How can I be calm when someone around me is angry?
May 21, 2008 9:19 PM   Subscribe

How can I be calm when someone around me is angry?

That's the question. But mefites like stories, so here's a story:

An old friend and I have gotten back in touch. She's someone I care a lot about, and I'd like to be closer friends than we've been.

Now, I grew up in a family where you just didn't get mad. It was okay to say "I'm angry," okay to explain your anger in rational terms, but ranting, shouting and fuming were flat out. Even if the target of your anger was out of the the room — that asshole on the highway, George Bush, disco, your boss, the economy — you had to keep an even keel.

My friend, when she's angry, she shows it. Not in a toxic way, not all the time, and not without cause, but if something is pissing her off she's damn well going to shout about it. And that makes me uncomfortable — more uncomfortable than I'd like. I get scared and teary-feeling, and I find myself defending other people's indefensible behavior and justifying unjustifiable situations just to make it stop. I recognize that a better friend would be able to listen to her anger and keep cool, and I'd like to be a better friend.

Oddly, I'm okay with it when she's mad at me. I've learned how to fight back without fighting dirty, and anyway I see nothing wrong with being anxious and unhappy when I'm part of the fight. It's when she's mad at someone else that all this fear feels inappropriate.

I'm thinking about therapy, and I've done it before so I know what to expect. I do meditate, and I'd like to start meditating more. What else can I do to learn to cope with other people's anger? Books to read? Things to think about? Tricks to try?

If yer gonna speculate about details I haven't mentioned here, you may as well just email me. I'm keeping the specifics off the internet, but I'll tell you everything you want to know in private.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (21 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
"It's not about me" can be a very useful mantra to repeat in your head.

Don't expect to change everything all at once. Identify the opportunities for small successes (e.g. when she's only a little bit mad?). I think once you start to have some success, it can easily start to snowball, because you'll discover that it really is easier and less stressful.
posted by winston at 9:53 PM on May 21, 2008

Don't engage, don't defend (especially if it's "indefensible" behavior on the part of others!), don't placate. An inner mantra that works for some folks in this situation is, "I didn't cause it ["it" being someone else's emotional state or behaviors], I can't cure it, I can't control it." Listen as much as you can, and then explain (if it's true) that you understand and support her and....if you need to end the conversation or walk away or hang up the phone (or divert by pointedly switching to a different topic or activity, with a sense of humor if necessary, which may help her as well), then do so. Take care of you, and the rest will take care of itself, at least in these kinds of situations.

She may come to value your calm, your ability to help her disengage and divert her attention elsewhere after a reasonable amount of venting.
posted by availablelight at 9:55 PM on May 21, 2008

Do you need to accept her anger? As you are aware, anger is but fear with a mask. At a certain point in her interaction with someone or something, she becomes afraid (of being wrong, of not understanding, etc.) and gets angry. If it seems justified, then perhaps there are less emotional, more mature ways for her to express her feelings.

However, if the same situation happens again and again, anger becomes a routine. One can begin to have the need to get angry to feel safe. Eventually anger begins to push people away, as you are feeling on occasion. Perhaps rather than working to accept your friend's anger, you can instead work with her to change her reactions, to be aware of what pushes her buttons. That simple awareness can bring with it focus and attention.

When you can stop the drama in the beginning, you can solve the problem right away. Try to create something to remind you to keep your attention on this process and practice, with her.
posted by netbros at 10:03 PM on May 21, 2008 [2 favorites]

Why does it scare you? What do you *think* is going to happen?

I've been thinking about this lately because I have a reaction I don't like when people get angry sometimes too. And to put it broadly it's because I think their anger has anything to do with me. If I realize that it's not going to be directed at me or just shrug my shoulders, step back and leave them to it - the tension lifts instantly.

But behaving like a victim makes you one and you're not doing yourself any favors. With some people it's really not wise to put your head down when they're angry, so it's a bad instinct to have. Teach yourself to evaluate the situation. Now while you can practice safely :)
posted by mu~ha~ha~ha~har at 10:14 PM on May 21, 2008 [1 favorite]

Perhaps part of what you're going through is a result of your body's physiologic stress reaction. When she starts to yell and rant, your "fight-or-flight" response kicks in, which raises your heart beat, makes you sweat, shunts blood to your big muscles, narrows your focus, and generally floods you with adrenaline. Which, as you say, is uncomfortable.

When this kind of thing happens to me, I try to (1) pay close attention to what my body is feeling (physically) and what my mind is feeling (emotionally), (2) acknowledge the feelings, and (3) then just let them happen. It's true that the feelings are uncomfortable, but I find that being aware of the fact of being uncomfortable is very helpful in actually being less uncomfortable, because I relax into it a bit.

