How does anger do its damage and contribute to heart trouble? In this brief article, I explain the physiological and psychological mechanisms that are problematic ways of handling frustration and anger. I also present 8 helpful hints to better manage negative emotions and protect your physical and mental health.
How does Anger Affect our Bodies?
First, here’s how the physiological mechanism of anger works, according to the nation’s top heart-brain research centers, such as the Cleveland Clinic: Emotions like anger and hostility stimulate the “fight or flight” response of your sympathetic nervous system, releasing the stress hormones, cortisol and adrenaline.
These chemicals significantly speed your heart rate and your respiration. Your blood pressure goes up, and your body is hit with a burst of fight-flight energy. That’s often what triggers someone to fly into a rage, to begin yelling and even throwing things.
This heightened state of physiological activation is designed to mobilize you for real emergencies, but can become habitual. Chronically high levels of stress hormones cause extra wear on your cardiovascular system.
Even the walls of your arteries can be damaged by the frequent anger response, because of the extra load of glucose and fat globules secreted into the blood stream.
The Good News
The good news is that anger and hostility as a risk factor can be changed for the better, just as blood pressure or cholesterol can be modified. Of course, stress can’t be measured as easily as cholesterol, but you can learn to take responsibility for your emotional responses and modify them for the better. Here are a few tips to interrupt storms of explosive anger or relieve yourself of self-damaging, imploded anger.
Recognize, as early as possible, when you’re beginning to feel angry.
Pause, before saying something or doing something impulsively. The time-worn advice– “count to ten”– is still wise.
Put the situation into perspective. Ask yourself if this issue will matter 5 years from now.
Say to yourself: “If this is as big a deal tomorrow as it is now, I’ll deal with it then, when I’ve cooled off a bit.
Realize that, even though someone else’s behavior might have triggered your upset, blaming them for it won’t help you take responsibility for handling it well enough to regain your emotional balance.
Understand that acting angry is not the way to show that you really care about something or someone.
You may understand the nature of your problems with anger, but if you can’t put your insight into practice, it’s time to consult with an experienced therapist. Even a brief investment in counseling can produce remarkable results.
Finally, remember to take this to heart: a change of heart comes from a change of mind about how you handle frustrating situations.
To sum it up, stressful reactions such as anger, anxiety, guilt, or mood instability can add up to increased risk for all kinds of medical problems, including heart trouble. Taking care of your emotional health will pay off with big dividends in maintaining your physical health and well-being.
Dr Alan Levy is an seasoned psychologist who practices in Costa Mesa, California. His website: alanlevyphd.com
Download a FREE Worksheet PDF file called “Areas of Change” that will help you develop the techniques discussed in this article.
My 94 year old father with whom I have always had a rocky, angry relationship recently died. At his memorial service in a small Midwestern town, I had an eye-opening experience. The room was filled with people who talked about how loving and giving my father was. About how humorous he was and how much of a joy he was to have around. “He was always giving,” they said, and doing nice things for others, like volunteering at the local hospital up until 2 days before his death. No one mentioned anything about his anger.
This was not the father I remember growing up with. I saw him as quite self-centered, self-absorbed, distant, moody, and grim. He was not much fun to be around most of the time in my memory. He was often angry and raging to the extent that my mother went around the house to close the windows so the neighbor’s wouldn’t hear his rants and embarrass her. As I remembered him as a child, he had almost zero empathy and very little flexibility in his opinions about things or people. He was often defensive and would not take responsibility for his mistakes.
Back at the memorial service, a local pastor stepped up the podium and make remarks about my father. This pastor had been counseling him for several years. He said that in later years, my dad had had many regrets and misgivings in his life and that he wished he could make up for his shortcomings, especially regarding how he treated his children. He decided to transform his life in later years and be a better person. I recall that he tried to connect with his children (including me) in later years but I could not get past the memory of who he had been and I could not trust that he had truly changed. So, out of anger and hurt I kept my emotional distance. Even in later years, I did not see my father as so many other people did. And, I didn’t realize that so many other people saw him differently than I did. When I was with him, I lived in my perception of him, as he did me.
So, why did I begin this blog with a picture of an elephant with men touching it? Because this picture is connected with an old parable that explains much. Here it is:
The Blind Men Touching The Elephant Parable: Once upon a time, there lived six blind men in a village. One day the villagers told them, “Hey, there is an elephant in the village today.”
