Case #1: Jeanette and Tom had been married 15 years. Wanting to surprise him for his birthday, Jeanette bought (with her own money) Tom a big-screen LCD television.
Tom’s reaction? He instantly blew up and berated Jeanette for spending so much money, buying more television than they needed, and buying a bigger one than they had previously looked at together. Jeanette was dumbfounded at his reaction, as she truly thought this would be a gift that would greatly please her husband.
Case#2: Jim was having a friendly beer with his brother-in-law Jack when the discussion turned to Jack’s extreme success in life.
Wanting to complement him, Jim commented on how far he had come, how proud of himself he must be and how much he is an inspiration to others, given his background with alcoholic and dysfunctional parents. Rather than seeing this as a complement, however, Jack became offended and angry and began to berate Jim for having said such a thing that he was interpreting as a “put down.”
Anger is caused by our view of things
As these examples clearly show, people are not disturbed by things or events, but by the view they take of them—an observation made in the early 2nd Century by Greek philosopher Epictetus.
When an upsetting family event occurs, you have a choice of how you are going to explain it to yourself —what you are going to tell yourself about it—which will greatly influence how angry, stressed, or upset you will become over it.
Learning to change what you tell yourself – your self-talk – is a powerful tool to break a cycle of negativity that can often poison our minds when we get angry. We all have a voice in our mind that tells us messages and stories about family members and how they behave.
Tom, who exploded when his loving wife bought him a new television was telling himself things like: she has such poor judgment buying a bigger TV than we need; there she goes again, spending money excessively; why can’t she ever do what I want her to do? Why did I marry such a woman?
Of course, none of these things made any sense to Tom once he cooled down and became his rational self again. But, at the moment of anger explosion, all those self- statements seemed 100% real and true to him.
Jack who became offended at being congratulated for overcoming his past, was actually having the following conversation in his head: he is putting me down because I had alcoholic parents; he is saying I am not capable of being successful on my own instead of “overcoming” something in my past; he is mocking me because of how I grew up.
No wonder he became so upset at Jim’s innocent attempt at a compliment. Like many of us, he was responding to his perspective of what was being communicated —not Jim’s.
Three Steps to Change Self-Talk
Step 1 – Retreat and Think Things Over. Do not respond immediately to a family anger or stress trigger. Give your body and your mind a chance to calm down so you can think rationally. Research shows this may take at least 20 minutes.
Step 2 – Look at the evidence. The most convincing way of disputing negative self-talk toward a family member is to show yourself it is factually incorrect. Do not lie to yourself, but like a detective simply and honestly look at all the evidence around the issue at hand.
For instance, when calm Tom remembered that his wife was excellent with money and rarely overspent. Jack remembered that Jim never disparaged him and, in fact, had always supported him throughout the years of their friendship.
Step 3 – Find alternative ways of interpreting the behavior of family members that is more positive—and more useful. Tom was finally able to see his wife’s buying behavior as a sign of love and caring for him, rather than trying to hurt him or cause stress. Jack was eventually capable of seeing that Jim was truly trying to complement him and that he truly saw Jack as someone to be admired because of how far he had come in life.
Everyone has heard of road rage incidents wherein usually calm and responsible people “snap” and commit an aggressive or violent act. Turns out, that “losing one’s temper” can occur in many different life situations and cause serious emotional or physical harm to others. It is a pattern in which tension builds until an explosion brings relief, followed later by regret, embarrassment, or guilt. Called “Intermittent Explosive Disorder” (IED), it is defined by attacks of impulsive rage that seem out of proportion to the immediate provocation and has serious consequences such as verbal abuse, threats, property damage, assaults, and injury.
How common is it?
As reported in the September, 2006 edition of Harvard Mental Health Letter recent research on IED is showing that this condition is more common and more destructive than anyone had supposed. One study showed that people with more severe cases (at least three rage attacks in one year) averaged 56 life-time attacks resulting in an average of $1600 worth of property damage and 23 incidents in which someone required medical attention.
Who is most likely to have these episodes?
According to research, the percentages suffering from this disorder are about the same for men and women, blacks and whites. Only age made a difference. Younger people were more likely than older people to show these uncontrolled rage episodes. As you might suspect, persons who suffer from IED are more at risk for other emotional problems because of the increased stress in their lives.
What causes the attacks?
