Tag Archives: anger management

The Sweet Spot of Self-Control

The Sweet Spot of Self Control (and Anger Management)

The speedometer reads 82 miles per hour. The numbers 8 and 2, represent, to me, a reasonable speed on I-90 in the middle of Montana. Our new (and unnecessary) speed limit signs read eight-zero. So technically, I’m breaking the law by two miles per hour. But the nearest car is a quarter mile away. The road is straight. Having ingested an optimal dose of caffeine, my attention is focused.

Slowly, a car creeps up from behind. He has his cruise control set at 83 mph. He lingers beside me and edges ahead. Then, with only three car lengths between us, he puts on his blinker and pulls in front of me. Now, with no other cars in sight, there’s just me and Mr. 83 mph on I-90, three car lengths apart.

An emotion rises into awareness. It’s almost anger. But nope, it not anger, it’s anger’s close cousin, annoyance. I feel it in my psyche and immediately know it can go in one of three directions: It could sit there and remain itself, until I tire of it; if I feed it, it could rise up and blossom into full-blown anger; or, I can send it away, leaving room for other thoughts and actions.

This is fabulous. This is the Sweet Spot of Self-Control.

Anger is lurking there, I know. I see it peeking over the shoulder of its cousin. “Hello anger,” I say.

In this sweet spot, I experience expanding awareness, a pinch of energy, along with an unfolding of possibilities. I love this place. I love the feelings of strength and power. I also recognize anger’s best buddy, the behavioral impulse. This particular impulse (they vary of course), is itching for me to reset my cruise control to 84 mph.  It’s coming to me in the shape of a desire—a desire to send the driver in front of me a clear message.

“You should cut him off,” the impulse says, “and let him know he should get a clue and give you some space.”

The sweet spot is sweet because it includes the empowered choice to say “No thanks” to the impulse and “See you later” to anger.

Now I’m listening to a different voice in my head. It’s smaller, softer, steadier. “It doesn’t matter” the voice whispers. “Let him creep ahead. Revenge only satisfies briefly.”

I feel a smile on my face as I remember an anger management workshop. With confidence, I had said to the young men in attendance, “No other emotion shifts as quickly as anger. You can go from feeling completely justified and vindicated, but as soon as you act, you can feel overwhelmed with shame and regret.”

A man raised his hand, “Lust” he said. “Lust is just like anger. One second you want it more than anything, but the next second you wish you hadn’t.”

“Maybe so,” I said. “Maybe so.”

There are many rational reasons why acting on aggressive behavioral impulses is ill-advised. Maybe the biggest is that the man in the car wouldn’t understand my effort to communicate with him. This gap of understanding is common across many efforts to communicate. But it’s especially linked to retaliatory or revenge-filled impulses. When angry, I can’t provide nuance in my communication and make it constructive.

The quiet voice in my brain murmurs: “You’re no victim to your impulses. You drive the car; the car doesn’t drive you.” That doesn’t make much sense. Sometimes the voice in my head speaks in analogy and metaphor. It’s a common problem. I want straight talk, but instead I get some silly metaphor from my elitist and intellectual conscience.

But I do get it and here’s what I get. I get that my conscience is telling me that this sweet spot is sweet because I get to see and feel my self-control. Not only do I get to see my behavioral options, I get to see into the future and evaluate their likely outcomes. I get to reject poor choices and avoid negative outcomes linked to aggressive actions. I’m not a victim of annoyance, anger, or aggressive impulses. I get to make the plan. I get to drive the car.

Now that other driver is far ahead.

Being on a Montana freeway, it’s hard to not think of deer. It’s clear now, but at dusk, deer will be everywhere. They have an odd instinct. Freud and my elitist conscience are inclined to call it a death instinct. Here’s how it works:

When I drive up alongside a deer on the side of the road, it dashes ahead, running alongside me; then it tries to cut across in front of me. This is the coup de gras of bad judgment. I’m in a big metal machine. The deer isn’t. So the deer dies. Not a good choice for the deer.

Yesterday, my phone alerted me to a Youtube speech by an unnamed alt right big-man. I watched and listened. So much smugness I was sick. In the end he shouted out “Hail Trump” and a few others jumped up and gave the “Heil Hitler!” salute.