They had no idea what an elephant is. They decided, “Even though we would not be able to see it, let us go and feel it anyway.” All of them went where the elephant was. Everyone of them touched the elephant.
“Hey, the elephant is a pillar,” said the first man who touched his leg.
“Oh, no! it is like a rope,” said the second man who touched the tail.
“Oh, no! it is like a thick branch of a tree,” said the third man who touched the trunk of the elephant.
“It is like a big hand fan” said the fourth man who touched the ear of the elephant.
“It is like a huge wall,” said the fifth man who touched the belly of the elephant.
“It is like a solid pipe,” Said the sixth man who touched the tusk of the elephant.
They began to argue about the elephant and everyone of them insisted that he was right. It looked like they were getting agitated. A wise man was passing by and he saw this. He stopped and asked them, “What is the matter?” They said, “We cannot agree to what the elephant is like.” Each one of them told what he thought the elephant was like. The wise man calmly explained to them, “All of you are right. The reason every one of you is telling it differently is because each one of you touched the different part of the elephant. So, actually the elephant has all those features that you all said.”
“Oh!” everyone said. There was no more fight. They felt happy that they were all right.
The moral of the story is that there may be some truth to what someone says. Sometimes we can see that truth and sometimes not because they may have different perspective which we may not agree with. So, rather than arguing like the blind men, we should say, “Maybe you have your reasons.” This way we donâ€™t get into arguments.
I was very happy that Dad ended his life surrounded by people who who loved him and could see him for what he had become and also accept him for what flaws remained. We should all remember that when we are angry or resentful toward someone for misdeeds or injustices, often our negative feelings are based on our Perceptions of the situation, not necessarily the full reality of the situation. You may have just been feeling the trunk, in our elephant metaphor, but not perceiving the ears or the legs. People are complex; we should try not to rush to judgment and assume that they are only as we see them. They may be much more or much less- or they may have changed over time and we didn’t see it.
So, the lesson here is that we should try never to forget the following: Perception is your reality. But not necessarily the whole truth.
The result of this kind of thinking will be to lose a lot of that anger. Trust me.
Yesterday I was tooling down the 405 freeway in Southern California when suddenly I heard a loud pop which I assumed belong to another vehicle. I was in the center lane of a very crowded freeway and suddenly realized that the bang was coming from MY car. A blowout! Behind me was a huge semi 16 wheeler who was not sympathetic to my plight. His behavior telegraphed to me that he just wanted me to get out of his way so he would not have to slow down.
As I tried to limp to the right shoulder, the flop flop flop of a blown tire turned into a metal- against- the- pavement sound. I was down to my rim trying make it to the very narrow shoulder while traffic kept sailing past on my left side at about 80 miles an hour. Finally on the shoulder, I remembered the warnings not get out of the car this situation, so I called 911 hoping that a patrol car would help me get off the freeway somehow so I could start repairs on my tire.
In the meantime, I looked in my rear view mirror and saw a pony-tailed man approaching in a hugely wide pick up truck. He said that he had witnessed the whole thing, had circled around and had come back to help. Would I mind if he changed the tire for me? Yea, like I am picky about whom I allow to change my tires when I’m incapacitated on a shoulder off the 405 freeway! So, change it he did, risking his life by exposing his backside to streaming fast-moving traffic as worked on the blown tire and rim which was exposed to the freeway.
When finished, I offered to pay him, but he would not accept any money. He said his name was John (“I am a Greek”) and he would accept a hug as payment. So, that sounded like a fair exchange to me. What a strange site it must have been to other drivers to see an older silver-haired man (me) hugging a middle-aged Greek guy with a pony tail on the shoulder of the freeway! And what a contrast to seeing people yelling at each other, cutting each other off, cussing at fellow drivers, or giving each other the one finger salute.
Thank you, John for reaffirming my faith in the inherent goodness of human beings. Hope soon I will share more driving advice and positive driving experience.
Let’s face it. All couples fight. In successful relationships as well as others. Having fights is not necessarily a sign that your relationship is doomed to failure.
If all couples fight, What then makes the difference between successful vs unsuccessful relationships?
Simply put, one major difference is having the skills and ability to repair the emotional damage done during the fight. Some couples simply can’t get past it and simmer for days, weeks, even months. I know of one couple that kept a resentment for years. They didn’t divorce – they simply built a wall between them and added a few more bricks every month until there basically was no hope of reconnecting.This couple slept in separate bedrooms, rarely talked to each other, ate meals separately and kept separate financial resources. They basically were roommates.
