How Do I Stop Being So Angry?

How Do I Stop Being So Angry?

anger management therapy angry faces image

If you google, ‘how to stop being so angry,’ you will find numerous blogs with a list of to-dos to help you control your anger. What makes this blog different is that it helps you to work out what is going on deep down inside you. It isn’t so much about practical tips, such as walking away, and breathing, you can find those tips in any short blog on anger. It is more about helping you to understand your anger, to understand what is going on inside you when you get angry, so that you can begin to change the anger from the inside out. 

The blog is one of a series of blogs on anger, and I encourage you to read the other blogs in the series to fully understand what makes you so angry, and how to change that behaviour.

1 Understand Your Own Emotions

Why do I get so angry?

I often tell clients to go away and research their own anger. I want clients to step outside themselves for a few weeks or more and observe themselves being angry.

  • Look at what is going on before you get angry, and what happens afterwards. Are there particular triggers, such as a long day at work, feeling irritable, or tired, or being hungry (skipping lunch) – alcohol is one of the most obvious triggers, but it isn’t the only one.
  • Look at what is happening in your body when you get angry. Do you notice parts of your body getting hotter or cooler? Do you notice muscles tightening, such as your jaw, or your hands-clenching?
  • Look at what happens after you get angry, what happens in the room around you, and to the people you are with. Do they cower? Do they fight back? How do their responses to your anger make you feel? Do you feel strong or powerful, or do you feel ashamed and want to hide? What do you feel like doing?
  • Look at what happens after you get angry? Do you walk out or need time to calm down? Are you able to apologize? What does an apology look like, and how effective is it? Repeatedly apologizing for getting angry is never going to be enough. Apologizing for unhealthy behaviour has to be followed up right away with a plan about how you are going to avoid acting out, or getting angry in the same way again.

2 Know When to Deescalate

When should I take a time-out if I’m fighting with my partner?

The time to stop the anger, to intervene and stop the angry outburst and aggressive verbal conflict from taking place in the first place, is the very first moment you notice any change in your body. Irritability, tensing, warmth – these are all somatic warning signs that can help prevent annoyance and irritation from growing into a monstrous ugly rage.

This is why researching your own emotions in general, and anger in particular, is so very important. You want to “film” your anger as it moves from a pleasant morning to a violent outburst at night, and track and recognize each moment, shift, and change in movement. You then want to slow down the film, taking notice of what is happening, how ‘a’ leads to ‘b’, and noting times when you could successfully intervene before anger becomes unchecked.

For clients who may find the research step overwhelming, I’ve recently tried a different approach as well. It isn’t intended as a strategy to replace the first step, “know your anger,” but it may be helpful to some who need a step-up, or a way to get on top of this fast. I’ve suggested purchasing and wearing a simple heart rate monitor, available on Amazon for about $30, and wearing it – it’s no good in the box. Get into a habit of checking the monitor throughout the day, seeing what your heart rate is and checking in with how you are feeling. Heart rates increase when you are angry. By tracking and observing your own heart rate, you can track the ebb and flow of your anger and get a better understanding of when you need to intervene or take time out to deescalate.

Another reason that this helps is that many people with anger will insist that they are not angry when they are, in fact, angry. And of course, that is like a red rag to an angry bull, when you feel just a little bit annoyed, and someone tells you to stop being angry, you’re likely to explode in angry rage, far angrier, than you were initially.

Here’s the catch: when you come in the door and say something, you are probably not consciously aware of being that angry. In terms of heating up the oven, you probably think that your anger is at about 220C; when your wife hears it, however, she hears anger at 550C. Those who have regulated their painful emotions by changing feelings of sadness and shame to anger will usually have a very different perception of their own anger than those around them. That may be hard to hear, but it can be a helpful insight for anyone who is trying to learn to reduce their angry outbursts.

3 Know How to Deescalate

How do I calm down when I’m angry?

Prof. John Gottman is a genius, and spent years researching relationships, emotions, and anger. ( Anything you read by him is going to be good.

When he works with couples and/or is researching how couples interact, he will hook them both up to heart monitors to see how their heart rate correlates with their emotional expression. Gottman’s research has demonstrated that when you are angry, it will take at least 20 minutes to deescalate. I’ve talked to many people over the years, who hear this, and will think, “okay I can do that,” and then go out to the garage when angry and sit there with a cigarette or a drink, and think of all the awful things their partner has done and all the reasons why they deserve to be angry with them.

