Anger once examined is not such a beast after all. 3 Steps can restore your calm.
By Maureen McKane, LCSW
When a client erupts into my office carrying a thunderbolt of anger, I have a certain question ready. They tell me someone has wronged them. Someone is a culprit. My question: what about that made you angry? Typical answer: Isn’t it obvious? Wouldn’t anybody be furious? Perhaps, but still it is your anger and it has your own history built into the reaction. It is interesting to see how frequently the driving force turns out to be not so much anger, but hurt or fear or shame disguised as anger.
Then, somehow, in an hour’s time we manage to discuss the sources of their trouble and end up with the client no longer feeling angry. What is the magic of that conversation? What goes on, step by step, between the beginning and the end of that hour? Can you do this alone? Yes, you can. Here is how.
Step 1: Ask the question. What is really going on inside me?
Henry and his wife, Irene, were known bickerers. (All details are disguised to protect actual people). Either one might incite the fuse, then both went off like firecrackers. On a particular Tuesday Henry came to me irate. It was her birthday. He’d bought her a pair of earrings from a questionable website. They were beautiful, he said, the color of sapphires. He spent a lot of time hunting for them, because Henry loves a bargain. When she opened the box Irene gave the look. Veins popped out on her neck. Her voice careened off the ceiling. How could he forget that she has sensitive skin? She can only wear hypoallergenic earrings, not this crap. “And,” she went on, bile in her tone, “you know how much I hate, underscore HATE, the color red!”
I asked Henry to look for the particulars as he studied his own anger. Usually there is some part of the body that is tense or hot, perhaps some internal stirring up. I asked him to pay attention to that and see what came to mind.
Like pulling colored threads from a carpet we came to identify that he was hurt, disappointed and embarrassed. He’d really intended to get her something nice. Yes, he knew and forgot that she hates red. Yes, he knew and forgot the thing about the hypo-whatever. So shoot me! He said. Then he said he hates to make mistakes. It always makes him mad to see his own mistakes. Hence the embarrassment.
Henry gave himself points for good intentions and effort in hunting for a gift. Then he subtracted points for forgetting. It’s not a character flaw to forget, he said. He gave himself a C- on the birthday gift. “Hey, I remembered the day, didn’t I?”
Step 2: Ask the next question. What made the other person act as they did?
The question is both easiest and hardest if you love the other person. What I asked of Henry was to imagine he is wearing Irene’s eyes looking down at the gift. What does that feel like? Again we pulled threads one by one. He knows Irene well. He hates for her to be hurt. He also hates for her to get the better of him.
Gradually Henry was able to see through his wife’s eyes. Irene’s delivery was anything but courteous. However, her beefs were legit. In an ideal world she would have said, “Honey, would you send these back and try again?” Ideal doesn’t exist. So Henry put himself briefly into Irene’s eyes and stared at the earrings. He recognized that she yells at him when she is hurt. In her eyes he’d forgotten who she was. She might even have thought he was giving her a deliberate insult, given their history of sarcasm and get backs. In the end Henry said he doesn’t want her to have to feel that way.
Step 3: Draw conclusions that make you both human.
None of this made Henry exactly comfortable but it all made sense. It felt true and there was comfort in that. Anger is a surge of raw fire through the body. It’s illogical and we apply false logic to place blame. Once you pull apart the threads, you understand how human nature led your reaction and human nature led the other person’s behavior. Anger fades back to annoyance or regret.
Try this out on an ordinary anger. Don’t choose your worst, No. 10 rage. Save that for when you’ve practiced on smaller troubles.
Today, like Henry, you’ll be using a GoogleEarth scroll bar to pull out and see your anger from a distance. From that vantage we are all ordinary people responding to our human nature, doing the best we can. No beasts, just us bumping into each other like so many padded bumper cars.