Question posed: When someone has an explosive temper tantrum, what can I do besides stand by, feeling, scared, shocked, and helpless?
Answer: Many people are uncomfortable with anger. It isn’t fun when you’re the target of someone’s anger, non involved by-stander who witnesses anger, or the person who’s angry. There are helpful ways of dealing with a scene:
To be clear, I’m not referring to violence – that’s another discussion altogether.
Normalize displays of anger
Signs of common anger tend to be identifiable. Often, it’s a loud voice, facial changes, rigid body language, aggressive words/tone, and/or threatening gestures. Other people go very quiet. Others show no signs before lashing out suddenly.
Anger displays are primal, intending to relieve a situation. Animals in the wild or zoos for example, use anger displays to reclaim space or food. It’s normal to try to relieve stress. Anger, however unproductive, is used when the animal doesn’t have better skills or options to get a result it thinks it wants to achieve.
Ask about the “because” of anger
Anger is a secondary emotion. First, we feel something – for example, hurt, humiliated, rejected, misunderstood. Then, secondarily, we get emotional (which appears as anger). We respond to how that feeling creates meaning of and interprets what happened to us.
Consider two scenarios: (1) I’m angry because my beloved neglected me, and (2) I’m angry because my beloved humiliated me. In both cases I’m angry. In my opinion, he crossed a boundary in each case. He sees I’m angry and cuddles me. In case one, cuddles will ‘cure’ my anger. In case two, cuddles make me angrier.
In case one, I want his affection. Cuddling is the remedy. In case two, I want an apology that shows he understands how he hurt me. I interpret cuddling as a cover-up confirming I’m correct he doesn’t understand me. My feeling of rejection increases and fuels more anger.
The primary emotion is as significant as anger, the secondary emotion.
What’s useful depends on the cause of the anger
Telling him I’m angry is potentially unhelpful in initiating a useful conversation. I also need insight to differentiate between how his neglect makes me feel and how his statements in public make me feel. Your questions can help me see those differences and help me get what I need to resolve the issues.
In the cases of rejection from neglect, I may want him to talk. In the case of humiliation from his statements, I may want him to stop talking. The statement “I feel angry …” calls for a deeper exploration of the “because” underlying that statement.
The most helpful response in the face of anger is often to intuit the feeling underneath the situation that led to the anger. Stopping at ‘anger’ as the identified emotion is stopping too soon.