Behavior patterns such as rage attacks are complex and often are a combination of what is going on in your brain chemistry, what is occurring in your life and also what emotions your thinking patterns are causing.
Scientists do not yet have the answers as to what triggers rage episodes but it may have to do with brain chemistry problems as well as the outlook that people have about life as well as attitudes about how to handle life frustrations and stress.
What treatments help?
According to the Harvard Mental Health Letter, “Anger management through a combination of cognitive restructuring, coping skills training and relaxation training look promising.” This means that to control rage, people need to learn how to think differently about life events, and to learn specific skills to deal with common anger “triggers.” One of the recommended skills is that of learning to deal with stress through relaxation training.
Other skills that we our anger management clients have found to be extremely useful include:
Developingempathy toward others (seeing the world as they see it)
Taking charge of how you respond to stress, rather than just reacting instinctively
Changing self-talk to create different emotions in response to anger triggers
Learning to communicate assertively rather than with anger
Letting go of resentments, grievances and grudges
Retreating to think things over and calming down before blowing up in rage
How can you find a program for you?
Anger management programs are becoming more common across the country. The following resources provide directories of qualified providers, some of which teach the specific skills listed above:
In addition, there are a variety of home-study and online programs appearing on the internet. The quality of these programs vary a great deal, so it is prudent and wise to pick one that is authored by credible mental health professionals and is approved or certified by state agencies (although unfortunately most states do not approve or disapprove anger management programs) or other professional bodies.
Case #1- Elizabeth, a 40 year old homemaker was always feeling angry and “used” by her family, constantly saying that everybody took advantage of her. She felt that she worked like a slave but her family showed no appreciation or acknowledgment of her many efforts.
Case #2- Bill, a 34 year old husband complained that his critical wife was always angry at him. He spent his life trying to cope with her outrages which often escalated him into defensive anger which didn’t happen anywhere but in this relationship.
Case#3- Betty, a 42 year separated mother struggled with her soon to be ex-husband’s contempt and disrespect every time she angrily called him to discuss details of their divorce.
These three cases bring up the question often asked by participants in our anger management classes: Is it possible to control how family members treat us? The short answer is “no” — but often we can teach them to treat us better!
Believe it or not, we are constantly teaching our family how to treat us— both by our responses to their behavior, and by the behavior we display to them which they react to. In our case examples:
By automatically doing whatever her husband and children requested, Elizabeth was “teaching” them that there are almost no limits to what she would do for them. With his behavior, Bill was actually teaching his wife that the way to get attention from him (even if it was negative attention) was for her to create drama.
Betty was so intimidated by her husband, that her defensive “attitude” was “teaching” him that to deal with her, he had to push back with the contempt and disrespect that he constantly showed her.
The dance of anger
Our interchange with family members is often like a carefully choreographed dance. They make a move. You make a move in response to their move. They then respond to what you said or did and ….well, you get the idea!
How do you change the dance? Start by seeing yourself as a teacher—of how you would like your family to treat you.
Four ways to change what you teach others
Try a softer-start-up. Marital research shows that the first few seconds of an interaction can predict the final outcome of the encounter. Try being softer, more polite, more respectful, less hostile, or more empathetic—and see how this change in your approach actually teaches others to respond better to you.
Take a time-out before dealing with the conflict or situation. Conflicting or arguing family members often work themselves up to a point at which problem solving is impossible. The solution is to retreat and give yourself time to calm down and think things over. This takes at least 20 minutes, often much longer. Before taking your time out, it is important to tell the other person that you will commit to returning soon to deal with the conflict, after you are calmer—then be sure to do it!
Acknowledge that you see how they must be seeing the situation. Called “empathy,” this response on your part teaches others that you care about their feelings and viewpoints, and opinions. Acknowledgment doesn’t mean that you necessarily agree with their viewpoint—only that you see it. Sometimes, your family needs to know that you care about them and respect their opinions before they listen to what you say.
Set limits and boundaries for your family members. Limits and boundaries are basically rules regarding acceptable behaviors toward you as well as what you are willing or not willing to do. If you feel others are taking advantage of you, ask yourself what you may be doing (or not doing) to give the message it is “ok” for them to do whatever they are doing. Often you can change their behavior toward you by teaching them different rules of being with you. The easiest way to do this is simply to respond differently yourself. For instance, they make you the core of a nasty joke. Being a nice person, you pretend it doesn’t bother you( even though it does), so you laugh with everybody else. As an alternative, try not laughing with them, which is a way of teaching them that they have crossed a boundary with you.