It doesn’t work like that. It won’t work. If you take a time-out and use that time-out to meditate on all the reasons to be angry, you are simply pouring propane on your anger. If you sit and think about all the bad things your partner has ever done to you during your time out, you will simply be setting yourself up to fight – only this time it’s the second round of the fight.

If you are going to deescalate effectively, you need to do something different. This includes both a physical/body piece and a cognitive/mind piece. You need to use different strategies to deescalate your anger – strategies to address your emotional and bodily distress and the thoughts that are racing through your mind, and keeping the feelings of anger around, rather than letting them dissipate.

It may be worth unpacking that just a little: we have emotions, and they convey important messages. Emotions trigger thoughts, thoughts about what is upsetting us, and thoughts trigger and escalate the emotions we are already feeling. So, the feelings escalate and make you think a certain way, and the thoughts about what you are feeling upset about feed the feelings and keep them around. Emotions are made up of the emotional feelings we all know, and the thoughts, what we are thinking in our head.

Emotions are also made up of bodily sensations. Emotions make us feel sensations such as tightness, tension, or warmth in our bodies. These bodily sensations can often make people feel as if they are physically sick, for example when someone has a panic attack and doesn’t realize they are having a panic attack and instead thinks they are having a heart attack and goes to the hospital. Caution: never assume that a physical pain is triggered by an emotion. Always go to see your doctor so that your doctor can make that assessment.

Emotions are made up of feelings, thoughts, bodily sensations and urges to do something. So, when we feel afraid, most of us will have a strong urge to fight to defend ourselves, run and hide, or freeze, so that we aren’t seen by our attacker. All feelings, all emotions have action impulses.

Come back to anger: when you are angry and you take time out to deescalate, you can and I encourage you to, do something to deescalate the anger – in your body, in your emotions, in your mind/thoughts, and in what you feel like doing.

Resist the Urge: The urge to act when angry is to fight, flight, or freeze. When you choose to physically resist shouting/fighting, or running away/flight, and avoid closing down/freezing, and instead choose to walk to a quiet place and take time to calm down, you have taken the first step to deescalate your anger.

Relax Your Body: Anger makes your body tense and your muscles tight. Deescalating the anger can involve stretching or physical exercise, such as a run, and any breathing exercises. Anger makes us clench our fists and tighten our jaws; anything you can do to tighten and relax and stretch these parts of your body will also help. All of these strategies will help your physical body to relax, and your emotions listen to your physical body. Your mind and emotions read the messages that your body sends them. When you can deescalate the tension in your physical body, so that your body mimics a more relaxed, easy going, emotion, your emotions will relax and your anger will abate, because your emotions are listening the message that the body is sending.

Change Your Thoughts: Our thoughts about a situation will keep our emotions lingering. If you have a spasm of anxiety and you start to think about all the ways you are going to die, then your thoughts about dying will make your anxiety worse. When you can change those thoughts, you can help to reduce the anxiety and interrupt the escalating cycle of anxious thoughts and feelings.

Anger makes you think of all the ways you have been wronged. It reminds you of all the bad things your partner has done to hurt you, then blows those thoughts up so that you think the very worst about your partner. If your partner came home late, and got into a fender-bender on the way home, putting additional stress on your already stressed finances, then your thoughts will be running with: “she’s so unreliable, she’s doesn’t care about what I feel, or what I need, she came home late on purpose to annoy me because she knew there was a big match on the TV tonight, and she probably dinged the car on purpose just to piss me off.” By that point, you truly escalated and about to explode.

If you want to turn down the heat on the anger, you need to change the thoughts that are fueling it. Simply put, this means you need to give your partner the benefit of the doubt. This may be hard if you’ve been struggling lately , but giving your partner the benefit of the doubt means thinking differently. It looks like this: “wow that must have been scary for her to get into a fender-bender on her own. It was probably because she was rushing home knowing I had my big game tonight. I know her boss is a jerk, and I know he’s always giving her impossible tasks to do at the end of the day when he knows her shift is over. That’s got to be rough.”

Try that. I can guarantee it won’t be easy, but I can also guarantee that if you can do it, you are going to feel a lot less angry; your angry feelings will no longer be fueled by your angry emotions and you will start to see your angry feelings dissipate and disappear.

Listen to Your Emotions: This is very much an emotionally focused approached and comes from emotionally focused theories. Most behavioural and cognitive behavioural approaches won’t include this step. It is included here out of recognition of the emotional theory, or understanding of how anger is part of our emotional schema and how our bodies handle emotions. This strategy recognizes the iceberg and knows that underneath the anger there are other more complex and painful emotions that you may not be aware of.

