W. Robert Nay, Taking Charge of Anger, Second Edition: Six Steps to Asserting Yourself without Losing Control (2012)
Last week we talked mainly about recognizing your anger triggers and the things you might be able to notice right before triggers or early enough after your anger starts to be able to dampen your response. You start doing this by slowing and deepening your breathing. You pay more attention to your expectations and the thoughts and feelings that go with them. You become more aware of the fight-or-flight reactions your body experiences.
This week we're going to look more at your thinking, so you can more actively work with it to change your anger responses. Once your initial anger responses are a little more under your control, because you are more aware them starting, it's important to stop and look at the thoughts that cause your anger to grow and your responses to escalate. You can't more reliably change your reactions to your triggers until you change your thinking.
It's important to realize that no matter how well you're able to slow yourself down and dampen your anger after it's triggered, if you don't work to reduce the number of times it's triggered, you'll be spending a lot of time and energy on damage control. The best place to start this process is through your thinking. You can't immediately change your feelings or your physical reactions, but you can pay attention to your thoughts and learn some simple, highly effective ways to handle them. This will start bringing everything else in line rather quickly.
When we talk about your thinking here, we're really talking about your self-talk, the "conversation," the words in your head, the comments, the "analysis," the stories, the opinions and all the telling yourself what you should do. This can also include mental pictures and playing out scenarios or future conversations in you mind. What you typically let go on here makes a huge difference in how you feel and in what choices you make. Your thinking, feelings and physical responses are all fueling each other. Thinking better can make the other two a lot more manageable.
The Nature of Self-Talk
You always have self-talk going on. It takes lots of meditation practice to get any sort of real handle on the ongoing chatter in your undisciplined "monkey mind." Your self-talk is almost completely habit driven. Something happens and you can predict quite accurately what's going to be popping up. You might not know the exact worlds, but you'll know the themes and you'll know the feelings that are likely to follow.
You learned your self-talk habits just like you learned to talk, ride a bike or play an instrument. You practiced. You may not have been practicing on purpose, but you did the same stuff over and over until it was automatic. Some of it you learned by watching other people and a little of it you were taught more directly by you parents, teachers or other "big people." A lot of it you just made up on the fly, and you just kept doing because it worked in some fashion or other. Now, it's automatic even if it doesn't work very well anymore.
The important things to realize are: you tend to take these thoughts as givens and they create your reality. It's also important to realize that since these are habits you've learned you can replace them with something better with some more practice.
You're probably still wondering why self-talk is so often a problem. The problem starts with the way our self-talk misinterprets or exaggerates the facts. We tend to use "colorful" or emotionally loaded language and create "cognitive distortions." We embellish the facts and often create what Dr. Christian Conte calls "Cartoon World," a world of "shoulds" and unrealistic expectations.
Rule of Thumb:
When our self-talk isn't based on the facts, it's distorted and leads us to dramatic and unnecessary conclusions. We get more emotional and make poorer choices.
How can you more readily tell the facts from your own fictions? It starts by reminding yourself that you thoughts and feelings are information or "data." They're stuff that happens in you head. They are not "The Truth" or "Reality." Sometimes they are more on track or useful than others, but they aren't the whole story. They're never 100% accurate or anywhere close to complete.
Facts are things that we can all potentially observe and agree on. If I tell you, "Man it's hot! It's 18° outside." We'd say 18° was a fact, because we can both observe it, but we'd have to say that "hot" isn't. It's my interpretation. If we go to a movie and talk about it afterwards, we could probably agree on what was in the scenes and what the characters said and did, but we'd have different ideas about what it meant or about how good the movie was in a number of ways. The same thing plays out in real life. Much of the time we can agree on many of the facts, but have very different ideas about what they mean, why they happened and how we "should" feel about them. Feelings and cognitive distortions make this even more difficult. We can get started with two basic rules:
- Thoughts need to be "fact checked."
- Accurate thoughts rarely make the situation emotionally worse.
Cognitive Distortions That Fuel Anger
There are ten common cognitive distortions that make it easier to get angrier. Each one is a different way we exaggerate or misrepresent what's going on. Several of them assume something must be true or is a fact when we just can't know for certain that it is.
Without factual evidence, you believe that another person's statements or actions are directed toward you. You may feel personally attacked. Social media can be very aggravating or triggering for you.
You magnify or exaggerate the negative impact of another person's words, actions or an event well beyond the facts. You "awfulize" the situation.
Without any basis in fact, you predict that a situation will turn out badly, without looking fairly at other reasonably possible outcomes.
Not focusing on all the positive and negative aspects of a situation or thing, you see it in extremes (success/failure, good/bad). You think in overgeneralized terms (always, never, any, every).
Without asking about it or checking it out, you assume you know how another person thinks or feels or what that person's motives are.