It seems that anger is everywhere in our society. One just has to read the newspaper daily or watch the evening news to conclude that controlling one’s angry feelings is a major challenge for many adults, teens, and children.
Uncontrolled anger is a major factor in domestic violence and spousal abuse, in aggressive driving violations, in workplace rudeness and disruption, and in marital conflicts and family fights. Several large and respected studies have shown that one-third of couples studied at least one incident of domestic violence during the course of their marriage. The same study found that about 1, 500,000 children per year are severely assaulted (kicked, punched, beaten up, burned) in their homes.
Managing angry feelings requires mastering specific thought and action skills and then practicing these skills on a daily basis. The costs to persons who do not learn how to regulate their negative emotions are high and include increased risk of relapse, loss of relationships, conflicts at work, loss of respect in the eyes of loved ones, and lowering of self-esteem.
A particularly high cost of anger is on your children. The effect of children witnessing extreme conflict in the home can be devastating—more harmful most of the time than a parental divorce. It is estimated that between 2.3 million and 10 million children are exposed to intimate partner violence each year in the United States alone.
Although many adults believe that they have protected their children from exposure to domestic violence, 80-90% of children in those homes can give detailed descriptions of the violence experienced in their families.
What is Anger?
We view angry feelings as a normal emotional reaction to frustration in our everyday world. It is natural to become angry when we have a goal and this goal is blocked in some way. Anger isn’t just one emotion, but a family of emotions that are related to each other both in our brains and in our behavior. People often give a variety of names to their angry feelings, which range from mild irritation to rage.
Once anger begins, it generates changes in our expressions, our faces, our voice, and changes in the way we think. It also creates impulses to action. In fact, the purpose of emotions such as anger is to organize and mobilize all of our bodily systems to respond to our environment in some way.
Anger, like all emotions, is regulated by that section of our brain called the “limbic system” (located in our mid brains beyond our inner ear) Emotional memories are stored in the “amygdala” and other structures which are located in this limbic system.
You may experience anger now in your life which may actually be caused by a mixture of what is triggering it now and experiences you have had in the past—even if you don’t remember them. This “old anger” is activated by your brain in its attempt to protect you— even though the original danger is no longer present.
It is up to the thinking part of the brain, our frontal lobes, to find a way to deal with the angry feelings the amygdala and other brain structures have set in motion. Fortunately, as thinking human beings we have the unique ability among mammals to have choices regarding how we will deal with our feelings.
My Model of Anger Management
In our view, anger management is NOT about never getting angry—that would be an impossible and ridiculous goal because angry feelings are “hard-wired” in your brain and probably serve a protective and survival function.
Rather, anger management is about learning how to regulate and express those natural angry feelings in a way that makes you a more effective human being. Persons who manage their anger well have better relationships, better health, and more occupational success than those who manage their anger poorly. They also get more of their needs met without antagonizing loved ones or colleagues.
Learning to manage anger involves mastering the eight tools of anger control that we have found to be highly effective in our local anger management classes. This model of anger management is not therapy and does not dwell on the past or the underlying reasons for anger. Rather, our approach is psycho-educational, skill-building, and practical drawing on recent research and findings in neuroscience, marriage/relationships, stress management, and the emerging science of happiness and optimism.
The Eight Tools of Anger Control
Tool 1 – Recognize Stress Stress and anger tend to go hand and hand. The higher one’s stress level, the easier it is to allow our anger to get out of control. It is a challenge for most of us to manage our stress levels in a complex world with many demands and expectations. Learning stress management techniques us an effective way to reduce the physical, behavioral, and emotional problems caused by too much stress.
Stress is often the trigger that takes us from feeling peaceful to experiencing uncomfortable angry feelings in many common life situations. Whether the stressor is external or internal, scientists have discovered that the major systems of the body work together to provide one of the human organism’s most powerful and sophisticated defenses; the stress response which you may know better as “fight-or-flight”. Before your stress response turns into anger or aggression, use stress management strategies to get it under control.
