Ask Dr. Conte: Why Can’t I Let Go of My Anger?

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“I’m so pissed at my brother right now. The last time we spoke was over a month ago, and we both agreed it’d be best if we just didn’t talk for awhile. The conversation at the time seemed good, but in the past few weeks, I just keep getting angrier and angrier with him, even though nothing’s really changed. Now I feel like I shouldn’t have agreed to let things go, because I’m so pissed at him. You have to help me, man.” – James

 

What’s up, James! I think I can help. First, let me say that it doesn’t sound like you’re angry with your brother at all.

I’m sure at first glance that it sounds like I didn’t read what you wrote, but actually, I did. If I read it correctly, you had a disagreement (or several) with your brother, you argued, but then had a mature enough conversation that you both agreed to disagree and take some time away. The fact that you are still getting increasingly angry over the situation sounds more to me like you have allowed your brother (or the issue with him) to be the target of your everyday anger.

Let me say it this way: We all have physiological feelings of being irritable, anxious, uncomfortable, and even angry. And when we have those feelings, we like to make sense out of why we are experiencing them – so we create a target. A target is the tangible object of our internal discomfort. In other words, our brains like to match our bodies, and when our bodies feel off, our brains race to make up a story that can explain why our bodies feel so off.

For example, have you ever been in arguments that you felt strongly about until you got a good night’s rest, and then when you woke up the next day, you were way less angry (or not even angry at all)? Or, have you ever argued with someone while you were hungry, only to realize that after you ate, you weren’t really that upset about the issue at all – that you were just really “hangry” (hungry + angry)? If you have had either of those types of experiences, then you understand that sometimes our minds make up stories to match our physiological state.

In what you wrote about your brother, it sounds like you both (to some degree) worked things out to at least step away from each other for a bit. Now, having made that mature decision, it sounds like you might still fixate on him being the cause of any of your new uncomfortable physiological feelings. After all, by your own admission, you haven’t talked to him in more than a month, and no new information has come your way. So it sounds like when you have your normal feelings of anger (which also might be irritability, hunger, fatigue, or many other things), you use him as a target on which you can fixate.

Here’s the help I have to offer: Ask yourself if you are really angry with your brother. Ask yourself: if your brother took a trip to Mars and was gone for the next ten years, would you still experience the feelings you have? If you would, wouldn’t you likely replace the target you’ve created in your brother with a new target? If you admit that you would still be an angry person even if your brother moved to Mars, then that’s great awareness. Now the next step is to figure out how to deal with your emotions so that anger no longer dictates the daily experiences of your life – and the best place to start for that? Well, we’d like to think this website is the place where you can learn a whole lot about how to handle your anger so that you don’t displace it onto other people (i.e., create new targets).

The more aware you are of your physiological processes and discomfort, the less you will need to use others as a target for your anger, and the more you will be able to learn how to be mindful through those uncomfortable feelings.

For more on anger management techniques, check out my video, Getting Control of Yourself: Anger Management Tools and Techniques.