Daniel Sonkin, PHD. Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist HOME | CONTACT | ABOUT
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Recognizing Your Anger

When people come in for counseling, they are often asked, "Have you ever tried to stop the violence on your own? What did you try?" A response that we frequently hear is, "Yes, I tried to work it out on my own; I tried not to get angry." People often confuse anger and violence. They sometimes think that anger, or any intense feeling for that matter, means violence. There is a difference, however, between anger and violence. Anger is an emotion, and violence is a behavior that can express that emotion. It is normal and natural that throughout life there will be times when you feel irritated, annoyed, angry or even enraged. Anger tells us when something is "not right" with us. We are upset with something we are doing, hearing or seeing. Like physical pain, anger can be a way our body and mind alerts us to the situation arround us.

Violence on the other hand, is just one expression of anger. In addition, it has a long list of negative consequences. It may mean losing the love and trust of your partner, your children being fearful of you, separation,divorce or being arrested, and it definitely means not feeling good about yourself afterwards.

There are many ways to deal with anger so that you can get your point across. These ways can feel good to you, your partner and your family. Trying to hold back your anger, or any feelings, most of the time may actually lead to explosive outbursts of violence if you haven't learned to modulate intense emotions.

When anger is expressed as it comes up, in a direct non-intimidating manner, there is not the buildup or pressure cooker effect that may lead to you feeling overwhelmed. The problem is that many men do not realize when they are feeling angry. It creeps up on them, and they become overwhelmed by the intensity of their emotional reaction to the situation. One reason for this is that many people were taught as children that anger is a "dangerous" emotion to express. As a result, many men do not pay attention to their own anger - - and, if they do, they try to keep it inside.

Because many abusive individuals learned to be so intolerant of anger, it often is expressed in unhealthy ways. Physical violence is one of these ways, but there are others. Remember the last time you did a slow burn at home, or gave your partner the cold shoulder? Do you think your partner got the message that you were angry? We also often express anger by blaming or trying to make our partner feel inferior. In fact, most of us are very creative about finding indirect and hostile ways of expressing our anger.

The first step in learning to control your anger is to recognize when you are feeling it at low levels; that is, in the early stages before it gets more difficult to contain. For most people, the body begins to "feel angry" long before their mind realizes that they are angry and what they are angry about. Many men have come into our groups stating that they have to understand why they are feeling angry before they express their feelings. This can be a big mistake. It may take you quite a long time (for some it may take hours, days or even years) before you realize just what it was that you were feeling angry about. In the meantime, if you don't express yourself you could turn into a walking time bomb. How can we tell that we are angry? Start with your body, it doesn't lie.

What are your body signals to anger? Most men feel tension. This tension may be in the chest, the arms, the legs, the forehead, the face, the back of the neck or their stomach. Some men state that they get cold while others may sweat. Your heart may start pounding and you may breathe faster. Some men breathe lighter or slower. You may get a headache or a backache.

What are your signals to anger?

Exercise #1

Think about a situation recently where you felt angry. Picture the situation in your mind and remember what you were feeling and thinking. How did your body feel at the time? Can you feel any of those body signals right now? List four body signals you get when you are feeling angry:

  • ________________________________
  • ________________________________
  • ________________________________
  • ________________________________

Usually after our body begins to feel anger signals we begin to act angry. This often happens before we actually realize that we are feeling angry. Some people will get verbally abusive or find blame, others may actually become overly nice and try to please. Some people laugh or become humorous, some become sarcastic. Some become depressed, withdrawn or quiet. Sometimes people will not follow through with their commitments when they are angry. It is not uncommon for some people to act out sexually when they are feeling angry; such as having affairs, visiting prostitutes or demanding sex with their partner as a way of avoiding emotional intimacy. Some will have difficulty sleeping or eating while others may want to sleep or eat more. Some people use alcohol or drugs when they are angry.

Exercise #2

What are your anger behaviors?

