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Anger Is Toxic, Especially for Those Living With HIV

Photo by Alex Green

Our wellness expert details the price we pay when we obsess over the (bad) behavior of others, and how to move past the fury monster.

“He makes me so mad.”

“I can’t believe he did that.”

“I should give her a piece of my mind.”

Wouldn’t it be nice if other people held up their part of the bargain? Or at least acted right? But sometimes they don’t act right. Right? And when they don’t, it’s only human to get mad at them. That’s all there is to it. Whether we let them know we are mad or not.

When you’re living with a chronic condition like HIV, you may find that your patience can wear a little thin. And that the behavior of other people — especially people you care about — just doesn’t match up to what you expect, and know they are capable of. After all, you’re dealing with a lot. Don’t they get that? And can’t they step up to the plate and be there for you? At least behave themselves?

How about considering this? What’s it doing to you to walk around with all that negativity? It doesn’t do much for your own emotional and physical health, for one thing. And angry feelings can leave you feeling alone at a time when you need support.

Understanding What Makes Us Mad at Others Starts with Understanding Ourselves

“Okay, I got it,” you may be thinking. But people can still make me really mad. What am I supposed to do about that?

First, look inside of yourself: 

Take a look at your expectations. Why can’t people act like they should?  We all have expectations for how we think other people should think, feel, and behave. These expectations may be based on how they have treated us in the past, or how we think they should treat us. But let’s face it. People can be unpredictable, if not downright surprising. And when they don’t act like we think they should, that can bring up a lot of feelings. Including anger.

Take a look at what else is going on in your life. Fears, frustrations, and disappointments can build up over time, and turn into anger. You know what I mean, all that stuff that life throws at us, whether we asked for it or not. And so much of it out of our control. Like coping with HIV. Often, we are not aware of how much these feelings are building up, nor are we aware that our minds are looking for a way to let them out. But then: Wham! Somebody does something to annoy us and whoosh! Finally, a target for all that pent up anger. But does the situation merit all that anger? Most likely, no. But it sure feels good to get mad, doesn’t it?

Take a look in the mirror. I saved this one for last because it’s the most difficult. Sometimes what makes us most angry in other people are the qualities they have that we share. Self-absorbed? Check. Procrastinate too much? Check. Act without thinking sometimes? Check. Watching someone else behave in a way that reminds us of our own imperfections can really push that anger button. But ask yourself this: Is it myself I am most annoyed with? But maybe I don’t really want to look at that part of myself? If so, it’s a whole lot easier to zero in on someone else.  

See how getting mad at someone else may be more about you than about them? Now, what can you do about it? Well, you can start by using that knowledge about yourself to change your perspective on the people around you. Here’s how:

Focus on what you like about the other person. Whether it’s your partner, a friend, your boss… there’s something good about pretty much everybody. Right? So how about stepping away from what makes you mad about them and identify something about them that you can appreciate. And then, whatever it is, put it at the front of your mind. See? They’re not such a bad person after all.

Let go of the need to be right. Somewhere in all that anger is your need to be right and for the other person to be wrong. And that need to be right can be a reason to justify feeling angry toward someone, as well as for behaving in a way that can increase the conflict. Is it really that important to be right? And if you are right, just what does that get you?

Sit down and have a talk. One of the best ways to resolve angry feelings is to talk it out with the person you are mad at. We don’t always have the opportunity to do that, and the other person isn’t always willing. But when possible, getting it all out on the table can go a long way toward letting the feelings out as well as finding a common ground between the two of you. Do your part by being willing to listen and — one more time — be willing to let go of the need to be right.

Focus on the big picture. As the old saying goes, don’t turn a molehill into a mountain. The best way to do this is to keep your focus on the big picture. The good times you’ve shared with this person, the times you’ve helped each other out, or made each other laugh. In the big picture, is what they did to bother you such a big deal? Reminding them of the good times can be a step toward healing the rift.

Consider letting it go. If you can’t resolve your differences, can you agree to disagree? I don’t know if two people ever completely agree on anything, or if two people ever completely meet each other expectations in every situation. Everybody has their own baggage, their own quirks, their own way of being in the world. That’s what keeps life interesting. Can you be okay with that? Or if the person you are mad at is just nasty by nature, or is a stranger you had an unfortunate encounter with you, do they really deserve any more space in your brain? (That is, unless you are collecting a hefty rent check from them.)

Reconnect with your own foundation. Your life — what’s going well, what makes you happy, and what you need to do to take the best possible care of yourself.  While other people’s behavior can be hurtful or frustrating, and make you feel really mad at them, your emotional well-being doesn’t have to depend on how other people behave. Remind yourself of what’s always in place in your life, regardless of how other people behave. By doing this, you’ll find that you’re that much less likely to get rankled when they act up.

Try an act of kindness.  Anger drives a wedge between you and the person you are mad at. Showing kindness can build a bridge between the two of you. An offer of help, a few words of understanding, a smile. Even if the other person doesn’t respond, chances are you’ll feel better for having made the effort.  

And most of all, have an attitude of compassion. Starting with yourself. Life isn’t always a party. Some days it’s downright hard. And when it is, we don’t always behave at our best. Or we may take things hard when someone else isn’t behaving at their best. Cut yourself some slack and let yourself be human. When you do, you’ll find it easier to let other people be themselves. 

Sure, other people can make us mad. But what’s the cost — to you and to your relationships — of walking around with that anger? Mend fences. Build bridges. Take care of your emotional health!   

Gary McClain, PhD, is a therapist, patient advocate, and author in New York City, who specializes in working with individuals diagnosed with chronic and catastrophic medical conditions, their caregivers, and professionals. His website is:

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