So maybe try -not- trying to control what's going on inside of you -- ie, try not TRYING to remain calm. Instead, recognize that even though you're feeling this huge surge of adrenaline and stress, it doesn't mean that you need to act on it (by defending and justifying), because intellectually you know that the outburst is not about you. It will still be uncomfortable for you, but maybe less so, because you won't be fighting against yourself.
posted by tentacle at 10:18 PM on May 21, 2008 [1 favorite]

I recognize that a better friend would be able to listen to her anger and keep cool, and I'd like to be a better friend.

It is honorable that you want to be a better friend, but friendships go 2 ways. Have you told her how uncomfortable her anger makes you? (not in one of her periods of anger, but when she is calm) Using Non-Violent Communication might help (ie "I messages") as in "I feel...when I hear you say those things about ...."
posted by hazel at 10:22 PM on May 21, 2008

...I find myself defending other people's indefensible behavior and justifying unjustifiable situations just to make it stop.

Does that actually work? I take this to mean you try to calm her down by telling her there's not as big a reason to be angry. The problem is, if even you think the person's behavior is indefensible or a situation is unjustifiable, I have trouble believing that your reaction doesn't make your friend more frustrated. When someone has to deal with that kind of behavior or situation, they are angry in large part because of the belief that other people know better, or that certain situations just shouldn't arise if people did what they were supposed to. More than anything your friend would want recognition that, yes, the offending person/situation is not as it should be. If you deny that, your friend is just going to be frustrated at you, too.

Also, for some people irrational arguments are more irritating than unfortunate behavior. If you're defending and justifying things irrationally and erroneously, there's a good chance you're just adding a second source of fuel to your friend's anger. Your friend shouldn't be shouting about stuff, yeah, but at least one way of alleviating stress for yourself is to not give her more things to be pissed off about. I suspect if you've found that she quiets down when you say those kinds of things, it might be because she finds your arguments so ridiculous they're not even worth addressing, and she is making an effort not to take her anger out on you. On occasion when my friends have said things completely illogical and irrational, it gets under my skin quickly and I just quit talking -- I know that when I'm angry it's not the best time to formulate a tactful way of saying, "your argument is so mind-bogglingly stupid that I can't even begin to respond." (Not an insult to you; you recognize that the things you say are untrue, basically, so I doubt your friend doesn't recognize this too and wonder what the hell is wrong with you.) Your friend might feel okay ranting and screaming about something distant, but still have the self-control not to take it out on you. Don't mistake that for having genuinely calmed her down, because it's only a superficial calm. This might not be what is actually happening, but give it serious consideration.

Either way, I think it's a bad idea to react that way. I don't know how to keep you from getting scared and teary, but that particular reaction stood out to me as counterproductive. I have found the best way to deal with people who have a genuine reason to be angry is to calmly acknowledge it. They calm down faster to see someone else who acknowledges the problem react calmly instead of freaking out. They think, "Oh, when these bad things happen, I can realize they're bad but it doesn't mean I have to stress. She's being calm, I can too." This doesn't always work, but it's better than the alternative. What you're currently doing probably makes her think, "God, if she just understood what's wrong here, she'd see why I'm so angry!" It doesn't genuinely diffuse anything, and it doesn't show her that the things she's angry at don't have to elicit such an extreme reaction. Acknowledging that something IS wrong does both those things.

So if someone cuts her off on the highway and she starts screaming, just casually say, "Yeah, what a dick," or, "Yup, that guy's an asshole." You're not unfairly telling her that she's wrong, and it also conveys the idea that such things happen and it's not worth the energy to be extremely angry about it. (Note: It's probably not a good idea to outright say, "No point in being angry about," since that makes a lot of angry people defensive.) I've found this works really well. People tend to take their cues from those around them, and she might feel silly screaming when you seem utterly unfazed.

Now, if she gets mad at someone and she really is in the wrong, then go ahead and articulate that as calmly and apologetically as you can manage. "I know you're mad at X because blah blah blah and that sucks, but you have to understand he just meant that blah blah blah..." Acknowledge whatever faults in the situation or other person are legitimately upsetting while still maintaining that it's understandable that the situation arose or that the other person would act the way they did. Unless she's really immature -- and it sounds like she might be -- that might actually calm her down. If she's immature she needs to hear it anyway, although if you can't handle it, just try being quiet. Only justify and defend when it's actually called for, though.

