Tom, a self-employed husband and father, was so frustrated with
himself. Over and over again he told himself to stop losing his temper with the important people in his life, notably his family and his employees. Yet over and over, he snapped at them when he got stressed out. He felt like he was becoming his father, a man who was verbally abusive with his wife and kids, and who made his employees uncomfortable.
Anger is a fact of life. When things aren’t going the way we want them to go, whether something as common as a disagreement with our spouse, or as upsetting as a performance evaluation that wasn’t as good as you expected, it’s normal to have an emotional reaction. Effective anger management skills allow us to have control over what we do with that emotional reaction. The difficulty is that most of us have not learned any particular anger management skills. Mostly, we mimic whatever our parents did. Occasionally, we deliberately do the opposite of what our parents did, particularly if they were violent. Sometimes we try to do the opposite of what our aggressive parents did, but end up acting like them in spite of our efforts, as Tom was experiencing. What to do?
Anger management classes are available, Psychologists and counselors teach anger management individually to their clients every day, and there are good books on the subject. In this month’s article and the next, I will give you some suggestions I hope will get you started in the right direction.
First, let me share with you an interesting fact about how our brains work. Scientists now have some powerful instruments for being able to study the brain and how it works. We know that when a person becomes angry or fearful, an area in the oldest part of the brain, the amygdala and limbic system, located low and toward the back of our brain, is activated. What is very interesting when considering emotional control is that the more activated this area of the brain becomes - the more it “lights up”; simultaneously, the newest part of our brain, the pre-frontal cortex, at the top and front of our head, dims down. Like connected rheostats, as the one turns up, the other simultaneously turns down.
What does the pre-frontal cortex control? Well, logic, reason, judgment, and impulse control for a start. Wow, so the more emotionally upset we become, the less able we are to think, reason, and control reactionary impulses. We have all felt this, haven’t we? Now we understand what’s actually happening physiologically.
So what does this imply for purposes of anger management? For one thing, we realize that the decisions we make when we are very angry are likely to be poor ones, as we are literally not capable of thinking clearly at that time. Recognizing this fact, the best thing we can do is to remove ourselves from the situation if at all possible, and find a way to calm ourselves and equalize our brain.
One of the first tools of anger management is learning to take a “time out”. Sometimes when I start to explain this to a client, they will say, “Oh, yeah, I already do that.” However, I actually don’t mean saying something angry and leaving, slamming the door on your way out. That is not a time out. What I do mean is telling the other person you need a little time to cool off and think about the problem, and then actually doing something to calm down. This could be taking the dog for a walk, going to the gym, doing some calming breathing exercises, listening to music, or just being in nature.
While you are taking a time out, it’s difficult to calm yourself if you keep having an angry, negative “dialog” in your head; “I can’t believe she did that – she obviously doesn’t care how I feel!” etc. Try instead to see if you can imagine the situation from the other person’s point of view. Usually the other person didn’t set out to deliberately upset us. I find that in most cases there is a misunderstanding or simply a different point of view. When this is clarified, much anger simply evaporates.
There is an exercise taught to schoolchildren in Japan, which I find interesting and useful. It’s called the “pillow method”. The child who is upset is given a pillow and asked to examine all four corners. The first corner is the “I’m right, you’re wrong” corner. This one is easy, as the child explains why they are right and the other is wrong. The second corner is “You’re right, I’m wrong”. This is more difficult, but it gives the child the opportunity to see the situation from the other person’s point of view, and this can be very enlightening. The third corner is “We’re both right and we’re both wrong”. If you try this, you will find there is a lot of truth in this corner! The fourth corner is; “It doesn’t really matter, anyway”. After working the first three corners, often times the fourth corner comes easily. I find that the vast majority of things that we get all riled up about are not really important in the overall scheme of things. Often I will have people ask themselves how important this issue will be in 24 hours, or a week, or a year. It’s not unusual when people look at the issue this way for them to laugh out loud. Nothing diffuses anger faster than genuine (not sarcastic) humor. Well, one other thing works as well, but I will have to save that for next month!
Tom found that learning what was happening in his brain when he got very angry helped him understand the importance of somehow calming himself before taking action he might later regret. He found the pillow method a useful way of calming his thoughts and engaging the rational part of his brain so that he could make a better decision about how to deal with the situation more effectively. Give it a try – you might find it useful, too!
Dr. Catherine Aisner is a Psychologist in South Lake Tahoe, helping individuals and couples improve the quality of their lives. She can be reached at 530-541-6696 or online at www.CatherineAisner.com.