Other couples fortunately have better skills and can bounce back from a conflict, a bad behavior on the part of one or the other, or from the pain of a grievance. Some couples just know how to do it. Mary and Jim were such a couple. They were a young professional couple with no children but strong personalities and a strong need for autonomy. She often wanted to do something that he considered irresponsible or not practical (she was an artist). He would “question” her on it (which she heard as a challenge). Her response? Anger, saying to herself “he is not going to tell ME what to do.” He replied that he was not trying to tell her what to do, he was just inquiring as to what was going on.
This led to an escalating fight with each “pushing the buttons” of the other until they no longer could stand to be in the same room. In effect, they had activated each other’s psychological alarm system so both their brains were now in a “fight and protect” mode. So they sulked for a while, until their nervous systems calmed down to normal levels. This allowed one of them (Mary)to quietly say “I’m sorry.” Then came, “I really love you and can’t imagine life without you.” Jim then said, “Let’s get on the same team and figure out a solution to the issue.”
More generally, partners with good repair skills do with following:
They keep the relationship itself in mind when arguing over an issue. It’s not only about “winning” – certainly not at the cost of rupturing the relationship. They WANT the relationship to work. They strive for emotional connection and harmony.
They realize that not all couples problems are fixable – some issues will always be there. The trick to repair is to learn how to live with each other around the issues rather than trying to change the other person to make them less irritating to you. The challenge is to cope (within reason and without losing your “self” in the process) better while finding ways to satisfy each other’s needs.
They are mature enough to realize that their partners have a perfect right to their own opinions and ways of doing things. They try to drop judgment and instead strive to understand their partner better.
Finally, couples with good repair skill do not bring up the past to use as a weapon. They stick to the current issue without slamming their partner with insults, name-calling, accusations, or “dead cow” issues.
How high should you set the bar for yourself or others in term of what you expect?
This was a recent discussion topic brought up by Robert in a recent fast-track anger management seminar that we held in Newport Beach, California. Set the bar too high and the gap between what you expect and what you get can cause disappointment, anger, and other undesirable emotions.
Yet, hope springs eternal, especially in regard to family members.
We can spend our whole lives hoping against hope that others will finally change, see the light, treat us better, or acknowledge us in the way we need to be acknowledged.
Yet, as Robert discovered, sometimes this is not to be, despite our best efforts and our noble intent. Robert is 65 years old, yet has almost daily angst over his relationship with his 90 year old father who lives in the Midwest. They talk to each other perhaps 3 times a year, with Robert always having to initiate the calls. His dad says “children should call parents; parents do not have to call children.”
In his dad’s mind that is just a fact, the way the world is. This rule of family interaction is written in a book somewhere, known only to parents.
Despite a lifetime of not being able to emotionally connect with each other, Robert decided enough was enough and made arrangements for him and his wife to visit his father this summer. He emailed the old man, asking if the visit dates were satisfactory. Robert had expectations that his Dad would be thrilled to get a visit (at 90 years old, one doesn’t want to wait too long). He also asked for hotel recommendations nearby.
The father’s response was two lines: “Those dates are OK. Will send you a list of hotels to your home address.” The coldness of it all made Robert’s head reel. Robert experienced immediate sadness, and frustration. These feelings “pulled up” a lifetime of memories of other similar encounters with his father that generated the same negative feelings. Continue reading “Anger Management in Action; Setting Realistic Expectations”
Case #1- Elizabeth, a 40 year old homemaker was always feeling angry and â€œusedâ€ by her family, constantly saying that everybody took advantage of her.
She felt that she worked like a slave but her family showed no appreciation or acknowledgment of her many efforts. She needed anger management to help deal with her feelings.
Case #2- Bill, a 34 year old husband complained that his critical wife was always angry at him. He sought anger management to learn how to deal with his angry wife.Â
He spent his life trying to cope with her outrages which often escalated him into defensive anger which didnâ€™t happen anywhere but in this relationship.
Case#3- Betty, a 42 year separated mother struggled with her soon to be ex-husband’s contempt and disrespect every time she angrily called him to discuss details of their divorce.She needed anger management to learn how to better deal with her ex.
These three cases bring up the question often asked by participants in our anger management classes: Is it possible to control how family members treat us? The short answer is â€œnoâ€ â€” but often we canÂ teach them to treat us better!
