Got a request last night to blog about anger management and so here I am. It’s timely not only because of the London riots but also the bitterness of the subsequent debate that’s raging about what caused them and what to do about them.
Yesterday I was walking into Paddington station. I was at the top of the long drive into the taxi rank side of the station when I spotted a driver leaping from his black cab to race towards something or somebody that wasn’t in my view. There was a column in the way. As I kept walking I thought I just imagined it; no one near the taxi (and there were lots of people) stopped what they were doing to turn to watch what I could not see. But about 3 minutes later I’d reached the column and on the other side of it found the cabbie screaming into the face of a tall man in a suit standing calmly with his luggage. The cabbie was hefty to put it mildly. His chest butted into the twig of a man and the ferocity of his roar at that close range was probably deafening. “GIVE. ME. FIVE. POUNDS.” he boomed at the top of his lungs. Over and over and over and over.
I kept walking. Rightly or dumbly, I’ve been known to attempt to calm warring strangers I come across. Not this time. I sketched out all the possible scenarios that may’ve triggered the cabbie’s fury and sped my pace since it occurred to me that he would soon either win or give up and step back into his large piece of metal and drive off so pumped up he could easily crash into the pavement and kill me. Anger blinds us.
The cabbie was in the throes of poor anger management. And no matter how justified his anger at twig man may’ve been, I refuse to believe that this much fury can be unleashed by a stranger. What I witnessed makes me think that the cabbie has unresolved anger towards other people in his life and/or with himself. And that’s the sort of anger management I’m going to talk about here. My advice to my friend who explains that she has trouble expressing anger goes like this:
Pay attention to the inside, then release. Pay attention to the outside, then confront.
Pay attention to the inside, then release.
Anger, like the other 5 prime emotions — sadness, fear, surprise, disgust and joy, has a right to be here. There’s nothing inherently good or bad about it. It has a function. However it is the one emotion that begs us to take pause. And the point of that pause is to pay attention to what’s happening inside of us and not the target of our anger. If you’re in the cabbie’s situation where you’ve only seconds to act, then buy time tying your shoe, counting your fingers or best yet, taking 3 deep breaths. If you’ve more time to de-trigger — say the person you want to strangle has slammed down the phone or you’re mulling over something that happened yesterday, then ask yourself what’s going on in your body (not your head) that tells you that you’re angry. For me it’s subtle. I feel electrical charges all over my skin. For most of us there is muscular tension as we hold ourselves back from the urge to physically lash out. Trembling limbs. Feeling flushed. Gritting teeth. These are all signs of anger coursing through the body. The question to keep asking is how and where do I feel the anger physically, not why do I feel angry emotionally. At least not yet.
French psychiatrist Dr. David Servan-Schreiber recommends this physical noticing approach for managing sadness but it’s just as effective for anger. The more you simply notice your physical reaction the quicker the emotion loosens it grip.
For all of us that cringe at the expression “inner child” here’s something I learnt the hard way: we all have one.
Imagine a 3 year old that you ADORE who is psychotic with outrage. Assume you don’t know what happened to trigger the child, but you know they’re generally placid, not a brat prone to tantrums. In the same way you’d soothe and calm that child, this is what you must do for yourself. Pay attention to yourself, take care of yourself and calm yourself down.
There are probably more ways to release anger than any other emotion. Choose what works for you. Personally I go to the gym and play the Dropkick Murphys’ I’m Shipping Up To Boston. If I was by the sea I’d storm the beach with my iPod. For anger, physically intense releases are often the best. But each to their own — listen to Pachelbel’s canon, light a lavender candle, meditate, punch a pillow, knit a scarf. It doesn’t really matter except that you do something with the sole purpose of soothing yourself. Breathing always helps.
Pay attention to the outside, then confront
Once reason has re-asserted itself, it’s safe to re-enter your head. One theory of anger is that is it triggered by unmet needs or someone crossing your boundaries. Ask yourself a few questions about what really happened — not just the circumstantial, but the thoughts that you had at the time. Ask What other times have made me this mad, what do they have in common with now? To what extent am I more angry lately? Why do I think that is? Is anger all that I feel about this situation or do I also feel hurt or scared? And finally ask yourself about the other person. Does this person routinely make me angry? To what extent do I feel sure they set out to make me angry on this occasion, that this was their intent? Imagine telling their side of the story.
Then confront. Here you have two choices.
I don’t know anyone who relishes difficult conversations (though I’m sure there are some who do) — but there is a right way and a wrong way to go about it. Mountains of excellent material exists on the step-by-step way to express anger effectively. Read a book like Difficult Conversations or start with a link such as this one .
Choice one is to prepare and then have the conversation with the person who’s angered you. Until you do that you can never assume that they can guess what’s going on in your head. Never.
The second choice is not to bother.
The older I get the more I notice that things that make me angry say a lot about me and the weird choices I’ve made in friends or partners. Sometimes, the time and energy we invest in explaining ourselves to another is better spent explaining ourselves to ourselves. What’s going on that’s making us angry could be resolved by treating ourselves with more respect rather than asking other people to.
There is of course, a third way. Our default, when we choose neither of the above options, is called anger mismanagement and it’s what’s going on for lots of us at least part of the time. We avoid difficult conversations with others and with ourselves and we get increasingly passive aggressive or impossible to read and deeply unhappy. We let strangers trigger us. Maybe we jump out of our cars, create a scene, storm off, maybe even knock someone down in our path. We wait for the heart attack that’s coming to get us. We numb ourselves out with a bottle of wine and a pack of cigarettes. We riot. But whatever we do, we avoid paying attention, avoid listening to our bodies, avoid confronting situations and instead just lash out because of them.
What most of us need to manage our anger, to make the choice not to revert to default, is a bit of help and support.