Like a crazed deer, I felt an instinct. I wanted to drive to D.C. or Whitefish, Montana and find unnamed alt-right man and cut him off with some uncivil discourse. Instead, because I have a frontal lobe, I walked to the gym. Upon arriving, I discovered I’d stepped in dog poop. I’m sure this was an annoying but meaningful metaphor for something. At least that’s what my metaphor-loving conscience suggested. I didn’t buy it. Instead, I muttered “WTF” to myself. Okay, so maybe I muttered “WTF” several times. Then I walked outside in my socks and started cleaning the poop off my shoe. Not an easy task, especially if you’re wearing brand new trail-runners. I had to find a restroom near my office, an old toothbrush, lots of foamy soap, and mindfully scrub away the poop.

I was reminded of something my daughter Rylee once said at age three. She was being carried down a hill and there were many small piles of deer scat. She noticed, commenting: “I didn’t know the poop was so deep.”

Neither did I.

But the good news is that I (like you) own a functional frontal lobe that gifts me with the Sweet Spot of Self-Control. Many of us will be mindfully removing the metaphorical shit from our shoes for some time into the future. So let’s make some plans. Not revenge-laced plans; they don’t last. Yes. Let’s pause in the special sweet spot, evaluate our alternatives, and make some excellent plans.

rita-and-john-tippet

Through the Anger Looking Glass

This blog was originally posted on the psychotherapy.net website this past week. Psychotherapy.net is a great resource for counselors and psychotherapists . . . http://www.psychotherapy.net/blog/title/through-the-anger-looking-glass

Through the Anger Looking Glass

By John Sommers-Flanagan

A couple weeks ago on NPR’s “Weekend Edition,” the focus was on the 50th anniversary of Betty Freidan’s The Feminine Mystique. In this book Friedan raged against the status of women in the 1960s. Although millions of people have read this feminist manifesto, it seems very few presently understand how anger in general and Friedan’s anger in particular could be a source of insight, motivation, and personal and social transformation.

Anger is an emotional state that has a bad rap. There’s far more written about anger control (“anger management”) than about how anger, when nurtured and examined, can transform. As most mental health professionals already know, anger is an emotion, not a behavior. And emotions are acceptable and desirable. When anger fuels aggressive or destructive behavior is when it becomes problematic.

But since everyone already knows about and talks about the destructive capability of anger—let’s talk about the constructive side of this emotion instead. Hardly anyone articulates anger’s positive qualities as clearly as the feminists. Feminist therapists consider “encouraging anger expression” as a meaningful process goal in psychotherapy for at least five reasons:

  1. Girls and women are typically discouraged from expressing anger directly. Experiencing and expressing anger without repressive cultural consequences can be an exhilarating freedom for females. Similarly, experiencing anger, but not letting it become aggression, is a new and productive process for males.
  2. Anger illuminates. There’s nothing quite like the rush of anger as a signal that something is not quite right. Examined anger can stimulate insight.
  3. Alfred Adler suggested that the purpose of insight in psychotherapy was to enhance motivation. Anger is helpful for both identifying psychotherapy goals AND for mobilizing client motivation.
  4. During psychotherapy anger may occur in-session towards the psychotherapist. Skillful therapists accept this anger without defensiveness and then collaboratively explore the meaning of in-session anger.
  5. Anger is a natural emotional response to oppression and abuse. If clients consistently suppress anger, it inhibits them from experiencing their full range of humanity.

For feminists, one goal of nurturing and exploring client anger is to facilitate feminist consciousness. Feminist consciousness involves females (and males) developing greater awareness of equality and balance in relationships. However, using anger to stimulate insight and motivation is useful in all forms of therapy, not just feminist therapy.

But working with (and not against) anger in psychotherapy is complex. The problem is that anger pulls so strongly for a behavioral response. Reactive anger is destructive. Clients want to let it out. Experiencing and expressing anger feels so intoxicatingly right. Clients want to punch walls. They want to formulate piercing insults. They want to counterattack. Unexamined anger is reactive and vengeful.

Imagine a male client. He’s uncomfortable with how his romantic partner has been treating him. You help him explore these feelings and identify the source; he recognizes that his partner has been treating him disrespectfully. But good psychotherapy doesn’t settle for simple answers. His new insight without further exploration could stimulate retaliatory impulses. Good psychotherapy stays with the process and examines aggressive outcomes. It helps clients explore alternatives. Could he be overreacting? Perhaps the anger is triggering an old wound and it’s not just the partner’s behavior that’s triggering the anger?

