Keeping Your Cool
Some of us may have shorter fuses than others but we all have moments when we get worked up into a lather about something or other. Fortunately, there's a lot we can do to lower our emotional temperature generally and to minimise the impact on ourselves and the people around us on those occasions when life seems to rub us up the wrong way.
Imagine the following situation:
Someone says or does something you don't like. You feel angry. You raise your voice and say something in retaliation. Someone else witnesses this and tries to calm you down. They point out that it was not the other person’s fault. They hadn’t intended to upset you, they were just having a bad day. You are not easily placated and say several more things which you feel you must get off your chest. For the rest of the day, there is an “atmosphere”. Everyone is quieter than normal. When you have calmed down, you begin to regret some of the things you said and admit that you probably over-reacted a bit.
How do situations like this come about?
Does everyone go through this kind of scenario from time to time?
Why did the bystander not become angry?
Why do we get angry?
Is it possible to eliminate anger altogether from our lives?
Let’s try to answer some of these questions, from recent scientific discoveries and from our own observations and experiences.
We’ll start with the question of the bystander who witnessed the incident above and was somehow able to see the whole thing objectively while you lost your rag. They saw and heard whatever caused your outburst, so how come it didn’t affect them in the same way?
Obviously, they didn’t share your perception of the situation. They didn’t interpret what was happening in the same way. They were more detached from it and able to gain a wider view of the situation while you were caught up in the thick of it, overwhelmed by intense emotions and unable to see anyone else’s point of view.
Your own view was probably coloured by several things that the bystander did not share, such as your previous life experiences, your previous knowledge of the person who made you angry, your own expectations of how you thought that person or circumstances should be, and also your own perceptions of yourself.
This is how anger works. The initial reaction occurs on an automatic level. That’s because of the way our brains process information - it hits the emotional part of the brain first, before the rational mind gets a look in. We scan the world through templates set up by genetics and by our previous experiences and beliefs about the world. When an event matches a particular pattern, it sets off the “fight or flight response” which is there to protect us from danger by allowing us to react very quickly without thinking.
Seconds later, you see yourself being angry. The signal has reached the rational brain. That’s when choice becomes possible – whether to continue to be angry, whether to try to suppress the anger or whether to try some new strategies for defusing your anger.
Why would you continue to be angry?
• You may actually enjoy being angry and want to make the most of it.
• You may be trying to manipulate the person into letting you have your own way.
• You may think that by letting your anger out you’ll “get it off your chest” (This popular myth has been found to be untrue. Letting off steam by shouting, hitting a punchbag or throwing a tantrum actually makes angry feelings stronger. Research has proved that relaxation techniques and taking calm and positive action to deal with problems are far more effective ways of managing anger.)
• Your emotional brain may by now be blowing the whole thing up out of proportion and getting into black and white thinking (“They’re wrong, I’m right”) and doing its best to hijack any response from your rational brain (the faint voice of reason). It’s the emotional, often irrational, thinking that fuels the first spark of anger and causes you to “lose your temper”, not the event itself.
What happens if you try to suppress anger?
Anger is a state of emotional arousal. Trying to suppress anger by force can generate more tension. You may even be angry with yourself for being angry, which makes your feelings even more intense, and these feelings can be directed at the person in front of you. So now you are shouting at someone who you are angry with, not just because of what they said or did, but also for making you angry!
Your ideas about failing to deal with your seemingly irrational feelings can complicate the problem. At the same time as hurling verbal abuse at the person in front of you, you can be thinking such thoughts as “I HATE being angry! How have I let this person make me angry again? What is wrong with me? I’m useless!”
As an individual, seeing only yourself, your own thoughts, ideas and immediate circumstances, anger may seem difficult to comprehend and difficult to control. Sometimes, especially if we’re feeling very emotional or tense to start with, a fairly small trigger can spark it off inappropriately.
