Anger is the most difficult and painful emotion we experience. Most individuals say love is the most painful emotion, but when love is right and healthy it feels great and fills us with peace. Anger never feels peaceful—either at the delivering or the receiving end.
No one has anger expression down pat. All of us can be classified into one of two categories, depending on how we reflexively handle our anger—we are either: (a) Stuffers or (b) Exploders. Stuffers hold their anger in, afraid to express it lest they make waves or make someone at them. Stuffers hate conflict, don’t want to cause trouble and avoid directly calling attention to their anger. They prefer to brood or pretend nothing is wrong. Conversely, Exploders emote out their anger, spewing it whenever someone has hurt or crossed them. Exploders have a hair-trigger temper and it doesn’t take much to set them off. Exploders are the kind to “shoot now and ask questions later.”
Which one are you, a Stuffer or an Exploder? An interesting phenomenon is that Stuffers tend to marry Exploders, and Exploders tend to marry Stuffers. This makes sense since each does what the other needs to learn: Stuffers need to learn to come out with their anger, and Exploders need to learn to hold back. See how we can learn from each other in marriage? Notice also that all Stuffers eventually do Explode, when they’ve stuffed so much that a minor wrong causes a major eruption, usually appearing to come out of nowhere. The problem is they have let so many campfires burn that they eventually create a forest fire!
Also interesting, and potentially problematic, is when a Stuffer or Exploder marry “their own kind.” When a Stuffer marries a Stuffer, who brings up any issues? How do any issues get solved? They both avoid. So these relationships need to beware the tendency toward “silent wars.” When an Exploder marries an Exploder, it can be like July 4th with fireworks going off all the time. Unfortunately, the screaming and yelling can cause lots of hurt and pain in a relationship, and lead to a household filled with tension and “walking on eggshells,” especially for the children.
Fortunately, there are four simple rules to remember when dealing with your anger:
1) do not hurt others, 2) do not hurt yourself, 3) do not destroy property and 4) TALK ABOUT IT.
The first step in learning to control your anger is to make yourself recognize your anger. Your body has an automatic response to anger. When you get angry your body’s flight-or-fight response kicks in. This is a phenomenon commonly observed in humans and animals in a life-threatening situation; the body and emotional system prepare to either fight or flight (escape). This can usually be recognized by an increase heart rate/ blood flow, faster breathing and sweating. While there are some similarities in the way humans respond to anger there are also some specifics for each person as well. Some people get red in the face while others may feel tightness in their muscles. It is important to be able to recognize what your specific signs are. These indicators are your warning system that you are moving up the anger scale, like the engine warning light in your car.
Next you want to be able to identify just how angry you are. Do this by creating a personal anger scale from 0 to 10, with 0 being no anger at all and 10 being the most angry you have ever been. The purpose of this scale is to help you monitor your anger on a day-to-day, hour-by-hour, minute-by-minute and second-by-second basis. By stopping your anger from growing beyond a 2 or 3 on the anger scale, you make it much easier to control (and much easier for others to deal with you).
There are several ways counselors help people deal more effectively with their anger. One way is learning anger management. Anger management is based on using interventions to break your anger cycle. We all have angry thoughts, angry feelings and angry behaviors. Anger management interventions can include relaxation training, self-imposed time-out and think techniques.
Relaxation training involves learning deep breathing, muscle relaxation, and relaxing imagery. In addition, we can learn to give ourselves self-imposed time outs (no, time-out is not just for our children!). Time out techniques include counting to 10, physical time outs (taking a short time out of the situation) and mental time outs (changing your thoughts at the time to cool down). It is important to be able to tell the difference between a time out and avoiding dealing with the issue at hand. A time out gives you an opportunity to sort out your feelings and thoughts, and plan your behavior. This is different from running away from problems. When you run away from a problem, the problem remains, and it is just a matter of time until the same conflict and resulting feelings arise again. The best rule of thumb is after a time-out you must go back as soon as possible and address whatever the issue is with whoever was involved.
Think techniques consist of positive self-talk, thought stopping, and examining your expectations. We often have unrealistic expectations about ourselves that we rarely challenge. For example, is it unrealistic to expect a baby to never cry, there be no traffic at 5 pm on a Friday, or that our kids will never disappoint us. Yet these are some of the everyday experiences that often produce anger inside us. By challenging our thoughts when they include the key words of “always” and “never,” we can then transform our beliefs to include more realistic expectations of ourselves and our world. The fact is that babies will cry, kids will get in trouble and there will be traffic at 5 pm on Fridays. If we learn to accept these truths we can then better prepare ourselves to deal with them when they do occur. We can organize a plan on how we are going to teach our kids not to make the same mistake again, or organize our thoughts to more effectively cope with rush hour traffic.
In order for interventions to be effective, it is very important that you practice each one until you feel you have mastered it. As with anything new, these techniques may seem strange at first, but as you practice, they become automatic, just like breathing.
If practice is not helping, short-term counseling can be very effective in changing unwanted anger habits and for healing the hurtful effects of anger aimed at loved ones. Anger management counseling has been life-changing for thousands of individuals and couples. Mastering healthy coping with anger can be the best skill you ever learn for yourself or your partner.
David Gursky, Ph.D. is the co-owner and Clinical Director of the Village Counseling Centre in Thornwood Professional Center, (847) 888-1999.