Believe it or not, we are constantly teaching our family how to treat usâ€” both by our responses to their behavior, and by the behavior we display to them to which they react.. In our case examples:
By automatically doing whatever her husband and children requested, Elizabeth was â€œteachingâ€ them that there are almost no limits to what she would do for them.
With his behavior, Bill was actually teaching his wife that the way to get attention from him (even if it was negative attention) was for her to create drama.
Betty was so intimidated by her husband, that her defensive â€œattitudeâ€ was â€œteachingâ€ him that to deal with her, he had to push back with the contempt and disrespect that he constantly showed her.
The dance of anger Our interchange with family members is often like a carefully choreographed dance. They make a move. You make a move in response to their move. They then respond to what you said or did and â€¦.well, you get the idea!
How do you change the dance? Start by seeing yourself as a teacherâ€”of how you would like your family to treat you.
Four ways to change what you teach others 1. Try a softer-start-up.Â Marital research shows that the first few seconds of an interaction can predict the final outcome of the encounter. Try being softer, more polite, more respectful, less hostile, or more empatheticâ€”and see how this change in your approach actually teaches others to respond better to you.
2. Take a time-out before dealing with the conflict or situation.Â Conflicting or arguing family members often work themselves up to a point at which problem solving is impossible. The solution is to retreat and give yourself time to calm down and think things over. This takes at least 20 minutes, often much longer. Before taking your time out, it is important to tell the other person that you will commit to returning soon to deal with the conflict, after you are calmerâ€”then be sure to do it!
3. Acknowledge that you see how they must be seeing the situation.Â Called â€œempathy,â€ this response on your part teaches others that you care about their feelings and viewpoints, and opinions. Acknowledgment doesnâ€™t mean that you necessarily agree with their viewpointâ€”only that you see it. Sometimes, your family needs to know that you care about them and respect their opinions before they listen to what you say.
4. Set limits and boundaries for your family members.Â Limits and boundaries are basically rules regarding acceptable behaviors toward you as well as what you are willing or not willing to do.
If you feel others are taking advantage of you, ask yourself what you may be doing ( or not doing )to give the message it is â€œokâ€ for them to do whatever they are doing. Often you can change their behavior toward you by teaching them different rules of being with you. The easiest way to do this is simply to respond differently yourself.
For instance, they make you the core of a nasty joke. Being a nice person, you pretend it doesnâ€™t bother you( even though it does), so you laugh with everybody else. As an alternative, try not laughing with them, which is a way of teaching them that they have crossed a boundary with you.
To learn more about this tool of anger control as well as seven others, attend our local anger management classes. More information below.Â Â
Through he years, I have asked our anger management class participants what they expected class to be like before they actually came. Thought I’d share some of the responses I have received:
“Anger Management Class is like traffic school.”
“Like a support group therapy for angry people.”
“Full of convicts and criminals.”
“In anger management class people sit around and vent their anger.”
Truth is, anger management class, as we teach it, is just that – a class. It is not group therapy, most of the people are there because they want to be (i.e. NOT court-ordered), and we do not encourage venting anger in the class itself.
Hardly anybody is angry in anger management class itself. Instead, most clients are angry at someone else or they are in attendance because someone else thinks they are angry and needs help. Most often that “someone” is a relationship or employer.
Teaching clients how to be more empathetic to reduce anger begins with introducing and explaining the topic from a workbook that all participants are required to purchase. Often we start with this video:
Then, we give examples of how to think about empathy and the affect increased empathy can have on our feelings of anger. Almost everyone can think of examples of how their anger would decrease if they would just stop and think of how things look from the point of view of the other person.
The Empathy Grid:
The empathy grid is an excellent tool for you to start learning how to be more empathetic.
Print it out and practice using it. You will be amazed at how it will help you see things differently.
Remember: to have empathy doesn’t mean you have to agree with the other person’s perceptions, feelings or behavior.
Instead, empathy merely conveys that you understand,see, and acknowledge their point of view.
“I worked hard for my knowledge,” Bob said in a session, but “others want to drain me of my knowledge and skill so they won’t have to do the hard work themselves to learn it.” “Besides, they are so stupid and they are unmotivated toÂ improveÂ themselves.”
Bob was very much into self-development and self-improvement and thought everyone should be too. He would quickly become angry when he encountered people who just “settled,” were happy with an average life and saw no need to improve themselves.