Hopefully this helps at least indirectly, by diffusing her faster and in a more meaningful way. Also, if you're concentrating on how to phrase things or trying to act casual, it might help override the urge to tear up, if only a little bit. Also, I suspect the tearing up and feeling fearful might be partly due to panic, and you will be less likely to panic if you know you have a plan.
posted by Nattie at 11:38 PM on May 21, 2008 [2 favorites]

"It's not about me" can be a very useful mantra to repeat in your head.

There you go. First answer, best answer. You be you, and don't let the idiots draw you into their quagmire of anger. They can be angry and vent, but you don't need to participate, or even acknowledge such behavior. It is often childish, so just think of ignoring a five year old having a temper tantrum.
posted by caddis at 12:05 AM on May 22, 2008

I would suggest learning a breathing technique (e.g. diaphragmatic breathing, but there are plenty of other choices) that you find calming and then developing the habit of using it when you find yourself in stressful situations. This can be done discreetly enough that your friend wouldn't even need to know.
posted by tomcooke at 12:14 AM on May 22, 2008

tomcooke's breathing idea is good -- back when I did yoga a lot, I'd realize I was stressed when I dropped into the yoga breathing (which helped).

What I was going to suggest were phrases like "wow, you sound angry," "she did what?" "that does sound upsetting." And/or asking questions or making jokes. They may not help with how you're feeling, but you could give them a try.
posted by salvia at 12:40 AM on May 22, 2008

I recognize that a better friend would be able to listen to her anger and keep cool

Not necessarily. Maybe a better friend would learn to say that "I know you're pissed off, and maybe you have a right to be, but when you rant and rage and shout and carry on, it scares me witless and I turn into a gibbering fool. I'd rather you kept a lid on it around me. Maybe you could go for a walk and cool off a bit".
posted by flabdablet at 1:18 AM on May 22, 2008

What I was going to suggest were phrases like "wow, you sound angry..."

I don't have any issue with the other phrases, but I think that one would really piss someone off worse. It comes across as judgmental and sarcastic, and the last thing someone wants when they're angry is to feel belittled.
posted by Nattie at 2:19 AM on May 22, 2008

when you rant and rage and shout and carry on,

If you say this, it makes her sound like she's having a temper tantrum. Is that true? Because if it's NOT, don't say it. And even if she is, if she's your friend with temper tantrums, it's not going to help.

Rather, if you intellectually feel her anger is legitimate (which it sounds like you do) you need a way to communicate that both to her and to yourself.

I think it could help if you figure whut what makes it different when she's mad at you? Could it be that you're really listening carefully (out of caring for her and the friendship) to what she's saying and meaning, as opposed to the tone of her voice, and thus able to respond to that?

(I do agree that friendship is a two way street, but a) it sounds like you generally want to be more comfortable around the expression of anger, even if you didn't grow up with it and b) if you ask her to express herself differently in a judgmental way, there's nothing very friendly about that.)
posted by Salamandrous at 4:42 AM on May 22, 2008 [1 favorite]

Seems to me that ranting and raging and shouting and carrying on when angry is having a tantrum, and deserves to be gently mocked.

Seems to me that calling out a tantrum in a way that conveys acceptance of the anger, but not for the tantrum, is a perfectly appropriate thing to do, and might help anonymous feel less buffeted by the howling winds of fury, even if it actually makes the tanty worse.

Seems to me that having a tanty in the presence of a friend who is clearly uncomfortable with that is a much less friendly act than communicating a negative judgement about something negative.

Seems to me that anonymous was brought up right, and shouty friend was brought up wrong.

Maybe I'm just a cantankerous, judgemental old prick. But if you yell at me, I will think less of you for it.
posted by flabdablet at 5:03 AM on May 22, 2008 [1 favorite]

Honestly this might be as much your issue as it is hers. It doesn't sound like she's angry about non-consequential things. I appreciate you trying to be calm and reserved, but that can be as much of a problem as being angry. As a bordering on angry person (sometimes anyway), I find super calm, everything is ok people kind of annoying myself. In the way that you desire people to be not angry, I desire people to say what's on their mind, and have some emotion behind it.

My parents, who bicker constantly, really love each other and have been really faithful to each other and have a great relationship in many ways. But they fight constantly, never hold anything back. It can be annoying and was sort of scary when I was a kid, but my dad says, "there are a lot of people who never had a fight and are now divorced".

I'm not trying to criticize you. But I think if you want to be friends with this person, you need to be able to accept them for who they are. An angry person that you like. You are not going to change them, at least not intentionally. And if you do try, you are going to annoy the crap out of them. What if they said to you "I wish you weren't so namby pamby. You should react more?" Would you be able to?

