What To Do When Someone's Mad At You, According To Therapists
Many of us spend our lives trying to avoid making people upset. If you think back to some of your biggest decisions, you might find that many of them were made with this motive in mind. That's because few of us know what to do when someone's mad at you.
The problem with this is, when we'll do anything just to keep other people happy, they can control us. We may bend to their every will just to avoid a confrontation. In the process of molding ourselves to become the people we think others want, we can lose ourselves.
We also miss out on the genuine connection that comes from hearing people's anger, NYC-based psychotherapist and entrepreneur Lilian Ostrovsky, tells Bustle. "If somebody lashes out at me, I think, 'Yes! This is a window moment with this person,'" she says. "This is an opportunity for me to get closer with this person or really get to know this person. Even if I feel hurt by it, if someone says, 'You’re a sh*tty therapist, I hate you' or 'you don’t deserve the good things you have in life'... I also might feel curiosity over, what do I deserve? Those are the kind of opportunities heated moments of emotion offer us as human beings."
So, how do you turn a situation where someone's angry with you from a terrifying experience into a productive and nourishing one? Here are Ostrovsky's tips for doing just that.
1. Feel The Impact Of The Other Person's Words
The first step is to become aware of how the other person is making you feel so that you can have an honest conversation with them about it, Ostrovsky says. If you at all feel unsafe, get out of the situation. If you start to get angry, though, pause for a minute.
"It is so easy to get triggered when someone gets angry at us," couples' therapist Gary Brown, PhD, LMFT, tells Bustle. "When that happens we can become scared, sad, or react in anger. In general, reacting in anger typically will make things worse." Instead, he advocates the "STOP method:" Stop, take a breath, observe, and proceed. If you have time alone before you respond to the person mad at you, you could even take the time to write down what you want to say, psychotherapist Kimberly Hershenson, LMSW, tells Bustle.
2. Own Your Biases
Most of us have pre-existing beliefs about anger. Many people, for example, believe that if you're very angry, you're not a very good person. It's important to be aware of these biases so that you don't fall prey to them when someone's angry with you, Ostrovsky says. This way, you are able to have a more productive conversation and get to the root of what the issue may be.
3. Notice Your Knee-Jerk Reaction
Your reactions to others' anger can tell you a lot about your own beliefs, Ostrovsky says. If your first reaction is that they're rude, for example, that indicates that you believe expressing anger in general is rude, which may affect how you relate to your own anger. Many people's knee-jerk reaction is to go into fight, flight, or freeze mode. If this happens, it might tell you that you tend to avoid confrontation and tiptoe around other people.
4. Decide On Your Intention
All that said, your biases and knee-jerk reaction may be very different from what you want in that moment. For example, you may think that the other person's full of it but want to form a deeper relationship with them. You don't have to push down your anger to keep sight of this goal; you can acknowledge them both at once, Ostrovsky says.
5. State Your Biases, Reaction, And Intention Out Loud
We're taught to get defensive and keep our feelings to ourselves during a confrontation, but Ostrovsky recommends telling the other person all the conflicting things you're thinking and feeling. One way to do that is to go through the three things you've just considered. "Imagine that my bias is that your anger is not fair, my knee-jerk reaction is to prove to you that it is unfair, and my intention is for us to continue to be friends," Ostrovsky says. "So I might say to you, 'I feel so conflicted. I don't know how to have this conversation because on the one hand, I’m feeling unjustly judged, but on the other hand, our friendship is so important to me.'"
You can start the conversation with these three opening statements to help the situation go better, she says. "People’s guards go down. There’s more of a willingness to be seen."
6. Acknowledge Your Own Role
Even if you had a small role in the conflict, like not speaking up when your boundaries were crossed, saying what you wish you'd done differently can make the other person less defensive. "Everyone has a part in an argument," Hershenson says. "Ask yourself what you contributed to the argument and take accountability." The other person in the argument will appreciate you taking responsibility for your actions, and may be more inclined to do the same. From there, the conversation may be less heated.
7. Use "I" Statements
If the other person's anger is bothering you, make sure to address it by talking about your own feelings, not what you perceive to be wrong with their behavior. "It’s easy to blame, and starting a conversation with 'you did such and such' only makes the other person defensive," Hershenson says. "Focus on yourself and voice your emotions through 'I feel hurt' or 'I feel upset.'”
7. Ask Questions
Remember, this is a learning opportunity, so stay as curious as possible. If they're mad about something you said, for example, you might ask what about it bothered them or whether they felt it was intentional, Ostrovsky says. Really try to see their perspective, even if you don't agree with it.
"Ask what the other person needs from you to fix the situation, and express what you need from them," Hershenson says. "Communication is key, and if you are able to voice this, you will both feel like you won."
8. Think Of The Anger As Passion
"When you look at someone’s anger as passion, it’s easier to bring curiosity to it," Ostrovsky says. "There’s an opportunity to get to know the person who’s frustrated with you."
This can be hard to practice during a heated situation. So, Ostrovsky suggests going through it in your own head during everyday situations. For example, let's say you go outside and it's raining. You can ask yourself: What impact is the rain having on you? What are your biases about rain? What is your knee-jerk reaction to it? And what do you want for your day instead?
"The more you practice being aware of yourself and bringing curiosity to the moment, the more flow there is in these conversations with people," Ostrovsky says. "That formula can get you through an entire conversation." And it can help you have more meaningful connections as a result.
This post was originally published on March 2, 2018. It was updated on June 10, 2019.