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Got Anger? Try Naming It To Tame It

Jan 28, 2019
Originally published on February 5, 2019 3:12 pm

Over the past three years, I've had one major goal in my personal life: To stop being so angry.

Anger has been my emotional currency. I grew up in an angry home. Door slamming and phone throwing were basic means of communication.

I brought these skills to my 20-year marriage. "Why are you yelling?" my husband would say.

"I'm not," I'd retort. Oh wait. On second thought: "You're right. I am yelling."

Then three years ago, an earthquake hit our home: We had a baby girl. And all I wanted was the opposite. I wanted her to grow up in a peaceful environment — to learn other ways of handling uncomfortable situations.

So I went to therapy. I kept cognitive behavioral therapy worksheets. I took deep breaths, counted to 10 and walked out of rooms. And I even meditated at night.

These strategies helped me manage the anger, but they never really decreased it. It was like keeping a feral horse in a barn. I was contained, but not really domesticated.

Then, six months ago, I was talking with Lisa Feldman Barrett, a psychologist at Northeastern University. Right at the end of the hour-long interview, she tossed out this suggestion: "You could increase your emotional granularity."

My emotional what?

"Go learn more emotion words and emotion concepts from your culture and other cultures," she added.

Over the past 30 years, Feldman Barrett has found evidence that anger isn't one emotion but rather a whole family of emotions. And learning to identify different members of the family is a powerful tool for regulating your anger, studies have shown.

Or better yet, as I found, go and make up your own anger categories and start using them.

What is anger?

There's a common theory about anger. You'll find it in text books, scientific papers, news reports — even here at NPR. And some scientists support the theory, says Feldman Barrett.

The idea is that anger is one of several "basic emotions" that are universal, Feldman Barrett says. It's almost like a reflex — hard-wired in the brain. When something unjust or unfair happens to you, "your blood pressure often goes up. Your heart rate will go up. Maybe you'll breathe heavily or you'll have a reddening of your skin," she says. "Then you'll have an urge ... to punch or yell at someone. That's the stereotype of what anger is," Feldman Barrett says.

But it's not the full story.

Anger around the world

What you feel when you're angry depends on the situation, what your past experiences are and how your culture has taught you to respond, she says.

As a result, there is actually enormous variation in the types of anger in the U.S., like exuberant anger when you're getting pumped up to compete in sports, or sad anger when your spouse or boss doesn't appreciate you.

When you look at other cultures, the variation explodes.

Germans have a word that roughly means "a face in need of a slap,"or backpfeifengesicht. "It's like you're so furious with someone that you look at their face, and it's as if their face is urging you to punch them," Feldman Barrett says. "It's a great emotion."

Ancient Greeks differentiated between a short-term anger that doesn't stick around (ὀργή or orge ) with a long-lasting anger that's permanent (μῆνις or menin).

Mandarin Chinese has a specific word for anger directed toward yourself, 悔恨 or huǐhèn. It's literally a combination of regret and hate, says linguist Yao Yao at Hong Kong Polytechnic University. "You regret something you did so much, that you're angry at yourself," she says.

Thais have, at least, seven degrees of anger, says linguist Yuphaphann Hoonchamlong at the University of Hawaii. "We don't walk around saying 'I'm angry.' That's too broad," she says. "We may start with 'I'm displeased' and 'I'm dissatisfied' and then increase the intensity," she says.

And India is a treasure trove of angers.

"There's a common form of anger which means like 'when eggplant hits the hot oil,' " says Abhijeet Paul, who teaches South Asian literature at the University of California, Berkeley.

"You suddenly become, like, really angry at hearing something shocking or learning something that you really, really dislike," Paul says.

Indians also differentiate between political anger, which you have for the ruling class or "boss man," and personal angers, which you have for a friend, family or neighbor. You would never mix the two and express political anger in a personal relationship, Paul says.

"There's also a very interesting anger that is a loving anger," Paul says. You express this emotion toward a spouse when your spouse has angered you but you can't help them, only love them, he says. "It's a mixed bag of love, grief, sorrow and anger."

Personalize anger to help regulate it

So in many ways, anger is like wine. There are these major varieties — such as chardonnay and pinot noir — but each vintage has its own unique combination of aromas, flavors and potency. The more practice you have at detecting — and naming — these nuances, the better you understand wine.

And if you learn to detect all the various flavors and nuances of anger and label them, you can start to handle your anger better, says psychologist Maria Gendron at Yale University.

"There's definitely emerging evidence that just the act of putting a label on your feelings is a really powerful tool for regulation," Gendron says. It can keep the anger from overwhelming you. It can offer clues about what to do in response to the anger. And sometimes, it can make the anger go away.