Whether we choose to go with the anger or try to suppress it, the emotional part of our brain takes over and the rational mind doesn’t get a look in. We get into black and white thinking patterns (“I’m right, they are wrong”), or global thinking (“This is a catastrophe”), or see a temporary difficulty as if it were a permanent problem (“This always happens”) and we usually then look for someone or something to blame (Them, us, God…). Once we calm down (It’s impossible to be relaxed and still be angry) the rational brain finally gets a look in and we may wonder what all the fuss was about.
So, if you don't choose to stay angry and it's not a good idea to try to suppress it, what other choices are there?
There are two ways of dealing with anger:
1. We can immunise ourselves by altering our perception of anger, and of life, in ways which make it less likely that we will be made angry in all but the most extreme circumstances. ie we can modify our intention.
2. We can learn a few techniques which can help us to quickly defuse anger when it has already arisen. ie. we can modify our reaction and choose our response.
Intention and reaction are the two points at which we have the opportunity of choice.
Immunisation Techniques – Top tips for keeping your emotional temperature down
Accept that anger exists. Anger is often perceived as something negative, harmful and destructive - and with good reason - it can be all these things.
However, let’s just consider how life would be if no one in the world ever experienced the emotion of anger. Supposing some kind of atrocity was committed and nobody experienced any sense of outrage at the injustice of it, and therefore calmly accepted what had happened without comment. Without strong feelings to fuel them, who would bother to take action to bring an end to such atrocities or create laws to prevent them in the future?
Anger, in my opinion, is nature’s way of warning us that something is happening, or has happened, which is potentially harmful to ourselves, or families or the society we live in.
If someone abuses a child we SHOULD feel angry. I would be far more concerned if we didn’t. It is complacency which allows criminals to do as they please without fear of punishment. But of course, anger is not always useful and is often very destructive. Our developing maturity, as individuals and as a species, involves acquiring the skills to minimise the amount of anger we feel and manage it effectively if it does occur.
Be realistic about life. For example, if you expect your journey to work to be swift and enjoyable, you are setting yourself up to feel frustrated and angry when you get stuck at a new set of road works for half an hour or your car won't start.
Be realistic about others. Accept that no-one is perfect and mistakes are inevitable. For example, if you expect everyone on the road to drive perfectly, you will be more likely to feel angry when someone “cuts you up”. If you expect everyone to do their job perfectly, not only will you become angry when they forget to put something vital in the post or pass on a message or screw up the machine they are using, but your expectations will put so much pressure on them that they are more likely to make a mess of things in the first place.
If you expect other people to be like you (perfect!), agree with you all the time, want the things that you want and meet all your needs (and know them telepathically without you having to tell them!), you are setting yourself up for disappointment, especially in close relationships. Can you accept the people you love just as they are, with all their different views and habits, without trying to change them? That’s unconditional love.
That doesn’t mean you have to put up with being treated badly. If someone is abusing you or has a habit of deliberately winding you up, get help.
Be realistic about yourself. You are a human being. Everyone makes mistakes. You don’t need to dump a guilt trip on yourself; instead you can learn from difficult situations and explore more positive ways to deal with them in the future.
Get rid of “poor little me”. Feeling sorry for yourself can lead to resentment and blame and make you more likely to dump your feelings on whoever happens to be around when things go wrong.
Instead you can take responsibility for your own actions (which is not the same as blaming yourself) and accept that life isn’t always fair but you can decide your response to it. It can be quite a shift in your perspective to accept that you have a choice about how you think, act and feel.
People don’t make you angry. Your thoughts about them do.
Take a wider view. Try to always see the broader picture relating to any particular set of circumstances. Make it a habit to put yourself into other people’s shoes and see the situation from their point of view as well as your own. Or perhaps imagine how a third person would see it or how it would look if you were watching it on TV.
Try to gain a clear perception of the context of any problem or difficulty that arises. A wall can look like an impassable barrier when your nose is up against it but it doesn’t look too bad when you take a step backwards and realise it’s only three feet wide and you can easily walk round it.
Have compassion. Perhaps you can imagine how others might be feeling, or you can imagine what they were like as a baby. This can allow you to be more objective in your dealings with them. If you can see that this person was once an innocent child, and wonder how they turned out the way they did, you can still dislike their behaviour but you don’t have to deal with your own feelings about them as a person while you take positive steps to deal with that behaviour, therefore you are less likely to over-react.