Perhaps you recognize yourself or someone close to you in Bob. The following two thinking errors are causing Â angst and anger in Bob and others who think like him:
1. That self-development is aÂ universallyÂ good thing and everyone should do it. I would ask; “Why?” In myÂ opinion, people have a right to NOT develop their full potental if they chose to live their lives that way. Who are we to judge others and what is good or bad for them? Besides, how do we know when people are at their full potential? Human beings often misjudge others and expect more out them than is realistic or possible.
2. That everyoneÂ hasÂ equal capacity to improve themselves. I believe that the motivation and ability to constantly improve oneself is probably distributed among human beings just like other skills – some people have a great deal of it (likeÂ athleticÂ ability) and others not so much. We will be less angry if we find a way to accept this andÂ viewÂ the world in this fashion.
If we can find a way to change how we think about things and how we view things, we canÂ immediatelyÂ change how we feel about them. Of course, you don’t have to, and you have a right to think any way to wish, but if you want peace of mind, try these thought changes and see what happens!
In a recentÂ session, 65 year old Dan, a retired insurance manager, wasÂ reflectingÂ on mistakes he had made in his life. At the top of his list was an incident twenty years earlier when he received a home visit from a corporate V.P. who was vetting him for a large promotion as a district manager of a large insurance company. Things were going smoothly and the promotion seemed like it was going to be a shoo-in, at least in Dan’ s eyes. Then, came the subtle test which Dan didn’t even realize was a test: The V.P. asked Dan if Â it would be possible to drive him to another office, about 100 miles away, the next day so he wouldn’t have to rent a car. Dan politely declined, pleading work obligations at his current office. In his mind, Dan thought the V.P would be impressed that he was so dedicated to the more important office tasks on the job instead of wasting time driving 200 miles (round trip) Â the next day.
As time went, Dan learned that he was being blocked from promotion by one vote. He never did get his promotion and to this day he is certain that this was due to the fact that heÂ completelyÂ mis-read the real “test” that the V.P. had exposed him to. It was a failed test he could never recover from. Dan, like many people,Â lackedÂ a quality for both business, personal, and marriageÂ successÂ called “emotional intelligence” or “EQ.” It differs from “IQ” (regular intelligence) in that it deals with one’s people skills, sensitivity to emotional isses srrounding factual issues, theÂ abilityÂ to understand the emotions and feelings of others, social sensitivity, and accurate perception of how your actions are perceived by others.
Dan did not understand that the V.P. was probably testing Dan’s loyalty to him, Dan’s ability to be a “team,” player, or possibly Dan’s sense of priorities. Dan was completely unaware that his decision would be viewed negatively by the V.P. and did not even perceive the subtle change in the V.P.’s demeanor and attitude after being refused the special favor he had asked for.
In my experience as a marriage therapist, consultant, and anger coach, lack of or limited emotional intelligence leads to conflicts in the workplace, in relationships and in families. Often Â people with low EQ don’t realize they have low EQ, and honestly can’t figure out why people react so negatively to them. Take the example of a couple I had worked with in marriage counseling. Thirty five year old Dorothy was pregnant for the first time. In session, she said to her husband, “I am fearful that I won’t be a good mother.” Instead of reassuring her, his response was: “Why? Â that’s a dumb thing to be worried about.” You could see the change of emotion in her face when she heard that, but her husband didn’t have a clue that his remark might upset her.
In our anger classes we teach the skills of empathy and social awareness to increase a person’s emotional intelligence. In short, one way to increase EQ is to step back and see your behavior or response from the viewpoint of the other person. It is the ability to realize how you might be coming across to others and how your remark or behavior might or might not be seen or heard from their point of view – not yours.
Persons with high EQ are sensitive to the feelings of others and look beneath just the content of a question or behavior to the underlying emotional issues – and then responds to these emotional issues. Had Dan had higher EQ he would have asked himself how his refusal might be seen by his V.P. That interchange wasn’t about his getting to his next appointment. It was about trust, loyalty and priorities.Â Likewise, the pregnant wife was really communicating insecurity and also asking if she could count on him for help and support.
Work on increasing your emotional intelligence and you might be surprised that your life will work better for you. It is worth the effort because research shows that persons with high EQ are more successful, have better relationships, and are actually healthier than others.