You use name calling or "colorful," inflammatory words like "incompetent," "zoo," "farce," or "nightmare" to describe another person or situation.
You focus your thoughts on the most upsetting or threatening things that happened without looking at any of the neutral or positive facts or events that might contradict your negative view.
You set an arbitrary limit for what you can stand or will tolerate, you feel justified in being more intense or punitive when another person "crosses the line" even if they have no idea it's there.
You plan out or rehearse how you're going to act. You often focus on getting even or punishing another person.
You keep going over and ruminating on what was said or what happened. You keep looking for evidence something is wrong or that there's some hidden message in there somewhere. Even if there is very little to work with, you keep going until you find something.
Changing Your Self-Talk
As you start recognizing the distortions in your thinking, how do you start making it more accurate, and then how do you make this process more automatic? How do you make it a good habit? Start with the STOP Method. A full description can be found below. Your can start using the method as soon as you start recognizing you've got a problem. The sooner you start, the easier it will be to stay on track and keep things as healthy as you can.
Rule of Thumb:
When we don't like the facts, we need to make more of an effort to notice distorted thinking and replace it with something more accurate.
You can even use the STOP Method after the fact when you've failed. You can go through the situation in your mind or you can explore it in writing. The goal is to practice the steps, so it becomes easier and more automatic next time. Your anger will start getting easier to keep in check when you start remembering the three key questions from the Think Step. You can start changing your expectations by working with the method.
Assertive Problem Solving
The goal of controlling your anger is not simply to control it. The real goal is to make it possible to channel that energy in a positive way to meet your needs and the needs of those around you. You're not in the situation alone though, and you have to find a way to communicate what's important to someone else who might not be in the best frame of mind either. How do you do that in a way that's more likely to succeed? Assertive Problem Solving is your key. You communicate your side in a calm simple matter-of-fact way without hostility. You might think of it as being business-like. This is the assertive part.
When you are problems solving, you listen to the other person to understand their concerns and point of view. You're trying to connect what's on your side to what's on their side and then find a way to make something work reasonably well for both of you. This means you have to explore some ideas together and not get hung up in being right or having to have things all your own way. Rather than finding "The Answer," you probably need to find a place to start. You're going to try an "experiment." Once you can agree on what you're going to try and start doing it, you'll get feedback from the outcomes. Now, you get to adjust or tweak your experimental solution.
Before you get to the point where you can actually problem solve, you will often have to overcome some emotional roadblocks and may have to repair some mistakes or miscommunications on your part. What should you be prepared for? What mistakes are you prone to? What faces of anger is the other person likely to express? Will they be sarcastic, cold, hostile or likely to lash out verbally or physically? Let's take it step by step.
Step 1 – Know Your Thoughts, Feelings and Needs
Just telling somebody you're angry won't do much and can even make the situation worse. The other person might immediately become defensive and quickly lash out in anger towards you. So, take the time to STOP. As you start to think and objectify, see if you can start identifying the actual events that got you started, finish sorting through your thoughts and feelings and start considering your needs and boundaries. These form the basis for your plan. You will also have to take into account the other person's point of view and likely responses.
When you create your plan, you need to play it out enough in your mind to recognize any obvious flaws. Not being realistic about the other person is a common mistake. The other person's past behavior will always be the best predictor of their future behavior. You can also be unrealistic about your own behavior, especially your ability to stay calm and logical under fire. Plan for something to not go right. What will you do to handle pushback? What will you do if you get more upset?
In the heat of a tense conversation, you don't have a lot of time to carefully think things through. You're going to be doing the best you can in a few moments. Remember to breathe. Remember to use your mental stop phrase again if you need to. Remember, you can take a timeout, too.
Step 2 – Communicate at the Right Time in the Right Atmosphere
You can't have a solid, healthy conversation when you or the other person is in fight-or-flight. You can't do it when the other person is distracted. It's a bad idea to do it in public. As you're planning your response, you need to consider the current or potential environment and the other person's likely physical, emotional and mental state. Your goal is to be heard. You want to accomplish something. You need to pick a good time and a good place. It doesn't have to be perfect, but you do need to avoid any major roadblocks.
Having a serious conversation that is likely to increase each other's anxiety or anger, and it's is going to push you toward fight-or-flight. Here are a few things to slow that down:
- Talk together sitting down and facing each other.
- Use calm, simple language. Even when you're talking about your feelings, be reasonably matter-of-fact. Pay attention to the Active Listening principles you can find below.
- Making your point is less important than understanding the other person's point of view for much of the conversation. You have to listen well if you really want to be heard.
- Be as unfailingly polite and respectful as you can. It doesn't matter if the other person isn't. You won't be heard and won't reach you goals if you aggravate the situation, too.
