Anger is a widespread problem that we all experience. Anger management is a skill that has been covered by the writer in previous blog posts on this web site. In this article, I will be mainly focusing on the empathy and empathic concern to help reduce anger. These two aspects of anger management are crucial to reduce the intensity and frequency of angry outbursts.
Let’s first look at empathy. People with significant anger problems have trouble with empathy and forgiveness. However, it is a skill that can be developed and cultivated over time. Empathy is partly unconscious and automatic but we also can make a conscious choice and develop it with practice. It has been found in research that people who are raised by loving, caring parents are good in showing empathy and they get along better with others well. It is possible to develop empathy even if you did not get the right parenting because parts of the brain that help develop empathy, are flexible. The ability to empathize begins at the unconscious level but a conscious skill can be developed too when a person is able to understand another person’s thoughts, feelings, and intentions. Frontal lobes become involved whenever a person tries to empathize with other person. Thus it is possible to retrain our brain and become more empathic with conscious effort and practice.
In order to develop empathy, past experiences of the person give a major clue to facilitate an accurate awareness and understanding of the other person’s inner world and mental status. When someone is crying, you might think about your situation and things that make you sad. Once you feel the pain of the other, it makes you feel sad too. Every one’s experience is unique so sometimes relating to your own experience might not be enough because the other person could be sad for different reasons that you are hunching and making a guess about it.
In order to be empathic, one has to be nonjudgmental. In order to assess the other person’s pain, you will need to reach out the other person, ask him/her what is going on in their life and give total attention to the person without interrupting. You will need to listen to their feelings and be totally present with them. Once the person opens up, you will be able to know what exactly is bothering him/her. This kind of empathy brings a certain type of connectivity between two persons. The more you do it, the more connected you will feel to the other person. The person could be sad for many different reasons but unless you explore and assess, you will be making only guesses and will not be able to offer the right type of help.
In this context, it is important to understand that empathy also involves understanding of thoughts and actions and not just emotions. In order to be empathic, you need to go beyond feelings and also understand the person’s way of thinking, intentions and perception about the world. This leads to another concept called empathic concern. It has been found that people who are empathic also tend to show more empathic concern for other people.
Therefore, if you are angry with the other person, and you want to reduce its intensity, you will need to develop both skills: empathy and empathic concern. Empathy reduces anger because it eliminates negative judgments. Empathic concern also reduces anger by making the person substitute caring responses for angry reactions. In essence, empathy is a skill you can develop and improve. Once you get good at it, you will not be making guesses but will get a better understanding of the other person’s inner world. Angry people need to use both the skills so that they feel at peace and tolerate the other person’s angry reactions. For example, a wife can be angry with her husband for not spending time with her as a couple. However, if she understands that he had a long day at work and was totally exhausted, she will be more tolerant of his neglectful behavior. She can reduce her anger by showing more sensitivity towards his work schedule and not complain so much about his lack of attention to her.
There is a negative correlation between empathy and anger. Anger tends to decrease the person’s capacity to be empathic. If you show empathy to the other person, chances are that you will not be angry with him or her. So empathy tends to inhibit anger and aggression, according to Dr. Ronald Potter-Efron. Anger tends to inhibit good frontal lobe functions. As a result, the person will have difficulty to calm down. Calmness is crucial to empathy so that the person can effectively understand other person’s thoughts, feelings, and intentions. When you show empathy to the other person, you tend to energize the reasoning cortex of the brain and thus decrease angry reactions. When the person is angry, it is hard to attend to other person’s thoughts, feelings, and intentions. Also, you take a defensive role and mistakenly believe that others are attacking you and misinterpret their behaviors and messages. This, in turn, will intensify your anger and make you misjudge the other person. You will assign a label to this person and view all his actions in the light of your mistaken belief. You will need to work on your labels and become more objective in order to cultivate empathy and empathic concern.
Angry people tend to multiply their hostility by having a desire to punish those who have made them angry. Instead of trying to comfort the other party, they show their anger and hostility and want to take revenge. This interferes with empathic concern. Some people resort to anger as a way to avoid feeling sad because of another person’s pain.
Angry people tend to receive little empathy from others. It is because people who have been victimized by them, tend to withdraw from them. They drive people away from them and this causes them to feel misunderstood and disliked. This, in turn makes them angrier. Chronic anger thus leads to isolation. Social isolation is not conducive to inner peace and harmony and tends to fuel the person’s anger.
There are individual differences in how people can cope with angry provocations and aggressive reactions. Some people have better capacity to handle other person’s anger. They are better able to sense the underlying pain, shame, guilt, sadness, loneliness, and fears of the person who makes them angry. They are able to put themselves in their shoes and be able to understand their perspective. They are able to control their angry reactions and empathize with the person who is angry. They can better relate to the angry person and have better capacity to get along with others. Some people are more sensitive and they take angry attacks very deeply, become hypersensitive and walk on egg shells. They also tend to withdraw from those who make them angry as opposed to dealing with them effectively by clear communication, assertiveness, and setting healthy boundaries.
In this way we see that once we develop the capacity to understand the pain of others and underlying dynamics of the angry behaviors of the person, we are better able to cope and get along with folks who show angry reactions very frequently in their interactions with others.
Good news is that this type of empathy can be developed overtime and cultivated by making conscious efforts and paying attention to other people’s feelings, emotions, behaviors, and needs. Cognitive awareness is crucial in this respect as it makes the person realize, and prompts him or her to take actions in the right direction. Being defensive and justifying your anger can be counterproductive and will not make you an empathic person. As mentioned earlier, try to listen to other people’s feelings and show sensitivity to develop empathy and empathic concern. Life is too short to be wasted in angry interactions, being hostile and aggressive. Forgiveness is the key.
Reference: Healing The Angry Brain by Ronald Potter- Efron, MSW, Ph.D