I suggest working on the first three strategies first, for a good 15-20 minutes until you feel calmer. When you have started to calm down, take a few more minutes to reflect. Ask yourself the following questions about what was going on when you got angry. When my partner spoke to me this way, and I got angry:

  • Did it sound to me like my partner was saying something was wrong with me? Did it sound as if they were putting me down, questioning my ability to do my job, to be a good partner, to be a good dad, to earn enough money? Did it make me feel as if I wasn’t good enough, that I wasn’t a good man/woman, husband/wife, that I wasn’t a good enough provider/parent/lover? Did it take me to a dark place emotionally? Did it remind me of times when I have felt like that before? What did I feel like doing when I felt that way, before I shouted? Did I feel like I wanted to disappear? Did I feel like running into the bedroom and hiding under the bed?
  • Did it sound like my partner was threatening to leave me? Did it sound as if they were saying that if things didn’t change, if I didn’t change, that they were going to walk away? Did it sound like they were threatening to take the kids, and stop me seeing my kids? Was that what I was hearing? Is it possible I had a moment of terror, that this was the end?

We all have unique soft spots, vulnerable bits inside us that hurt when someone pokes them. These soft spots are usually related to how we feel about ourselves, to our identity, or to how far we feel connected to the person we love. These are the soft spots that are being triggered when we go to secondary anger. When our soft bit, or primary concern, is feeling good about ourselves or revolves around identity, then anything our partner says that makes us feel demeaned or questions our manhood/womanhood, intelligence, authority or ability will trigger an angry response. When our soft bit is related to our need to feel securely attached to our partner, then anything that makes us feel like our partner is leaving us will trigger an angry response.

The secret, and the biggest challenge, is to feel the first feelings – the feelings of shame, fear, and sadness – and then tell your partner how you feel. If we can do that, we can be present in our relationships. We say to our partner, “this is me, this is what I look like, this is what I sound like, this is me inside,” and when we do that, our partner is far more likely to comfort, esteem and respect us, and to give us what we so desperately need – intimacy, security and respect.

4 Know How to Make Up

How do I fix a relationship after a huge fight?

The last step is making up. If I had a dollar for every client who has told me, “I said I was sorry” as if that made it all okay, or every client who told me, “they say they are sorry, but it doesn’t mean anything anymore,” I would be rich. Couples fight and make up, in repetitive cycles ‘A’ attacks ‘B’, ‘B’ fights back, or runs away, and ‘A’ bails, or some version of that.

Cycles are repetitive and addictive. They are hard to change. Anger, verbal anger, verbal and emotional abuse is a destructive part of many of those cycles, and saying sorry isn’t enough.

Every effective apology needs to be accompanied by a plan of action to address how the situation won’t happen again. If you have been verbally aggressive toward your partner, then an apology, simply stated as “I’m sorry” isn’t enough. Your partner will stay away, hurt and wounded, and know that your apology means and changes nothing and that the rage, and name calling will happen again next time you’ve had too much to drink, or are pissed off at God-knows-what. Your partner will move just a little bit farther away from you, until one day they tell you they are leaving, and it’s too late to make any changes.

If you are unable to change your angry behaviour, then don’t apologize and tell them it won’t happen again. Your apology is essentially worthless, and you’re making a promise you cannot keep. If you are unable to change your repetitive angry outbursts, tell your partner, “I’m sorry, I need help. I’m picking up my phone as we speak and googling anger management and psychotherapists, and I’m pressing call, right now, to make an appointment and get help.’

That’s what it looks like to ‘make up.’

Increase Intimacy in Your Relationship

Anger is front and center in any fight between couples, between parents and kids, and between friends. We speak and act in anger with the words we use, the volume and tone we take, and the way we hold our bodies and use are arms and face to demonstrate how we feel.  Anger destroys relationships. It tears families apart and decimates communities. Anger always pushes our partner away.

When we understand our emotions, when we can listen to what our deepest feelings are telling us, when we tell our partner what makes us tick, and what we need in our relationship, we will invite our partner into our lives in a way that deepens and enriches intimacy. While anger always pushes our partner away, opening up to our partner, being vulnerable with your partner, telling your partner about the softer, painful feelings under the anger, will always draw your partner closer to you, and ultimately give you what you so desperately need in your relationship – to be understood, to be loved for who you are, to be held.

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