- If the other person simply isn't ready to talk, don't keep pushing it. You can't hammer away at someone and really get anything other than very temporary changes or empty promises.
Step 3 – Assertive Communication
Now it's time to assertively communicate. You're going to calmly and clearly telling the other person what things look like from your side and being straightforward about your boundaries or the things you want. In that process, you have to work with the other person's point of view, their feelings and their thoughts. You will have to defuse hostility and calmly handle pushback. You'll have to clear up and repair miscommunications. Help for this is in the next section. Remember, being assertive is not being aggressive. It's not being demanding. It's about being calm, open and honest. It's about focusing on behavior and situations, not someone else's character or being. It's at least as much about listening as it is talking.
Listening alone doesn't always work. You may have to actively work to defuse someone's anger. Here are a few tools:
Using "I" Messages
Even if the other person is reluctant to talk about their feeling or needs clearly or openly, you can't keep letting things slide. If your boundaries continue to be ignored or they continue to act in angry or destructive ways, you need to be assertive and clear about yourself. This means you start with "I" not "You." Something like, "I felt _____ when you did/said _____. I'd like you to do/say _____ next time/instead. Can we talk about it?" goes a lot further than, "You always _____. I can't stand it. When are you going to grow up? You better _____ next time. You're such a jerk!"
Ask the other person to tell you more about what they're thinking or feeling. Ask them to tell it to you in a different way. Asking them something like this shows that you're trying to understand. It may also slow the other person down and get them to think about it a bit more. Helping someone get a little more "into their head" tends to reduce emotions. Being "analytical" and emotional is very hard to do at the same time. This may also give you more information to use for the STOP Method in your own mind.
Agreeing on Facts or in Principle
When someone says things to you or about you that you feel aren't right, inaccurate or only partially or a little bit right, you're tempted to complain or just reject them. This leads the other person to insist or push further. Take the time to find the part that's true and agree with it. Stop trying to be right and acknowledge the truth rather than focusing on the parts that are wrong or unfair. When people are upset, they say things poorly or exaggerate to make a point. Look past the junk, find the real point and agree. If you need to apologize, do.
The Broken Record
If the other person keeps going off track, you may need to repeat yourself to stay assertive and focused on the point. Pay attention to whether or not something is relevant or avoiding the point. Are you being baited or ignored? Rather than focusing on these things, simply come back to your point in a polite but insistent fashion. If the other person really isn't ready to talk about it, ask them to set a time in the near future when you can.
Responding to Sarcasm
Sarcastic people often try to play their remarks off as joking around. They may also tell you you're too thin-skinned, need to toughen up or just grow up. Handling this with an "I" message is a good place to start. You may also have to call the person out if you are in a group setting like being out with friends and you've talked about it together before. The other person is used to your silence to get away with their disrespectful angry behavior. Pointing out to them in private that the next time they use sarcasm or other deliberate means to embarrass you, you will "remind" them of your prior boundary setting in front of everybody. Make sure you are calm and tactful when you actually do this, or you'll be the one who's seen in the worst light for "overreacting."
Responding to Passive-Aggression
Passive-Aggressive people, like those who are frequently sarcastic, count on your not saying anything. It's still important to let them know their behavior is not OK and that since it hurts you, it hurts the relationship. It may take some time to find a consequence that reinforces your boundary, but you're looking for some way of limiting the "extra" or "special" things you do when your relationship is more positive until they behave in a more adult fashion. You may need to be more business-like. If you're essentially being "punished" for things that grown-ups can talk about and work through, you need to carefully limit the "rewards" the other person receives from you.
Responding to Cold Anger
What can you do when you're getting the silent treatment? Again, you start with an "I" message. You mention how you feel. You ask for the person to tell you what's really going on. You might reassure them that you really want to figure out a way to make things work, not simply get mad and fight. If the other person continues to refuse, decide what you're going to do without their input. "I'm going to continue speaking to you when I need to. If you choose to respond, that would be really nice. But I'm going to move ahead with my day."
Cold anger is often used in a way to keep you off balance, keep you trying to check in and talk or to "punish" you for some offense without saying what or why. Sometimes, you're simply expected to know. "We're in a relationship, right? You should know." This is a demand for "mindreading." Stop being held hostage by anxiety or your own anger with the other person's behavior. Your reactions to cold anger will then stop being a reward for the other person.
- What you say can invite calm discussion or stifle it. How you say it is important, too.
- Avoid interrupting. The focus is on understanding the other person.
- If confused, ask for clarification of feelings or the other person's position.
- Paraphrase the other person's feelings, thoughts and needs at appropriate times and always before you state your own position.
Tone and loudness
- Keep your voice even, showing interest.
- Avoid "stair stepping." Don't raise your voice even if the other person does.
