4 Ways to Help an Angry FriendBy Steve Calechman
Friendships go through many phases. Plenty involve happy events such as college adventures, marriage, and kids. But inevitably, friends go through hard times, too, including events such as divorce, job loss, and anything else that can upend a life. While these events typically cause sadness and regret, anger can also come in. Such reactions are expected and understood, but they’re not comfortable or enjoyable to be around. Even if there’s no yelling, the emotion can end up dominating thoughts and conversations.
“Anger can have a toxic effect,” says Los Angeles-based psychologist Jennice Vilhauer, Ph.D. It affects the brain, making it hard for a person to have perspective on a problem. Anger can also be tiring to be around. The challenge is that you want to be a good friend and help. The goal is to move your friend to a more positive state, and that can be done, but it involves patience, understanding, and a self-awareness as to when it’s time to take a step back.
Validate Their Feelings
Emotions are the first line of defense. Without first validating your friend’s feelings, nothing else you say will be heard. You don’t have to agree with what your friend has said or done. You’re not indulging anything. You also aren’t debating. “Feelings are not right or wrong. It’s not about should or shouldn’t,” says Dana Dorfman, Ph.D., a psychotherapist in New York City. You’re just saying, “I understand why you’d feel like that.” At a basic level, people want to feel cared for and that someone is on their side. “The value of that can’t be underestimated,” she says.
Resist the Urge to Play Along
It might seem helpful, but you don’t want to jump in with your own horror stories of that terrible ex or boss. “Commiserating over how awful the world is is rarely helpful,” Vilhauer says. Your goal is to raise your friend’s level. Ask, “What can I do to help?” It’s another way to show support, and it offers your friend some much-needed control by letting them decide what, if anything, you can do. Follow this with, “What do you think you could do to make yourself feel better?” You’re sending the message that they have the power to help themselves. You can also drop in reminders of past challenges and struggles that they’ve mastered to remind them of their resilience and ability to cope.
Redirect Their Energy
Unlike sadness, anger is not a passive emotion. It fires up the brain’s amygdala and makes you want to act, says Philip Gable, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology at the University of Alabama. His research has shown two other effects. Anger shrinks your perspective, making you zero in on a target. It also gives you selective memory; all you can think about is anyone or anything associated with the anger, further solidifying the feeling. “You’re highly motivated to go down a narrow path,” he says. While it might seem helpful to say, “Calm down,” that’s akin to slamming on the breaks to a speeding car. Close behind that in ineffectiveness is saying, “Here’s how you fix it.” You’re reducing your friend’s problem to some small issue, and sometimes a solution isn’t what’s wanted—in fact, they likely just want to be heard.
Instead, try to redirect your friend’s energy to something more positive. If it’s in service of the underlying problem, great; but, if it just offloads steam by hitting golf balls or going for a run, that can be effective, as well. If it’s at all possible, and it fits in with the plans, recline next to each other on some lounge chairs. Research has shown that the supine position may reduce the brain’s response to anger.
Remember the Limits
Anger is uncomfortable, but it’s an often unavoidable emotion that doesn’t necessarily make your friend into an angry person. “It’s one of the feelings you can feel,” Dorfman says. But it also can kick up your own history, making you want to pull back. Everyone has a threshold, and if you’ve reached it, get some space and go out with friends that aren’t going through a crisis to change the dynamic.
Also, realize that anger is often connected with a previous, deeper issue, one that might require professional help. If it feels right, you can make that suggestion to your friend, but it’s vital to be aware that being supportive and setting limits are not mutually exclusive. “A friend does not need to be a therapist,” Dorfman says.
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