to behave with dignity in most circumstances.  That way, if a situation arises when you do feel in hot water and aren’t at your best, people will still view you with respect and cut you some slack.  If you’re always agitated and moody then it will be harder to get people to listen to you when you’re so upset that it’s hard to make your point. 
  • Remember that hard times are also opportunities. In crisis situations, your real friends will appear and people will want to stick together.  If you’ve helped others when they needed it, the chances are they’ll help you back when you need it.  If not, then you’ve learnt that you have the wrong “friends” anyway, which is useful in itself.
  • As the psychology writer Irvin Yalom says, it is often better to “strike when the iron’s cold.”  This means that if you are facing an angry person, try to do most of the things that are mentioned above, BUT save the analytical part until there is relative calm and the anger has passed.  Then you can pick your time and say, “I was not happy about what happened there.  What can we do to make it better between us?”  Focus on solutions not hurts and resentments. They will probably respond positively, but it’s worth working out beforehand what you will do if they don’t...will you back off assuming (probably accurately) that they will go away and think about what you said, or will you calmly insist on your point?  Both can be valid.
  • If the situation has gone past the point of no return and the angry person is an immediate threat then above all PROTECT yourself.  The angry person IS responsible for his or her actions and don’t let them try to convince you otherwise.  Whatever you have done (or haven’t) separate out what’s your stuff and what’s the angry person’s – whilst reasonable complaints about something you’ve got wrong would be your stuff IF the anger was delivered to you in a reasonable manner, an attempt to damage, threaten or control you is theirs not yours. You deserve to be valued and respected.  Extract yourself as quickly and calmly as possible from the situation.
  • Anger can be a powerful catalyst for positive change but only if we use it correctly. If you find yourself getting angry, as a general rule, remember that anger is a sign not a solution.  It’s a sign that something in your life is wrong and needs to be dealt with. This doesn’t necessarily require revolution, but it certainly requires honesty and communication.  Try to view your anger as a positive thing and channel it to change things.  And be honest about how much of that change is needed within yourself.
  • In most situations be ready to forgive and move on.  Ask yourself if you are gaining pleasure or security from hanging onto resentments and misery – if we’re honest most of us do at times.   The Buddhist writer Pema Chodron had a good point when she said, “the greatest obstacle to connecting with our joy is resentment.“ Forgiveness is for you as well as the person who hurt you. 
  • Get help if you need it.  A problem with anger is that it is such a hugely powerful emotion that at its height it blocks out all others – love, sadness, fear, concern.  If the monster has got too big, ask for support from a friend, family member or counsellor.
David is a fully qualified and BACP registered Person Centred Counsellor.  You can book a session with him by ringing 07578 100256 or emailing him at

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