Empathy is defined as the ability to put oneself in another’s shoes, to understand their feelings and feel them yourself, and to see the world as they do. Theodore Roosevelt said:
“A very large share of the rancor of political and social strife arises from sheerÂ misunderstandingÂ by one section, or by one class, of another, or else from the fact that the two sections, or two classes, are so cut off from each other that neither appreciates the other’s passions, prejudices, and, indeed, point of view, while they are both entirely ignorant of their community of feeling as regards the essentials of manhood and humanity.”
Developing the skill of empathy is a key tool for anger management, for better marriageÂ communication, forÂ improvedÂ family relationships, and for less conflict in the world in general. Yet, unfortunately, it is a skill that seems to be declining in our world. According to studies that have been tracking this since 1979, college students are 40% less empathetic than their counterparts 30 years ago. (This was brought to my attention in a link sent to me by a former anger management student. The link is a fascinating website called “The Art of Manliness.” which recently featured an article titled ” Our Disembodied Selves and the Decline of Empathy” written by Brett and Kate Mckay.
For many people, it is amazingly difficult to be empathetic. Seems that more men fall in this category than women, but there are many, manyÂ exceptionsÂ to this statement. Some men are much more empathetic than some women, but as a group, empathy is unfortunately considered a more “feminine” than “masculine” trait. There may be a genetic basis for this gender difference, as some studies show that the differences between males and females are seen in newborn babies. Girl babies are more likely to cry when they hear another baby cry than boy babies are, and two year old girls exhibit more concern for those who are distressed than two year old boys do. Other research shows that as men and women get older, the empathy gap narrows.
Neuroscientists are even in the news recently in reference to empathy. Seems that we have something called “mirror neurons” in our brains. This means that when I am performing a task or feeling an emotion and you are observing me do so, the same neurons that are being lit up in my brain by actually having the experience, are the ones that light up in your brain just from watching me.
Wow! This may mean that physically being with someone (like your partner, or a family member) and watching them actually increases your empathy for them. CloseÂ physicalÂ proximity allows you to more easily put yourself in their shoes! Contrariwise, Â it is much easier to NOT be understanding of others if they are not in front of us. The McKays give the following example:
“Have you ever been incredibly angry at another person, stewing and brooding about it all day? But then when you finally met up with the person face-to-face and talked to them, the anger just melted away? In the presence of theirÂ physicalÂ self, those puppy dog eyes, your empathy kicked in. InÂ thÂ absenceÂ of these realÂ encounters, minorÂ slightsÂ can multiplyÂ themselvesÂ many times over. One of the reasons long-distance relationships rarely work out.”
To increase empathy in our technology-driven world, we must balance our lives with real physical body-to-body, face-to-face interactions with people we care about or want to understand better. This includes marriage partners, family members, neighbors, workplace colleagues, etc. Even better, to increase empathy try changing places with them – that is, do what they have to do and see if that doesn’t change your perspective of things.
I recently had a personal example of this when I took a month vacation to South America Â where I wasÂ hospitalizedÂ briefly for an intense intestinal distress. Admitted to a strange hospital in Quito,Â EcuadorÂ where hardly anyone spoke English, I had toÂ navigateÂ the admissions process and explain to 10 doctors my symptoms and medical history in Spanish! Only problem was that my Spanish was nowhere near that level of sophistication, and besides, I was in no shape to speak even English, much less Spanish.
All I could think of were the times I had become impatient with local immigrants in Southern California who wereÂ strugglingÂ with their English, while trying to explain things the best they could. Since then, I have become much moreÂ understanding and tolerantÂ ofÂ howÂ difficult it is to learn another language, especially at an older age, Â under stressful conditions.
To summarize,the trait of empathy is probably “hard-wired” in our brains, but we can enhance it with practice (just like breathing is hard-wired but breathing exercises make us feel better and improve performance). This “practice” involves first becoming aware of how important empathy is. Then, physically be in the presence more often of the persons you want to develop more empathy toward, and actually watch them as you interact with them. Finally, try literally putting yourself in their shoes, if you can, to develop more empathy for their lives, their outlook, or their attitudes.
In our local anger management classes, we regularly hear from clients as to what causes anger in theirÂ relationships. Recently a young woman revealed that “99% of our fights occur because my husband tried to fix what is bothering me.” At this point, the males in the class were astounded that this woman could be upset because her husband was trying to help her with a problem. After all, isn’t that what a good husband is supposed to do? Here is what happened:
Wife (who was home all day with their three young children) to husband home from work: “The kids were horrible today. I can’t get little Tommy to do his homework, Jessica is always whining and Andrea always has to get her way.”