The idea is to take a statement that's broad and general, such as, "I'm so angry," and make it more precise. Take the Thai: "I'm displeased," or the German "Backpfeifengesicht!"

Psychologists call this strategy emotional granularity. Studies show that the more emotional granularity a person has, the less likely they are to shout or hit someone who has hurt them. They are also less likely to binge drink when stressed. On the other hand, people diagnosed with major depressive disorder are more likely to have low emotional granularity compared to healthy adults.

"There's a whole arm of research showing how functional it is to have finely tuned categories for our experiences," Gendron says.

Emotional granularity is like watching HDTV versus regular TV. It lets you see your anger with higher resolution, Gendron says. "It gives you more information about what that anger means, whether you value that experience and choices about what to do next," she says.

This last part is key: Being granular with you anger helps you figure out what's the best way to handle the situation — or whether you should do anything at all.
For instance, if you are feeling a quick burst of anger, which you know will fade rapidly, then maybe doing nothing is the best strategy.

And you don't have to limit yourself to the labels that already exist, Gendron says. Be creative. Analyze what's causing your various angers, give them specific names and start using the terms with family and coworkers.

"If you're making a practice in your family of coming up with words and then using them together, that actually can regulate physiology," she says. "That can resolve the kind of ambiguity about the situation."

Personally, I found this strategy the most helpful. I started paying attention to what typically triggers my anger at work and at home. And I found three major types, which I named.

Illogical anger: This emotions happens when somebody at work makes a decision that seems completely illogical. Once I labeled this anger and started tracking what happens afterwards, I quickly realized that trying to convince an illogical person of logic is often futile – and a waste of time.

Hurry-up anger: This is the anger I feel when someone else is not doing something fast enough — yes, I'm talking about the driver of the gray Prius at the stoplight this morning or the 3-year-old who will not put her shoes on fast enough. Once I labeled it, I realized that cars, people and toddlers eventually move. Huffing and puffing doesn't make it faster.

Disonophous anger: This is my favorite anger. And has the biggest impact on my life.

I wanted to figure out how to decrease yelling at our house. So I started paying attention to what often occurred right before the screaming began. It was super obvious: The dog was barking and the toddler was screaming. Basically two loud sounds simultaneously.

So my husband and I made up disonophous anger from the Latin for "two sounds."

Now when my husband says, "I have disonophous anger, Michaeleen ..." we know exactly what to do: Put the dog on the porch and pick up the baby.

And I know he's not angry at me. He just wants some peace and quiet.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Suppose you have a stressful day. You get home. You walk in the door and hear this.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOG BARKING, BABY SCREECHING)

INSKEEP: As you listen to that...

(SOUNDBITE OF DOG BARKING, BABY BABBLING)

INSKEEP: ...Do you start feeling just a little bit irritated - maybe even angry?

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "KINDERGARTEN COP")

ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER: (As Kimble, yelling) Shut up.

INSKEEP: That is Arnold Schwarzenegger expressing his anger in the film "Kindergarten Cop." Whether it's your home life or politics or Twitter, anger surrounds us. And over the next month, NPR will explore this emotion to learn from it. Today NPR's Michaeleen Doucleff reports on a method that could transform your relationship with anger.

MICHAELEEN DOUCLEFF, BYLINE: We're going to start with the infamous scowl, you know, where you scrunch up your eyes and your forehead when you're angry. The common theory is that no matter where you're born - San Francisco, India, Tanzania - you're born knowing how to make this expression.

LISA FELDMAN BARRETT: Everyone will scowl in anger most of the time, and they will also recognize a scowl as anger.

DOUCLEFF: That's Lisa Feldman Barrett. She's a psychologist at Northeastern University. She says for decades, many scientists thought anger was a universal emotion hard-wired in the brain. When something is unfair - say, somebody takes credit for your success at work - your body automatically launches the anger program.

(SOUNDBITE OF BLOOD PULSING)

FELDMAN BARRETT: Your blood pressure will go up.

DOUCLEFF: Your heart will start pounding.

FELDMAN BARRETT: Maybe you'll breathe heavily.

(SOUNDBITE OF PERSON PANTING)

DOUCLEFF: Maybe you'll feel hot, and your face will turn red. Then a switch flips on in your brain and...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "KINDERGARTEN COP")

SCHWARZENEGGER: (As Kimble, yelling) Shut up.

DOUCLEFF: We all know what happens next. Feldman Barrett says there's no doubt this type of anger exists.

FELDMAN BARRETT: That's the sort of stereotype of what anger is.

DOUCLEFF: But it's not the full story.

FELDMAN BARRETT: There is no single bodily change in anger. What it feels like to be angry depends on the situation. So sometimes anger is very unpleasant, and sometimes it's very pleasant.

