Dr. Val Farmer
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Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Learning To Control Anger

June 15, 1998

"Heat not a furnace for your foe so hot that it doth singe yourself." -Shakespeare - Henry VIII.

Anger does much more harm that we realize. Our judgment fails. We badly underestimate the impact that anger can have on a close relationship. Frequent experiences of intense anger stimulate further anger in our self and others.

"Once anger begins to take control of the mind, it calls just what it does cruelly." - St. Gregory the Great

"Consider how much more you often suffer from your anger and grief, than those very things for which you are angry and grieved." - Marcus Antonious.

To avoid harming our self and others, we need to learn some basic techniques in controlling our anger.

Call time out. "When angry, count to ten before you speak; if very angry, count a hundred."- Jefferson

When a coach notices his players are reacting with emotion and temper, he calls time out to settle his players and to deliberate about what is going on. Unfortunately, in the heat of life's battles, we don't have a coach to monitor us and call time out. We have to call time out on ourselves.

How do we know when to do this? By monitoring our body signals - a pounding head, an accelerated heart beat, a clenched fist, a tremble in our hands, a curled lip, and the raising or cracking of our voice. People need to learn their own idiosyncratic signs of anger and call time out on themselves.

"Violence in the voice is often only the death rattle of reason in the throat." - Boyes

What is time out? Time out can be as short as a fraction of a second - when we close our eyes, take a deep breath and regain control of our responses. Time out can be a withdrawal from a tense situation for as many minutes or hours as it takes to regain control.

"The greatest remedy for anger is delay" - Seneca

The benefits of time out. Time out is an opportunity to regain our reason by examining our thoughts, feelings and perceptions that contribute to our anger. Events do not cause problems. Our reactions to events cause problems.

Anger is a useful emotion when it leads us to identify underlying assumptions and problems. Beyond helping us gain understanding of ourselves and others, anger does little good. Feeling angry isn’t the problem. It is when we try to solve problems while angry that anger becomes destructive.

Time out can be used for self-instruction. "I will not shout." "I'd better leave." "Calm down." "This is not being done on purpose."

Anticipate anger in yourself and mentally rehearse your plan for regaining control. Use time out to calm yourself and to give yourself mental instructions to regain control.

Our game plan for anger control should include an automatic response for when we realize we are losing control. Deciding what to do ahead of time eliminates the need for rational thinking at precisely those moments when we are least capable of it. This means knowing what we are going to do and where we are going to go. The other party in the relationship has to be willing to let the angry person go and trust that the topic will come up again under more favorable circumstances.

Getting at the underlying causes. Keep a log or a diary of the times and situations you get angry. Practice using time out and self-instruction to regain control. Anger may stem from faulty assumptions or irrational thoughts that occur during the heat of battle. Words such as always, never, should, ought, and must show that our thinking is in trouble.

An angry person needs to reflect and examine strongly held beliefs and expectations that lead to persistent angry outbursts. Talking about the causes of anger and getting feedback from trusted confidants will clarify the role of our automatic assumptions.

Self-esteem plays a role. Work on improving your self-esteem and feeling of personal competence. We experience intense anger when we feel we have received a deliberate blow to our pride. Insults aren’t as provocative when we have inner confidence.

If we need to present a perfect image to the world, then we are vulnerable to the opinions of others. However, if we learn to accept ourselves, take ourselves less seriously and can laugh at ourselves, the judgments of others lose their power over us.

Getting in control and having power over our lives helps reduce anger feelings. When we measure up to the basic challenges of life then frustration doesn’t affect us as much.

Rule number one: Don't sweat the small stuff.

Rule number 2: It is all small stuff.

Unfortunately, life's problems aren't all small stuff, but there is a lot less than we think. For serious problems and losses in life, the counsel of Harry Emerson Fosdick is instructive.

"Whatever the situation and however disheartening it may be, it is a great hour when a man ceases adopting (difficulties) as an excuse for (anger) and tackles himself as the real problem. No mood need be his master."