The Psychology of Anger (Part 4 of 4)

Continued from yesterday’s Daily Dose of Reason, concluding today. 

Defensiveness and Anger

A final issue with anger involves defensiveness. Defensiveness is particularly relevant to marital or romantic relationships, though it can come up in friendships and business relationships as well.

Defensiveness refers, quite simply, to the common tendency to respond to another’s anger with even more anger. There are two arguments typically given by psychologists against defensiveness: one valid, one invalid. The invalid one has to do with ‘turning the other cheek;’ in other words: ‘Don’t lower yourself to the other’s level. If they’re angry, don’t get angry in return because it’s not nice. Two wrongs don’t make a right.’ Although there can often be powerful strategic, personal and even mutually self-interested benefits from refusing to get angry in return, this turn-the-other-cheek sort of premise is not the reason for refraining from defensiveness.

Instead, the issue is one of staying with logic and facts. If someone important to you—a spouse, for example—becomes defensive or hostile, then she’s probably starting to lose touch with the facts. You will do your relationship, the person with whom you’re in temporary conflict, and even yourself no service by starting to place emotions over reason. Whatever you do, don’t allow yourself to escalate simply because it might feel good to do so.

Think of a food fight in a high school cafeteria. It might feel good to the students at the time, especially if the fight started over a small conflict between two students, but the mess is still going to have to be cleaned up when the fight is over (by the students themselves, on what would have been their recreational time, if the school officials have any sense).

Don’t engage in the equivalent of a verbal and emotional food fight with your spouse or others important to your life. It’s not mature and it doesn’t make rational sense even from your own selfish point of view. Words said only in emotion, and perhaps not really meant, at least in that exact emotional context, have ways of coming back to haunt.

If you have a sense of determination, in all your relationships, to hold firm to reality, facts and reason, then you will tend not to become defensive. You will tend to want to follow the advice of most psychologists as articulated by the American Psychological Association:

“It’s natural to get defensive when you’re criticized, but don’t fight back. Instead, listen to what’s underlying the words: the message that this person might feel neglected and unloved. It may take a lot of patient questioning on your part, and it may require some breathing space, but don’t let your anger—or a partner’s—let a discussion spin out of control. Keeping your cool can keep the situation from becoming a disastrous one.”

True enough, but do be careful here. Just because someone is angry at you doesn’t mean they have a valid point. The onus is on them to show they have a valid point. If they are irrationally or mistakenly angry towards you, then this is their error, not yours. Recognizing this fact is not unhealthy defensiveness; it’s merely recognizing a fact and being fair to yourself. At the same time, an important person in your life might become emotional for a valid reason. It’s then in your own interest, because this person is important to you, to keep your focus on what’s true, and not play a role in letting your communication turn into the equivalent of a teenage food fight.

Anger is part of life. It’s a necessary and often crucial psychological cue that something is wrong with some part of your life. A healthy person feels anger. However, a healthy person converts the anger into reason and objectivity, unlike the irrationally angry person who stews in his own mistaken beliefs and premises about entitlement, endorsement and controlling others.

Reason and objectivity are the guiding principles to good anger management. Good psychology and therapy can show you the way to apply reason in your daily life. Anger management is not just a series of techniques for controlling anger. It’s the inevitable consequence of developing a healthy perspective and a healthy mind.