by Phyllis L. Neumann, MS, MFT

Anger is perhaps our most misunderstood and most socially unacceptable emotion. Historically, and even today, men are often taught to express their anger through indifference, aggression or physical means.

Women, on the other hand, are taught to conceal their anger, or to convert it into more socially acceptable forms of expression, such as crying, manipulation or revenge. An angry man is usually proudly regarded as tough, "macho" or aggressive; whereas, an angry woman is often criticized for being castrating, hysterical or a bitch.

Unfortunately, there are few role models in our culture to show us how to deal with our anger in appropriate ways without hurting or assaulting the other person. These lessons need to be learned because when angry feelings are not released in appropriate ways they often get expressed in other more destructive ways, some of which are listed below:

Violence. When anger is not released it moves elsewhere; it doesn't simply vanish. Anger that has built up for a period of time can become quite lethal like a balloon about to burst. Actually, it's not the anger that leads to violent behavior, it's the suppression of the anger that hasn't been released. This destructive form of anger is often inflicted on the innocent, especially those that are weaker, like spouses, children and animals.

Revenge. Many people, when crossed, tend to "keep score" sometimes for years waiting for the perfect opportunity to "get even." Some people even hold grudges most of their lives, never releasing their rage except in the form of relentless criticism or chronic complaints.

Blame. People who are angry tend to blame others for their feelings, or get invested in being right or justified. They may become abusive in their anger, making it very difficult to disagree with them. In fact, many couples will avoid confrontation at all costs because it becomes so painful and hostile.

Depression. Anger can also be turned against oneself, creating lethargy and depression. The definition of depression is actually suppressed rage turned inward. In many cases, once the anger has been released the depression is often lifted.

Expressing your anger constructively

Anger is part of every relationship. As long as people disagree (even about which television program to watch) there will be angry feelings, no matter how trivial. It's how you deal with the anger that makes the difference. Releasing anger is difficult at best but, with some awareness in how to express it constructively, you can keep it from building up and hurting the people you love.

Know your intent. Know the difference between sincere feelings and "just being honest." If you want to hurt the other person, then you will. If you want to get your feelings expressed and the conflict resolved, then you can make that happen.

Agree to disagree. You don't always have to agree with someone, but you should be able to disagree and discuss how you feel without feeling threatened. The penalty for disagreeing should never exceed the need to express your feelings.

Don't attack or call names. Deal only with the issue. Personal attacks and insults just fan the flames and make matters worse.

Don't make threats or give ultimatums. They add an unnecessary punch to a sincere discussion. You shouldn't have to add a threatening statement to make your point.

Finish your fight. No matter how hard it is, hang in there until the end, until there's nothing more to say. It's always better to not stomp off in a huff, slamming the door behind you. Stay there until you both feel finished. An unfinished fight leads to bitter and unresolved feelings. Cooling off is fine, as long as you plan to discuss it at a later time.

The bottom line is: "Don't get even . . . get mad softly!" You can't really forgive someone until you are free of your own angry feelings. Only when you have released your anger will the positive, loving feelings have room to emerge.

Published in the Half Moon Bay Review on August 8, 2007