I have friendships like this with more mellow people, and I think we just accept each other and realize that it's hard for two people to match up exactly.
posted by sully75 at 6:03 AM on May 22, 2008 [1 favorite]

If she assumes the right to yell in your presence, you should know you have the right to just get up and leave or silently hang up. It's not healthy to be around those kinds of emotions unnecessarily.

When she asks you what the hell that was all about, tell her that you also have ways to deal with situations you don't enjoy, and that you just put them to use.
posted by jon_kill at 6:49 AM on May 22, 2008 [1 favorite]

It sounds like your issue is that you didn't learn coping strategies for for these kinds of expressions of anger as a kid, and you're hoping to do so now. I've been working on similar issues, and for me, it seems related to a sense of powerlessness to fix the situation. If they're angry at me, my focus is on taking care of me. If they're angry at someone else, my focus is taking care of my friend, and it's frustrating and kinda scary to feel like there's nothing I can do to make the situation better.

Two things that have helped me a bit and might help you: remember it's not about you and your friend doesn't expect you to fix it, just to be a friend when s/he needs one, and a little sympathy goes a long way. Often the key to being able to calm down is feeling heard and validated, so saying, "Hell yeah, that sucks," or "That was really thoughtless" (or as my 89 lb. best friend likes to say, "Want me to kick her ass for you?") tends to go a lot further toward calming people down than, "Well, he's probably having a bad day," or "I'm sure they didn't mean to do that," excuses for others' misbehavior.

Also, this book might be helpful.
posted by notashroom at 7:21 AM on May 22, 2008

Personally I find anger to be catching. Somewhat and not unlike a virus. So even if I manage to ignore it - it will infiltrate my psyche and somewhere at sometime manifest as some kind of negative energy - mostly towards self in depression or anxiety.

I think removing self from situation is best.
posted by watercarrier at 8:13 AM on May 22, 2008

I can identify. My fiancé tends to show his anger, and I tend to suppress mine. When he's angry at me, I can deal with it because I can do something about it. It's something I can address, even if I think he's wrong. When he's angry at something else (usually work), I feel out of control. I can't do anything about his stupid boss. I feel afraid that he's going to take it out on me (not physically, he would never do that - it's just an irrational reaction from growing up with a crazy parent).

Honestly, what works best with him is to point out his behavior in a strongly assertive way. "You're acting like an asshole!" will stop him in his tracks. Anything less doesn't really register with him, and he just thinks I'm being too sensitive. The whole "I feel... when you..." stuff doesn't work at all. He needs to be (figuratively) smacked in the face with the effect he's having on me.

Now, this may not be appropriate with a friend who is not a romantic partner. But it is completely appropriate to say "I'm sorry you're upset about the traffic. It makes me uncomfortable to hear you yell. I'll talk to you later, when you calm down." If she then gets mad at you, repeat as necessary, then hang up or walk away. I successfully influenced a friend to lower his voice and moderate his moods around me, because he realized that I was not a good person to vent to. You're not going to change who she is, but you can change who she is around you.
posted by desjardins at 9:04 AM on May 22, 2008 [2 favorites]

You've gotten good advice already. Just chiming in with my own experience, as my roommate and I are exactly the same way -- she makes a lot of noise to blow off steam, and I am much more reticent unless I'm well and truly pissed. I tried to tiptoe around and not say anything, but one day I finally called her on it, explaining that "look, where I'm from someone yelling meant serious shit was going down and so this just scares me." She also explained that in her background it was the opposite. But the two of us talking like that cleared the air, and going forward, she tried to not blow up around me, or sometimes she'd just warn me if she was on a short fuse so I'd be braced for it; and I just reminded myself "it's not my problem" when she did. (In fact, I began feeling something more like pity, because she seemed to have a lot of frustration over small things.)

You do have the right to speak up, but I would couch it as a cultural-difference kind of thing ("I know every family's different, and here's how anger was handled when I was growing up, so this is just what I'm used to...") rather than an outright judgement ("Jesus, do you ever calm down?") That does seem to help -- it definitely helped my roommate get where I was coming from.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 11:06 AM on May 22, 2008

I grew up in the same kind of family as you, sounds like. Yelling was out of control and only one ratchet away from violence.

I fake tolerating it incredibly well- well enough that ragey people have told me they like me around because I calm them down. Then I go home, shake, cry, and go to bed. I am ruined the rest of the day.

I can't be around it. When things start heating up I leave. I've told my friends why and they respect it. You might have to do the same thing.
posted by small_ruminant at 2:31 PM on May 22, 2008

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