Learn to relax Perhaps by taking regular exercise or learning any techniques or skills that enable you to relax deeply, you can lower your general levels of emotional arousal, making it less likely that someone’s irritating behaviour or a small setback might tip the balance.
Meditation can allow you to find a calm perspective from which to view the world so that you are more able to perceive situations with clarity and objectivity rather than being sucked into them and swept along with the tide. (Just don’t become so attached to your peace and tranquillity that you see it as a right and therefore react with anger if anyone disturbs it!)
Reduce stress in your life. Look for positive ways to get your needs met. As human beings, we all have certain needs, eg for security, intimacy, love, friendship, connection to a wider community, meaning and purpose in our lives, to stretch ourselves by acquiring new skills and understanding, etc.
We also have certain natural resources that we are born with. It’s not vanity to know your own strengths and talents and put them to good use in getting your needs met and perhaps making a useful contribution to society. Is your job fulfilling? Is your workload manageable? Are you doing what you love and loving what you do and maybe even getting paid for it? Are there changes that you would like to make in your career or personal life? Do you need to clear out some clutter, streamline your life and give yourself some space and clarity? (If you feel that a few changes might be a good idea, see the Life page where there are free eBooks to download that can help you to make a start.)
Communicate with people. People are not telepathic. If there are particular people or circumstances which seem to wind you up regularly, perhaps you can talk things through at a quiet time when you are feeling calm and in control, and maybe you can agree to strategies to reduce the triggers or deal with any conflict that might arise. In that way a stormy partnership can be transformed into a process of mutual sharing, co-operation, exploration and discovery. For example, a couple might agree that next time they fall out they will both stop talking for a few minutes and just hold hands.
Look for the funny side. You can’t be angry when you’re laughing.
Defusing Techniques – Top tips for keeping your cool in a crisis
As human beings, we cannot avoid feeling negative emotions. We have been programmed to feel that way by millions of years of evolution, and these reactions have contributed to our survival this far. The feelings tell us that there is a problem, just as pain tells us that there is a problem in the body. We don’t have a choice about whether or not we feel emotions, but we do have some measure of choice about what we do with those feelings.
When anger arises:
Observe it. Watch yourself and the situation. Watch how you feel and watch what you do.
Breathe slowly – especially on the out breath (eg in for a count of 7 and out for a count of 11). This stimulates the relaxation response. And remember it’s impossible to be relaxed and angry both at the same time.
Accept that anger has arisen - If you are feeling angry, there is a reason for it. Look for the cause and for positive ways to deal with it (without blaming anyone).
Take a wider view - See the situation in a larger context. Previous practice in this will help you to shift your focus to take in other points of view. It can help you to see when you are making a mountain out of a molehill.
Have compassion. Consider how those around you are feeling, whether they are the object of your anger or innocent bystanders. What effect will an explosion of verbal or physical fury have on them?
Let time pass before you speak. The wider view becomes clearer the more time you give yourself between the initial reaction and the moment you open your mouth. As my mother once advised me: “Make sure your brain is engaged before putting your mouth into gear.”
Decide on an appropriate response. See what needs to be done. It may be that a bit of shouting is the appropriate response, while you remain internally calm, or it may be that some other positive response would be better, such as reporting the matter to a superior or taking legal action.
Or it may be that quiet assertiveness or a bit of friendly advice is the best way to deal with the problem. Or it may be better to let even more time pass by going for a walk and coming back when you’re feeling calmer.
Don’t keep it past it’s sell by date. Sometimes we can let things go on far too long, milking a situation for all it’s worth. If we suddenly realise that we have been unfair we can feel very foolish and guilty and attempt to cover up our own fault with further inappropriate behaviour and attempts at justification. Don’t be too proud to apologise if you went off half cocked.
Don’t simmer. Keeping your anger or resentment bottled up inside is asking for trouble. That doesn’t mean we should lose our temper, which as we know makes matters worse, but we can look for positive ways to deal with it.