- Remember, body language is a major communicator of your message to another person.
- Look at the other and show interest. Avoid facial negatives like eye rolling or frowning.
- Position yourself to fully face the other, sit comfortably and lean forward a bit to show involvement.
Roadblocks to Effective Communication
Adding Other Issues (Kitchen-Sinking)
- "Well, what about the way you treated me at Christmas, and what about how you never pitch in around here?"
- "I may have interrupted you, but you interrupt me all the time."
- "Your temper is just as bad as mine ... admit it."
- "What about last year when you _____?"
- "You forget all that you lost money in the stock market two years ago."
- "You always forget something."
- "You never bring what you need."
- "You're crazy."
- "You're a complete jerk."
- "I know you are angry with me."
- "You love to argue, don't you? You're just trying to ruin my day."
- "This will never work. You'll blow it again."
- "We can't ever work things out. It's useless."
- "This whole thing is a waste of time."
- "Your argument makes no sense at all."
- [Big dramatic sigh, eyes rolling] "It's just hopeless and exhausting trying to talk to you."
- "Will you ever get to the point?"
How to STOP Anger
Stop your anger from escalating. Say something to yourself to remind yourself to step back mentally. It might be "Stop!" or "Chill." It might be saying, "I need to breathe and focus." Pick something that works for you. The goal is to not let your thoughts, feelings or body get carried off by your rush of anger.Now take a deep breath and continue to slow your breathing down. Take a few full breaths. Quickly scan your body and let any tense muscles relax.If you need to take a timeout, say so. "This feels really intense. I need take some time to think." or "This feels really intense. I need take some time to calm down and collect myself." Remember to set an approximate time to restart or check in. (Half an hour to an hour is usually good.)
Let a couple of automatic thoughts come to your attention. Pay attention to how they sound to you. Ask yourself three key questions about your thoughts:
- Are they based on observable facts rather than colorful interpretations?
- Are they giving me good ideas for calming myself and resolving the problem I face?
- Are they free of cognitive distortions?
Now it's time to replace the automatic thoughts with reasonable, realistic ones that are grounded in actual facts about the person and situation. Follow these guidelines:
- Focus on realistic expectations for this person or situation based on past behavior and what's actually happened in reasonably similar circumstances before.
- Think about the unpleasant situation in relation to other recent events or at other things the person has done or said that seem more positive. Look at a stressful situation in the light of past facts. Make an effort to look for good stuff. Don't be satisfied with the easy automatic negative stuff. Find and consider the bigger picture.
- Review things you know about the other person or their situation that can help you understand their actions in a more positive or reasonable light.
- Review your own strengths. What can help you cope with this situation. How have you coped with a loss or stayed calm in the face of a real emergency in healthy ways in the past? If you remember other healthy strategies, feel free to use them, too.
You have to act differently to get to an outcome that's different from the one your uncontrolled anger would produce.A good plan is specific and describes the actions you will take. It's under your control, so it's something you can actually do without depending on someone else for permission or cooperation. Its outcome can be measured, or you can tell when it's done.Having a plan increases your sense of control and will actually reduce your anger. You can use positive productive healthy self-talk to make it easier to follow through. If you have time, you can work this out in more detail on paper for practice. It can even help to do this after you've been unsuccessful to consider what might have worked better. This can then help you get ready for next time.
Questions to Journal
- What do you frequently start saying to yourself when you’re getting angry?
- How do you slow your anger down? What do you do to stay calm or to calm yourself back down?
- When it comes to your anger, what strengths do you already have?
- How does (or did) your significant other’s anger usually get expressed?
- When is it the hardest to manage your anger?
Verses for the Week
Be angry and don't sin. Don't let the sun go down on your anger.
My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry…
Fools give full vent to their rage, but the wise bring calm in the end.
A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.
A hot-tempered person stirs up conflict, but someone who is patient calms a quarrel.
1What causes fights and quarrels between you? Don't they come from the desires that battle within you? 2You desire but don't have, so you kill. You covet but you can't get what you want, so you quarrel and fight…
Do not make friends with a hot-tempered person. Do not associate with someone who is easily angered…
Refrain from anger and turn from wrath. Do not worry. It leads only to evil.
Whoever is patient has great understanding, but one who is quick-tempered is foolish.
Prayer for the Week
Thank you for helping me overcome my anger. Help me catch myself before I do more damage to myself and others. Help me this week to pay attention to how I think about and respond to conflict. Help me stop my negative trains of thought, ask myself better questions and have empathy for and curiosity about the other people involved. Help me see the hurt and pain in others and treat them like I'd want to be treated. Help me to remember my part, admit my mistakes and my limitations. Help me be a better me, so I can become a peacemaker instead of a peacebreaker. Amen.