You might be surprised at how common it is to have a problem with anger.
Can you relate to any of these?
A) You snap with spite. Fiery emotion seems to come out of nowhere like an alien from within. You are fine one moment, possessed the next. And you hate this aspect of yourself.
B) You don’t show your anger often…but it’s there. The odd raging outburst when you get drunk, or an aggressive attack on an inanimate object. It’s scary to be a non-violent person transformed into one who kicks or throws something out of anger.
C) You wouldn’t say your problem is anger exactly. What pains you is more like a constant simmering frustration or boredom – this is a close relative of anger.
D) Your anger bypasses most other people and is directed inward, as a form of depression or self-loathing.
If you can relate to any of the above, you probably wish it could be different. You wonder what better anger management might look like, but you find it hard to believe that you can change. You’ve probably tried to change it, stop it, control it because of the consequences it has on others and yourself…but so far you’ve been unsuccessful. You may not think you can change it. But, regardless of your doubts…
Yes, you can become calmer!
The truth is things can change. You can change how you experience your anger and feel better.
And I am not talking just about “anger management” – techniques to better contain anger when it strikes. Nor am I referring to tricks to help you stay more calm.
I am talking about a deeper change where your relationship to anger actually shifts. Where it ceases to have dark and mysterious powers over you – instead it becomes a more straightforward and manageable emotion.
No matter how tight a grip anger has on you, you can loosen it.
It is possible to live without feeling hostage to wayward fury.
To not feel out of control when rage gets you in its grip.
To stop hating the angry side of yourself.
No there is no magic wand that you can wave to transform your anger. It takes time and concerted effort. But it is achievable.
As a therapist I have witnessed the process many times. Over time I have seen people’s anger demystified and diffused. The process is unique to the individual but the stages of change are common.
My own personal process of calming my angry edge also matches with what I’ve seen in others. As with most people, reinventing my anger is a work in progress but I’m much better off for the gains I’ve already made.
How anger is tamed
Here is a rough account of the stages people tend to experience as they progress to a calmer life – from a place where anger has too much power.
Stage 1. You begin to observe your angry reactions.
You start to see patterns in what triggers your anger – and notice the early-warning signs. For example:
You drag yourself out of bed, tired but glad it is Friday. You get the news that plans with someone for the coming evening are cancelled. You feel annoyed but say nothing.
As you rush to work you are preoccupied and agitated. Someone gets in your way and you feel yourself explode on the inside. You want to scream and lash out – and maybe you do.
You later reflect that being cut off on the way to work wasn’t the entire cause of your explosion. The earlier cancellation had lit the fuse.
Stage 2. You gain insight into your reactivity
You develop a better understanding of your sensitivities – beyond identifying triggers for your anger, you see how earlier incidents or moods prime you to react. You come to know yourself more fully. For example:
You read an email request to reschedule a meeting. You send a reply then worry about how it will be received. You wonder if it was a bit abrupt, a bit passive aggressive.
You reflect on the incident. Had you paused before replying, you reckon you would have felt your jaw and fists clenching. Words would have come to mind like, ‘Typical! If I can make the effort to keep meetings why can’t they?’
You’re aware of your long history of feeling let down and you recognise this particular incident as fitting this theme.
Stage 3. Moment to moment you are more aware.
You catch yourself and your reactions sooner, sometimes even in the moment. But you cannot yet stop them. For example:
You’re out one night. You thought of going home earlier in the evening, but somehow you knew you were up for a bit of bender, needed to let off some steam. Anyway, stuff it. It’s been building all week – you feel peeved, let down…again, you want to scream but of course you don’t.
You kind of know you ought to go home…instead you have another drink.
This is a difficult stage. You know how your anger works and you can often see it coming but can’t do much about it.
Stage 4. When you do have an angry reaction it is less intense and your recovery is quicker than before.
At times now, anger has less of a grip on you. The capacity to observe yourself, your feelings, states and moods, is creating a buffer between you and your reactions. For example:
You are waiting for some friends and they are now 10 minutes late. You are annoyed and can feel yourself tensing up. This is such a familiar scenario, so infuriating. You expect a text any moment saying they’re on their way.
You imagine yourself biting your tongue when they turn up and biding your time until your annoyance dissipates. However, when they arrive you take a deep breath and comment on their predictable lateness, with a half smile. You feel okay quite soon after.
You were able to predict the situation and your reaction – seeing the moment for what it was took the heat out of it. It didn’t overwhelm you and you were able to behave differently. You expressed annoyance instead of swallowing it, and it passed quickly.
Stage 5. You have far more control in relation to your anger
You can respond rather than react. For example:
There is a discussion you must have with your mother but don’t want to. You are ready for it though. You know what she will say and you don’t want to hear it but if you don’t call her she will call you.
It goes better than you thought. She says all the wrong things and it’s unpleasant but you don’t buy into it, you don’t react. You are angry and you tell her so.
You feel more in control – the call is upsetting but then it’s over and you’re okay.
Stage 6. Anger rarely gets the better of you
You no longer see anger as an ugly side of you. It arises in some situations understandably – but less than it used to, and most often you can deal with it. For example:
You find yourself in a meeting that is a waste of your time. Just as you expected, it is a lot of hot air from a bunch of grandstanders. You feel yourself raise your eyebrows at your manager, hoping she will step in and say something useful.
She doesn’t, but then you are not surprised. You ease back in your chair, thinking you only have to endure another 15 minutes. This thought calms you and you take a deep breath and decide you can sit it out.
What makes taming your anger possible?
There are a number of ways to explain the fact that you can tame your anger. Psychotherapy, mindfulness and neuroscience each spell out the theory in a slightly different way but with plenty of overlap.
Underpinning each, is a version of the idea that you can change from having automatic angry reactions to being able to act or respond with awareness.
You overcome automatic reactions by switching from auto-pilot to manual. You can do this by learning to:
– control how and what you pay attention to
– observe and think about what’s going on for you
– describe your experiences without judging yourself
– understand yourself in relation to your personal history and circumstances
– gain perspective in relation to general human nature and experience.
You can develop these skills in therapy or via other methods like Mindfulness. You will gain perspective, awareness, self-kindness, emotional and attention regulation. And with these capabilities you can tame your anger.
Tips to get started
As with making any significant change, motivation and persistence go a long way. People are most often able to make change when they have hit a crisis point. But it doesn’t have to be the case. You can choose to get started at any time. The sooner you do, the better you will feel.
- Get really clear on why you want things to be different. Is it to save your relationship? To stop hating yourself? For the sake of your children? Keep reminding yourself of the answer.
- The first breakthrough will come when you make your anger a research project. Try to notice every detail about it. When does it strike and how? What does it feel, look and sound like? If you want to get ahead, keep a journal or assign a few minutes each day to a mental review of anger – however it featured in your day.
- The second breakthrough will come when you stop beating up on yourself. Try to think about an angry reaction you had, without judging yourself. Imagine a friend having the same reaction you did and how you would try to be understanding and tell them to ease up on them-self. ‘You’re only human’, you might say. Try to extend this wisdom to yourself.
You’ll have plenty of slip ups where your anger will get the better of you. But each time it does is another opportunity to observe! And observing is a new and different reaction that will dilute your anger, so stick with the program.
Let me know of any queries or comments below – and I’d love to hear about your progress, ups and downs.