  • ________________________________
  • ________________________________
  • ________________________________
  • ________________________________

These body and behavior signals of anger are cues as to when you should be taking your Time-outs with your partner. Many people believe that you take a Time-Out only when you think you may become violent. I suggest that in the early stages of counseling, (the first twelve weeks) you take a Time-Out whenever you feel anger. In this way you will begin to automatically think about walking away before you even get close to losing control.

Controlling Your Anger

Once you recognize that you are feeling anger, how can it be controlled? The first thing to realize is that controlling anger does not necessarily mean suppressing it. In fact you have at least three choices.

  • You can stuff it!
  • You can escalate it!
  • Or you can direct it!

Let's discuss each one in more detail.


"Stuffing" is very common. It often begins with an "I" statement, but instead of being a statement of your own feelings, it avoids feeling by denial, sympathy, low self-esteem thoughts, blaming or doubting yourself, or intellectualizing. We'll give you an example of each.

  • Denial.................... I'm not angry or upset.
  • Sympathy.................. She doesn't really mean to get me upset.
  • Low self-esteem thoughts.. I really screwed up this time.
  • Doubting yourself......... I really don't have a right to get angry.
  • Intellectualizing......... She's just trying to get me angry. I'm not going to get angry.

Stuffers usually become withdrawn or depressed. But eventually the pressure cooker heats up and you reach a point when you can't stuff anymore and you EXPLODE!


"Escalating" is easy to identify. Escalators begin their sentences with "You." They may also ask questions such as;"Why did you do that?" They blame: "You made me angry...It's all your fault!" And they call names: "You bitch!" "You ass!" Escalators, in an argument, will increase their anger which may ultimately lead to violence. Like stuffing, escalation makes you more angry rather than less angry. For some men, escalation may involve their obsessing about the situation that made them angry. For others, it may consist of trying to get the angry thoughts out of their mind.

Direct It

"Directing it" has a simple formula but in spite of that, it is the most difficult to do. We are not sure why; it may be because what you were taught as a child was to stuff and escalate. The formula is the following sentence:

  • I feel angry that_______________________________________.

This sentence is completed to make as clear and concise a statement as possible.


  • I feel angry that you came home late tonight without calling and leaving a message.
  • I feel angry that you yelled at me at the restaurant in front of my family.
  • I feel angry that you spent that much money without at least talking with me about it .

People who communicate their anger directly get their point across, but they also feel more intimate because they communicate in a way that allows direct personal contact with their partner.

At this point you may realize that there have been times you have probably stuffed, escalated and directed or have done any combination of the three. The more aware you become of what you actually do with your anger, the more control you have over how you will express it in the future.

Exercise #3

  • Describe a situation where you stuffed your anger.
  • Describe a situation when you escalated your anger.
  • Describe a situation when you directed your anger.

What was the outcome of each situation? Did any one method work better? Why? How could you improve your directing your anger?

Just because you handle your anger in a healthy way, doesn't mean that others will do the same. All you can do is control the way you deal with situations, not other people's methods. Don't forget, you can always take a time out if you begin to feel overwhelmed by the conflict.

What are other constructive methods of controlling your anger?

The Time-Out is a constructive response to anger or any intense feeling reaction. Many men ask, "How can I keep my anger from escalating when I'm on my Time-Out"? Anger is something you can control by using Directing statements to yourself.

There will be times when expressing your anger to your partner will be not possible either because you are taking a time-out, your partner needs distance from you, your partner is physically not present or has left you and you either don't know how to get in touch with your partner or there is a court order prohibiting contact. In these cases, you will need do thinkgs that calm yourself down rather than escalate the intensity of your emotions. One method of calming yourself is saying positive, soothing, directing thoughts, such as,

"I need to calm down right now. There is nothing I can do to change the situation. I need to find some contructive activity like talk with a friend or exercise for a while. I'm ok, I will survive this ordeal. I need to focus on myself, so that I change my unhealthy patterns of coping with emotional stress. I'll feel better in the morning, I don't need to do something, I can just wait and be patient. I will get through this storm of emotion. I have survived this long and I will survive again. I'm in control of what I do. I need to do something physical like take a walk or run to cool down. Maybe I can talk about this later, but right now I need to take a mental Time-Out so that I don't become violent."

