Catch Your Anger Early and Establish Healthy Boundaries Instead

by Melissa Karnaze

Goal Netting 1Anger is a natural warning signal of clear (but maybe not present) danger. If your mind thinks there is a problem, your body responds as if there is one.

Anger is your defense against boundary violations

The warning signal usually goes off after the fact — after the boundary violation. After the burglar enters the house. After the hikers get to close to baby bear. After your best friend lies to you. After your classmate doesn’t pay you that lunch money back.

Boundary violations can be unexpected

Sometimes there’s no way to avoid the boundary violation. You can’t help it if a criminal targets your home. Momma bear doesn’t know what hikers lurk off the main trail. You can’t predict when your best friend has a dirty secret. And you can’t make your classmate give you what they owe you.

But it’s only some of the time that you can’t foresee a boundary violation.

Boundary violations can be expected

Much of the time, you get hints early on. You can sniff out when someone is prone to violate you in some painful way, that will trigger the anger response.

Or if you can’t sniff it out before the violation — you can at least learn from the violation and then be better prepared to deal with it (and its kind) in the future.

An example of an expected boundary violation

Say you’re meeting an old friend from high school for lunch one week from today. You suggest this Mexican place right by your office.

It’s ideal for you because you have a meeting scheduled fifteen minutes after your lunch date. You can’t be late to this second meeting because it’s really important. After hearing your reasoning, your friend agrees to the location.

Now, ten minutes before your lunch date, your friend calls you up. He wants Thai now instead. And the closest Thai place is on the other side of town — you’d be late to that second meeting.

So in that moment you have clear warning of a potential boundary violation.

If you go ahead thinking it will all be okay…

Let’s say you agree to Thai. Your reason being that you can end the lunch date ten or fifteen minutes early and have enough time to make it to your second meeting.

Well, if your friend doesn’t like it when you try to cut him off before he’s done telling his story about how Uncle Jerrod made him eat green peas all summer — you’re going to get ticked off. And you’re going to have some socially inappropriate anger at hand. Because after all, it was assumed you would have lunch with your friend for a full hour.

If you go ahead and get lucky — at first…

Or let’s say that you get away from the lunch a whopping twenty minutes early. But you forgot that traffic is near impossible coming from that direction during lunch hour. You’re going to be upset about the situation.

Spotting out a potential boundary violation

So back to that ten minutes before your lunch date when your friend calls you up…

In that moment you have clear warning to establish a boundary instead of allowing for things to happen that will likely make you upset. The boundary that you establish protects you from being late to the second meeting.

You can tell your friend that you planned out lunch to give you enough time to make it to your next meeting. So no, Thai won’t work for you.

Or you can go even deeper and remind your friend that you planned it out to give yourself enough time to get to that second meeting. And that it bothers you that he tried to change the plan without asking what you thought about it first.

Your friend will have their own reaction, and it may or may not be nice. He could get defensive, brush it aside, show disapproval, or say “Oh well, I just really had a taste for Thai.” No matter, you can deal with that as it comes up.

Establishing your boundaries get easier with practice

The important thing is that when you catch your anger early and establish your boundary, you prevent yourself from getting really upset later on.

If you work with your anger enough, and are comfortable acknowledging and expressing it in a safe and appropriate manner (which may mean, in private), you’ll be hyper-vigilant when any hint of irritation starts to stir.

You’ll let yourself feel irked when your friend tells-you-he-now-wants-Thai instead of politely-asking-you-if-you’d-be-able-and-even-interested-in-changing-the-plan.

When you’re comfortable enough with listening to what your anger signals, you have no problem saying to yourself, “Who does this friend think he is? He’s not showing me any respect at all!” And then you’ll listen to that anger signal and swiftly establish your boundary so that your friend won’t be able to violate you by indirectly making you late to your second meeting.

This is the quickest, most effective way to make anger socially acceptable. Catch it early and establish healthy boundaries so you won’t needlessly get upset about something that’s harms you — that you can prevent from happening in the first place.

You stop anger in its tracks, not by stuffing it, but by listening to it and then taking action. Exercising your response ability.

Catching anger early can be tricky

It’s hard to acknowledge anger — let alone catch it early before it escalates — if you don’t think you should take things so personally.

It’s healthy to take things personally, and then find out why you’re upset.

Anger can be tricky to manage, but practice makes it easier to work with. And the more you work with your anger, the healthier your boundaries will be.