Relationships are nearly always a complex mix of past, present, and future impulses and transactions. When anger is respected as a signal and clients take ownership of their anger, good things can happen. It can be used to help clients become more skilled at identifying and articulating underlying sadness, hurt, and disappointment. Clients can emerge from psychotherapy with not only new insights, but increased responsibility for their behavior and more refined skills for communicating feelings and thoughts without blaming anger, but in a way that serves as an invitation for greater intimacy and deeper partnership.

None of this would be possible without the clarifying stimulation of anger and a collaborative psychotherapist who’s able to help clients face, embrace, and understand the many layers of meaning underneath your anger. And it’s about time we learned a lesson from the feminists and started giving anger the respect it deserves.

Anger Management for Parents

Anger Management Homework for Parents

We give the following assignment to parents interested in controlling or managing their anger.

Step 1: Before starting, make a clear commitment. Think about it. Do you really want to express your anger differently? If so, make a list of the top five or ten reasons why you want to change your anger behaviors. Also, make a list of the benefits you’ll experience from changing this behavior.

Step 2: Get curious before you get furious (an idea from Families First Boston). Take time to contemplate the “buttons” or “triggers” that, when pushed or pulled, result in an angry reaction. Draw some big buttons on a sheet of paper and label them. Common parent buttons include: (a) child disobedience, (b) children having a “smart mouth,” (c) children who lag behind when you’re in a hurry. Try to identify a reasonably long list of the main child behaviors that trigger your anger. Remember, when it comes to dealing with anger constructively, knowledge is power.

Step 3: Identify the signs and symptoms of your increasing anger. Some people say they become angry very quickly and that it’s hard to identify the signs. This may be the case for you. If so, study your anger patterns and ask for feedback from someone who knows you well. Your anger signals may include (a) feeling hot; (b) muscular tension; or (c) thinking angry thoughts. The purpose of knowing your anger signs is so you can begin derailing the process as soon as possible.

Step 4: Think prevention and self-care. We’re all more likely to get angry when stressed or when short on sleep. For some parents, prevention will help you move from having anger flareups to anger sparks. Prevention ideas include:

  •       Regular time to work out at home or at the gym (e.g., yoga, dance, or kick-boxing)
  •       Hot baths or hot-tubbing
  •       A regular date night for Mom and Dad
  •       Getting a therapeutic massage
  •       Regular meditation

Many other self-care strategies are available. Make your own best prevention and self-care list and then incorporate your unique self-care strategies into your life on a regular basis.

Step 5: Make an excellent plan for what you want to do instead of engaging in negative anger behaviors. Excellent plans are specific, clear, and easy to immediately implement. For example, you might decide—because music is a natural emotional shifter—that you’ll take a three-minute break to listen to one of your favorite calming songs if you feel yourself getting angry. To accomplish this, it will help to have a preplanned statement to make (“Daddy needs a quick break”) and a prerecorded playlist on your iPod or other music device to immediately listen to.

Step 6: Practice your plan. The best-laid plans aren’t likely to happen unless you practice them. Brain research suggests that whatever we practice (even as adults) generates changes in our brains to make us better at whatever we’re practicing (Jenkins, et. al., 1990). This also makes good common sense. Whether you repeatedly bite your fingernails or repeatedly get very angry and yell, you’ve developed neural pathways in your brain that make these patterns more likely. The best way to address this neural pattern is to develop a new neural pattern by practicing new anger behaviors. For example, if your plan is to use your spouse as a partner and for one of you to tag the other when you get too stressed and need a break, don’t just say, “How about if we tag each other when we’re stressed?” Instead, say it and then physically practice it like you’re preparing to perform in an upcoming drama production. It will feel silly, but practicing or rehearsing is one of the best ways to change an undesirable repeating behavior pattern.

Step 7: Reward yourself. Many people make the mistake of thinking they should be able to change pesky, habitual behavior patterns solely on the basis of willpower. If that were the case, most of us would be practically perfect. Instead of completely relying on willpower, develop a reward system for yourself. For example, if you make it an hour or a day or a week without an undesirable anger explosion, give yourself a reward. Your reward can be as simple as thinking a positive thought (“I’m doing very well at this”), or a much more elaborate system of awarding yourself points for handling life’s challenges calmly and taking them away when you blow up. If you have a spouse or romantic partner, the two of you can develop a program for supporting and rewarding each other. Self-behavior management is one of the best uses for behavioral techniques.