Don't forget, Stuffing and Escalating statements are as harmful when you are alone as they are when you are with another person.

Record your feelings on a pocket size pad of paper. Carry it with you everyday and use it to write down feelings when it is not possible to discuss them with your partner. Putting your inner experiences on paper may help to give you some distance from them so that you can better understand how and why you react to situations the way you do. Writing down your feelings gives you something to do with them so that you don't just obsess about them, deny them, or act them out. Most important, writing can also help you become used to identifying and labeling your feelings. As you become more comfortable with your feelings in general, you will begin to find it easier to communicate them to others as well.

Doing something physical such as walking or running can decrease the tension in your body so that you can begin to cool off. Physical exercise can be the quickest way to decrease your anxiety until you start to obsess about things again. Taking a mental time-out from a situation can be the best cure for tension.

Sketch your thoughts or feelings through pictures in pen, pencil, chalk, or crayon if you can't put your feelings into words. Working in clay or wood, or playing a musical instrument can also help you in expressing your feelings. You need not be "talented" in any of these areas to experience them. The purpose of these exercises is to release your feelings and thoughts by transforming them into another form. No matter what medium you choose the process of acknowledging your thoughts and feelings will help you calm down.

Sitting quietly with yourself and thinking peaceful, relaxing thoughts--or not thinking at all--can be quite an effective way of getting through the difficult periods. Learning to quiet and soothe yourself is important simply because there will be times thoughout your life when you will need immediate calming down from your intense emotions. Find a quiet place where you are not likely to be disturbed by telephone, children, partner, television, roommates, and so on. Get into a comfortable position and take a deep breath. You can close your eyes if you like. Take several deep breaths and, as you exhale, let your body relax. Once you have completely relaxed your body, or relaxed as much as you can, focus on a peaceful image in your mind (such as laying out on the warm sand by the beach), an actual object (such as a fish swimming in an aquarium), or just let your mind go blank. The purpose of this exercise is to relax both your mind and your body. If thoughts begin to intrude, just wipe your mind clean like an eraser on a blackboard.

Learning to wait out the storms of emotion or anxiety is an important part of the change process. Men are notorious for wanting to act on their feelings to make them go away sooner. Sometimes doing something is the right thing to do but at other times it is best simply to sit with your feelings. You can learn a lot about yourself by doing this. You may learn that your feelings come and go on their own. You will learn that you can survive these intense moments of emotionality, confusion, or anxiety. You may even learn more about your feelings by experiencing them intensely.

Consider talking with someone about your thoughts and feelings. You don't have to give that person details, but you may want to let him or her know how you are feeling.


Talking with another person about feelings, no matter how supportive and caring they are, can lead to a fight. How does this happen? When you begin to disclose your feelings, you are likely to feel a little apprehensive about their reaction. Anger is likely to surface and you may become somewhat defensive. This is especially true if you don't get the kind of reaction that you wanted. If an argument begins to develop, take a break, cool off, and then resume the conversation. The last thing you want is to dump a load of anger onto someone from whom you want support. If you begin to sense that the conversation is going to escalate just tell the other person that you are beginning to feel uncomfortable and that talking about things are making you more angry than less angry. Don't forget to thank them for being avaiable to talk. Consider using one of the other methods described above to calm yourself down.

Exercise #4

What methods can you commit to using to control your anger?

  • ________________________________
  • ________________________________
  • ________________________________
  • ________________________________

One Last Word About Anger

It can be very frightening to confront your feelings so directly and deliberately. Proceed at a pace that is comfortable for you. Take Your Time. Don't try to live up to some self-imposed schedule. You cannot go faster than you are psychologically prepared. Remember, there will be times as you confront your anger that you will feel very uncomfortable. Doing any one or a number of the previous suggestions will help decrease your discomfort, but may not take it away altogether. It is important that you learn how to ride through the difficult times.