DOUCLEFF: So, for example, you can feel exuberant anger when you're getting ramped up to compete in sports or a sad anger when your spouse doesn't appreciate you. Maybe you even cry when you're angry.

FELDMAN BARRETT: Sometimes, if you're like me, you know, you'll sit and imagine the demise of your enemy. All right, so (laughter) - and very quietly, right? So that was a joke.

DOUCLEFF: Feldman Barrett says your body reacts differently depending on a few things - what's causing you to be angry, what your past experiences have shown you about that situation and how your culture has taught you to respond. As a result, there is enormous variation in the types of anger here in the U.S. and around the world. Remember that scowl we were talking about? That's probably not universal. For example, many people in India don't squint when they're angry but open their eyes very wide to give an intense glare.

FELDMAN BARRETT: There are many, many emotion categories that exist in other cultures that don't exist in English - in our culture.

DOUCLEFF: For instance, in Mandarin Chinese, there's a word specifically for anger directed towards yourself...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Mandarin).

DOUCLEFF: ...Which is like anger mixed with regret. And the ancient Greeks differentiated between a short-term anger that doesn't stick around...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking Greek).

DOUCLEFF: ...With a long-term anger that's permanent.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Speaking Greek).

DOUCLEFF: And then there are the angers of India. Abhijeet Paul teaches South Asian literature at Middlebury College. He says Indians are really creative when it comes to anger.

ABHIJEET PAUL: There's a very common form of anger which means, like, when the eggplant meets the oil.

DOUCLEFF: When the eggplant, like, hits the hot oil in a pan?

PAUL: Yeah, like you suddenly become, like, really angry at hearing something shocking or learning about something that you really, really deeply dislike.

DOUCLEFF: So like when you read the news headlines or check Twitter and there's something almost outrageous, your eggplant may hit the hot oil. Paul says Indians also have another interesting type of anger, political anger...

PAUL: (Foreign language spoken).

DOUCLEFF: ...That you feel against the ruling class, the boss man. And you would never express that type of anger toward a neighbor or a family member.

PAUL: That is not good.

DOUCLEFF: Now here's the cool thing. Learning about all this - all these different types of anger is actually useful. Maria Gendron studies psychology at Yale University. She says giving names and labels to all your various angers can help you regulate them - not let them take over or overwhelm you. And it gives you clues about how best to respond.

MARIA GENDRON: There's definitely emerging evidence to show that even just the act of putting a label on your feelings is a really powerful tool for regulation.

DOUCLEFF: The idea is to take a state that's broad and general, like saying, I'm so angry, and making it more specific, more precise, nuanced. And you don't have to use the labels that already exist. You can just make up your own. Give your different types of anger names and start using them. Let me show you how it works.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOG BARKING, BABY SCREECHING)

DOUCLEFF: The screaming baby and barking dog you heard at the beginning of the story...

(SOUNDBITE OF DOG BARKING, BABY BABBLING)

DOUCLEFF: Those belong to me. And when my husband comes home at night and hears that, it triggers a lot of anger. I decided to break it down and name it.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOG BARKING)

DOUCLEFF: The dog is barking.

(SOUNDBITE OF BABY SCREECHING)

DOUCLEFF: The toddler is screaming - two sounds together.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOG BARKING, BABY BABBLING)

DOUCLEFF: We decided to call this new type of anger disonophous from the Latin for two sounds.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOG BARKING, BABY BABBLING)

DOUCLEFF: Gendron says psychologists have a name for this strategy of precisely defining your emotions.

GENDRON: Emotional granularity.

DOUCLEFF: Studies show that the more emotional granularity you have, the more you can find subtle variations in your anger - the less likely you are to yell or act aggressively.

GENDRON: If you're making that a practice in your family - right? - of coming up with words and then using them together, that actually is kind of a mechanism - right? - that actually can regulate physiology, can resolve the kind of ambiguity about the situation.

DOUCLEFF: What emotional granularity does is it lets you see your anger with higher resolution, kind of like watching HDTV versus regular TV. Higher resolution gives you more information about your emotions.

GENDRON: What it means - whether we value that experience or not and give you choices - right? - about what to do next.

DOUCLEFF: And this last part is key. Being granular with your anger helps you figure out what's the best way to handle the situation. Here's what we did at my house.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOG BARKING, BABY BABBLING)

DOUCLEFF: Now when my husband says, I have disonophous anger, Michaeleen - instead of me getting angry back, I know what we can do. Put the dog outside, pick up the baby and we all get some peace and quiet. Michaeleen Doucleff, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CARMINA BURANA: O FURTUNA (FORTUNA IMPERATRIX MUNDI)")

LONDON PHILHARMONIC CHOIR: (Singing in Latin). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.