I answered the phone and a man’s voice asked nervously, “My name is Joe. Can I make an appointment to come see you?”
“Why don’t you tell me a little bit about what’s going on?” I offered.
Joe went on to briefly tell me about his problem with anger and how it was negatively impacting his life. We set up an appointment for the next week. When we met I quickly realized he didn’t have a problem with anger. Rather, he clearly did have a problem with anger, but it was just as clearly caused by something else. As we worked together he laid out a devastating history of torment and abuse that left me close to tears.
It turns out that, because of his history of trauma, Joe’s ability to differentiate between a normal conflict and a life-threatening attack had been compromised. So, when his girlfriend criticized him for showing up late to pick her up he became stimulated (like we all do when faced with conflict). But Joe’s brain is limited in its ability to say “ok, this is a normal disagreement”. Instead it may say, “look out Joe, you’re about to be eaten alive”. And he over reacts in a way we label as “angry”.
In my work as a therapist I see many clients who come to me either in part or in whole due to the negative impact anger is having on their lives. Sometimes, as with Joe, trauma appears to be related to the roots of their anger. With others we find they learned to use anger as a tool by watching their parents. Still others use anger as a defense mechanism to hide their painful negative self image. Of course, anger has many other causes.
While we approach the treatment of anger from slightly different angles depending on the particular cause, several common tools are particularly effective for dealing with anger.
1. Vet Our Thoughts
In some case our thinking is our worst enemy in living a happy, productive life. Luckily, it is also our best tool. We all have a tendency to believe the thoughts that spin through our minds. Chances are some of them are true. But what about the lies we inadvertently tell ourselves? Learning to pay attention to our thoughts and make a conscious decision about whether they are true (i.e. helpful) or false (i.e. detriment) is critical.
2. Fight Fair
In fits of anger many of us lose control and say things we don’ t mean. These hurtful explosions can be extremely damaging to relationships and to our self image. When we fight fair we make a conscious decision to not attack others during a conflict. This means we don’t insult, curse, call names, or otherwise belittle the other person. Instead we stay calm, listen and look for opportunities to compromise.
3. Change Our Orbit
We all have triggers and most of us are aware of some of them. Simply staying away from triggering, or high risk, situations is extremely helpful in minimizing opportunities for anger. For example, you might have a contentious relationship with your mother-in-law. For the sake of your spouse you need to interact with her. In oder to avoid an angry outburst you may need to manage how long you spend with her during visits.
This seems obvious, but relaxation is fundamentally the opposite of anger. Those of us with “anger issues” naturally have a difficult time relaxing, especially as anger-inducing situations approach. Our difficulty relaxing makes us more likely to become angry which makes relaxing difficult which leads to more anger, etc. So, learning specific relaxation techniques helps us deal with anger before, during and after and anger-inducing situation.
Other people are the most common cause of anger episodes. Making a conscious decision to someone for insults, both real and perceived, is a great way to dissipate anger. If you forgive someone, staying angry with them becomes pretty challenging.
6. Practice Empathy
Closely related to forgiveness, showing empathy toward someone at whom we are angry allows us to choose not to stay angry. Unless you are a sociopath, you experience empathy. But most of has not practiced brining it to the forefront of our consciousness. Emotional empathy is putting yourself into the shoes of someone else in terms of how they are feeling. Cognitive empathy is putting yourself into the shoes of someone else in terms of what they must be thinking. Another important piece of practicing empathy is expressing it verbally.
These six strategies, when practiced regularly, will go a long way to reducing the day to day impact of your anger. In other words, if you do these things you are less likely to get yourself into trouble or damage important relationships due to angry outbursts. But the key to reducing your overall anger level is to improve your overall mental health. You can achieve these goals in a number of ways, such as getting involved in a church, joining a support group or finding a good therapist. No solution is perfect for everyone so you may have to try a few methods before you find the one that works best for you.
Contact Clay today and start controlling your anger so you can repair damaged relationships, rebuild your self-esteem and enjoy the life God created for you.