In recent research into office stress, it was found that workers often keep feelings bottled up rather than communicate them to others or take positive measures to improve the situation while their feelings are still at an easily managed stage. Some quite astonishing outbursts are the result, when patience becomes exhausted and some little incident acts as the final trigger.
If something isn’t right, say so, politely if possible, rather than harbour grudges or allow the situation to get worse for no other reason than that people are not psychic and don’t know that they are offending you. If someone is deliberately making your life a misery, take every reasonable action to put a stop to it. Get help if necessary. And practice any relaxation techniques you know to keep your emotional temperature down.
Forgive and forget. When someone has committed a serious offence, they may need to be locked away for everyone’s protection. But anger is not always inspired by major criminal offences. It is mostly directed at ordinary people in everyday situations, and is often based on misunderstanding.
In many cases, once you have the wider picture in view, you will see that the person you were angry with is not the evil monster your anger painted them as in the heat of the moment. If they caused you offence, it may have been a result of their own stress or pain or a result of just being themselves and not living up to your own unrealistic expectations of them. You may find there was really nothing to be angry about, or you may find that, fair enough, they shouldn’t have done or said what they did but you can forgive them.
Taking the time to find out why someone snapped at you can often lead to a better understanding of that person and create a lasting friendship, while a harboured grudge can make life unpleasant for you, for them and for everyone around you.
Laugh. Seeing the funny side, as well as preventing anger from arising, can be an instant defuser. Even if you can’t see anything to laugh about, deliberately putting a smile on your face can lift your mood and help you to stay in control.
Hold hands. When two people love each other and want to protect their relationship they can decide on a mutually acceptable strategy in advance, such as holding hands if ever they get cross with each other.
So now if we look at the situation we started with, perhaps we can see it differently:
Someone says or does something you don't like. You feel a brief surge of anger. You recognise that feeling and decide not to indulge it. You take a few deep breaths and take your time over breathing out, perhaps visualising the negative feelings leaving your body with each out breath while you breathe in calm and steadiness.
Feeling a little more steady, you mentally step back and take in the wider picture, including the other person’s viewpoint. You explore positive ways to proceed.
Different strategies work for different people. You can experiment with all of the above and perhaps invent a few of your own until you find something that really works for you. As with any new skill, use any lapses as learning experiences and notice how the lapses become fewer with the passage of time.
With regular practice you can expect to see some rapid improvements in the quality of your relationships with other people and you’ll have more energy left over to enjoy your life to the full.
When other people are angry
In general, stay out of their way until they calm down, if possible.
If the person is likely to be violent, make sure you have an escape route.
If you work in an environment where you regularly encounter people who are angry (for example in a hospital, a benefits office or a complaints department) one of the worst things you can do is to speak in a soft voice and tell them to calm down. If you have ever had someone speak to you in that way when you are really upset about something, you will know how patronising it is and how much worse it makes you feel.
Instead, mirror the person's behviour to a certain extent, not by becoming angry and getting into a fight with them, but raise your voice to a similar level. Put yourself at their level as far as you can. If you are sitting at a desk and they are standing, stand up. Listen to what they are saying and summarise their concerns:
"So your gas bill was a hundred pounds more than you expected this month? No wonder you're concerned. Let's sit down and see if we can sort this out together."
So now you have a person in front of you who knows you are listening to them. They know that you care about their problem and will work with them to try to solve it. Note the word "concerned" rather than "angry". This doesn't trivialise the problem but it takes the attention away from the anger. Concern is easier to deal with.
The person will probably feel a little calmer, more focussed on problem solving and more able to access their own rational brain. (See the APET Model for an explanation of how emotional arousal hijacks the rational higher cortex of the brain).
This kind of approach works with most reasonable people, but then, not everyone is reasonable, especially if they are drunk, on drugs or just a nasty piece of work, in which case:
Leg it and call the police.
For extreme eventualities, where legging it isn't necessarily an option, you might like to learn some self-protection skills. You can find more information about this at www.yiheyuan.co.uk or www.taichileeds.com
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