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Krishna May 21, 2010 at 5:29 pm

Hi Melissa, This is a great post, very succinct – the key is to be assertive rather than reactive. As someone who is learning to do this I can tell you its very difficult but as with all good habits, needs practice :-)…

I find the mindfulness part of catching anger early (when its discomfort) easier than asserting boundaries. Also, your approach is effective, working with anger become easier once you learn how to work with it without judging it.

Cheers,
Krishna

Melissa Karnaze May 22, 2010 at 12:48 pm

“…the key is to be assertive rather than reactive.”

Exactly! That’s the article summed in two words. :P

It can be very challenging to establish healthy boundaries if you were trained from an early age not to, or if those you are with don’t respect your boundaries.

I’ve found that over time, if you listen to the anger (or its milder forms) long enough, it becomes a no-brainer to establish the boundary. Once you are aware that you have a choice to (a) take care of yourself or (b) let someone run over your boundaries, causing you harm… it’s like a call to duty to choose self-respect instead.

Lexi May 25, 2010 at 12:49 am

I agree with Krishna. I find it much easier to recognize the anger early than to set boundries.

Recently I’ve been getting really angry every time I go to the gym and it’s hot because they won’t fix their air conditioner properly and deny that its broken. I found a way to “establish boundries” is to come either early in the morning or at night, so that I don’t feel burning anger throughout my whole workout that they won’t invest in the air conditioner.

It seems like a partial solution, but not a fully satisfactory one.

S. Ali Myers - Soulful Body & Mind May 25, 2010 at 4:24 am

Melissa,

Nice post. Recognize a problem early or learn from it if it occurs. Definitely principles to live by. People, more times than not, put themselves in peculiar predicaments. I, personally, would much rather “fail” a different way, than make the same mistake. Any obvious obstacles, unless it’s unavoidable, would get a course of action planned out to overcome it. Great tips for your readers! Keep up the good writing!

Peace!
- Ali

Melissa Karnaze May 25, 2010 at 10:24 am

Lexi, thanks for sharing that great example. Yes, the real problem is that their air conditioning isn’t working properly and they’re ignoring/denying your complaint as a paying customer. But since you can’t control their actions, the next best thing (given they still won’t respond to you) is to protect yourself with such a boundary.

Ali, that’s a great way to look at it — risking mistaking in a different way rather than the same way! And yes, people won’t need to “manage” so much anger if they’re just more mindful of what predicaments they put themselves in. Thanks for the comment.

Lexi June 15, 2010 at 10:46 am

I found myself wanting to re-read this post tonight…basically, because I’ve been feeling angry. The reason was that I had a heated argument with someone who I have to see on a nearly daily basis. Whenever I see her, I feel rage and tonight I caught myself trying to suppress it, when I remembered this blog :)

It made me think a lot about anger…anger I’ve had in my life at different stages. I found that one of the reasons I, and perhaps other people, want to suppress this emotion is because it can be so strong and scary (and lead to mean thoughts) and it is really really hard to fully overcome. I realized that only a few times in my life have I truly been able to overcome my anger by having a perspective shift due to time passing or major life changes.

Setting up boundaries just doesn’t always seem possible or even ideal. It seems to me what is ideal is to really understand the pain behind the anger and to somehow overcome it…but I usually find myself stuck in the “somehow”.

Melissa Karnaze June 15, 2010 at 3:58 pm

Hi Lexi,

Yes anger is often strong and scary, but it doesn’t have to be “overcome” — because that implies that anger is an enemy you must conquer, when in fact anger is just a part of you. It’s much healthier to see anger as being on your side; it’s there to alert you of threats (whether they’re real or imagined is your job to figure out). It’s an uncomfortable signal, but it still is only a signal. And this article addresses how it signals boundary violations.

I realized that only a few times in my life have I truly been able to overcome my anger by having a perspective shift due to time passing or major life changes.

Perspective can certainly help. But it doesn’t always work if boundary-violations are still occurring.

That pain behind the anger that you speak of… it could be due to someone or something or some event that violated your personal boundaries in some way. And sometimes the boundary-violator can be you, either directly or indirectly — by allowing your boundaries to be continually violated. Looking for the boundary-violations and getting in touch with how that feels can help with the “somehow.”

Lexi June 15, 2010 at 9:48 pm

Melissa,
Thanks for the response! It is so true that negative emotions are often perceived as the “problem” that needs to be “overcome” instead of an important alert.

Again, thanks for the great insight.

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