Tool 2 – Develop Empathy Have you ever been in a restaurant and noticed that the customers at the table next to you were speaking louder than anyone else? It was as if they had no idea that they were being so loud and intrusive to the rest of the patrons. This lack of awareness is often a sign of not being emotionally or socially alert. Or, have you ever been in a situation where you tried to express your feelings and it backfired in some way?
Some of us are very good at knowing how we feel and expressing it, while others struggle to do so. It is crucial to express emotion in order to relate to those around us. Our ability to know how we are feeling as well as our ability to accurately sense the feelings of those around us help us make positive connections with others. This characteristic is often called “empathy.”
To empathize is to see with the eyes of another, to hear with the ears of another, and to feel with the heart of another. Lack of empathy leads to poor communication and a failing to understand others. To manage anger, it often helps to see our anger as a combination of other people’s behavior and our lack of empathy toward them or their situation.
Tool 3 – Respond Instead of React Many times we become angry because we find people and situations that literally “push our buttons”, and we react just like a juke box that automatically pulls down a record and starts playing when you make a selection. Rather than reacting to anger triggers in this fashion, you can learn to choose how to deal with frustrating situations — to respond rather than automatically react like that juke box.
There are many advantages to learning to how be more flexible in dealing with the stresses and frustrations of life. At the top of the list is a sense of empowerment. It just feels good and powerful to know that you are in charge of your response, rather than being controlled by other people or circumstances. Many people notice their anger level going down as their feeling of empowerment goes up.
Tool 4 – Change That Conversation With Yourself “For some reason whenever I get upset I am always putting myself down” said one woman in an anger management class. “Even my friends tell me I am just too hard on myself”, she said. When I get upset, I will often say things like, “I’m such a loser”, or, “if I don’t make it on time, everyone will think I’m a jerk”, the woman explained. “Sometimes I even tell myself that I am worthless and stupid when I make mistakes.”
A crucial tool in dealing with angry feelings is that of challenging that conversation with yourself. Like the woman described above, you are constantly telling yourself all kinds of things which cause you to have certain feelings or emotions—even though you may not realize it. Learning to change that “self-talk” empowers you to deal with anger more effectively in terms of how strongly you feel the anger, how long you hold onto your anger, and how you express your anger.
Tool 5 – Communicate Assertively Good communication skills are an essential ingredient to anger management because poor communication causes untold emotional hurt, misunderstandings, and conflict. Words are powerful, but the message we convey to others is even more powerful and often determines how people respond to us and how we feel toward them.
Anger expressed toward others is often a misguided way of communicating a feeling we have or a need that is not being satisfied by other people or situations. Assertive communication—as distinct from aggressive communication— is a set of skills to honestly and effectively communicate how you feel and how you are responding to things—without getting angry or hostile about it.
Tool 6 – Adjust Expectations Have you ever been told your expectations are too high? Anger and stress can often be caused when our expectations are too far apart from what is realistic to achieve. In other words, anger is often trigg
ered by a discrepancy between what we expect and what we get.Learning to adjust those expectations—sometimes upward and other times downward—can help us cope with difficult situations or people, or even cope with ourselves. In marriage, research shows that much anger is caused by trying to solve problems which are unsolvable and perpetual. Successful couples learn to live with each other around these issues rather than getting angry about them.
Tool 7 – Forgive But Don’t Forget! Anger is often the result of grievances we hold toward other people or situations, usually because of our perception and feeling of having been wronged by them in some way. Resentment is a form of anger that does more damage to the holder than the offender. Holding a grudge is letting the offender live rent free in your head. Making the decision to “let go” (while still protecting ourselves) is often a process of forgiveness – or at least acceptance – and is a major step toward anger control.
Tool 8 – Retreat and Think Things Over! Jim and Mary Jones loved each other deeply, but often went into horrific verbal battles over any number of issues. However, they were unable to give each other “space” during an argument insisting they solve the issue immediately. Even worse, Mary often physically blocked Jim from leaving and would follow him from room to room demanding discussion. Needless to say, this is a dangerous practice as it can escalate levels of anger even further and cause partners to do and say things they don’t really mean and may later regret!
Research shows that we are pretty much incapable of resolving conflicts or thinking rationally in an argument when our stress level reaches a certain point. To avoid losing control either physically or verbally, it is often best to take a temporary “time-out” – and leave. This tool of anger management works much better if (a) you commit to return within a reasonable amount of time to work things out, and (2) you work on your “self-talk” while trying to cool down.