Husband: Do you know what your problem is? Lack of organization with the kids. I have been thinking about it and here is my plan for you to solve these problems with the kids.
He then proceeds to lay out the whole plan.
Wife: (now feeling defensive because she is hearing his response as critical, demeaning and unsupportive:) “You think I haven’t thought of all those things? Do you think it is easy to parent three children? You can leave every day and get away from it and then come prancng home like a hero. That really pisses me off! ”
Husband (who is completely flummoxed at her anger because he sees his response as logical, helpful and supportive. He loves his wife and wants to help her not be so frustrated at the end of the day.He also wants to come up with new solutions so she will look up to him) : ” Well, if that is how you feel, why do you ask me for advice to begin with? I’m just trying to help!”
Wife: ” I DIDN’T ask you for advice. I was just sharing my day with you. I just wanted you to listen and also to help me with the family stress now that you are home. “
Sound familiar? This scenario and similar variations of it commonly occur in otherwise good relationships, as well as in disturbed relationships. In our society many males are taught that it is their responsibility to “fix” things that are not right in his family and in his marriage. Problem is, sometimes while he is “fixing” (and being a good guy in his own mind), he isÂ is being seen by his partner as “controlling,” invalidating, or intending to make her feel “less than.”
Often conflict can be avoided if “fixer-husbands” can learn to sometimes just listen instead of immediately jumping withÂ solution to the problem or issue. Not that they should never come with solutions; instead, they should wait until they are ASKED for solutions or help. Until then, just being supportive and empathetic to your partner’s issues can go a long way toward relationship harmony. Click on the following short video to help you understand the power of empathy in relationships.
Often, we get phone calls from parents who are angry at their children, usually because they happen to have what I euphemistically call a “strong-willed child. ” These children are often defiant, controlling, rebellious, and non-compliant with normal parental demands or requests. Sometimes this extends to their behavior in school, but in other cases they seem to be fine at school and only problematic at home. Things can become so bad that the child can be labeled an “explosive child” involving verbal and behavior aggression and even violence.Â In its extreme, these children may be given numerous psychiatric diagnoses such as Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD), attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), intermittent explosive disorder, Tourette;s Disorder, Depression bipolar disorder, Asperger’s disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).
Parents of strong-willed children often feel guilty and inept. But, while parenting certainly hasd a lot to do with the milder problems within the normal range, truly explosive children are a lot more complex than previously thought and may be the result of numerous factors. An excellent book to help parents with these children is “The Explosive Child” by Dr. Ross. W. Greene. Click here to learn about his “Collaborative Problem Solving Approach.”
For cases in the more normal range,Â we teach inÂ our anger management classes and Online programsÂ how to better cope with strong-willed or difficult children by learning the eight tools of anger control – and then applying these tools to themselves too!
It was labor day when 8 year old Brandonâ€™s mother heard a commotion from her childâ€™s room. Seems that his 14 year old visiting cousin said something that upset Brandon which caused Brandon to strike the other boy. His mother Michelle hysterically called her therapist wondering what to do and how to handle the anger in her young son which seemed to be escalating as he became older.
Her therapist wisely explained that children become angry in a variety of situations. Common causes of childhood anger include: frustration, needing attention, feeling powerless, being misunderstood, not feeling good about themselves, feeling helpless, being belittled or made fun of, not having physical needs taken care of, having a parent take over instead of asking if the child wants help, being disappointed, having difficulty saying what they need, or being punished.
The problem of excessive childhood anger is growing. Yet many parentsâ€”like Michelleâ€”feel they donâ€™t have the tools to teach their children how to deal with normal angry feelings in an appropriate manner, without hitting or yelling at others, or losing control. Therefore, some parents ineffectively deal with their child’s anger by demanding that he or she stop being angry. Worse, some parents actually yell at or hit their child in attempts to â€œteachâ€ their child not to be angry. That is like putting them alone in the woods unarmed with a raging black bear to teach them not to be fearful!
Alternatively, good parenting requires teaching children the practical skills needed for anger control.Â Although feeling angry is a part of life that no one can avoid because it is â€œhardwiredâ€ in our brains as a protective and survival mechanism, we can teach our children positive ways to cope with these normal angry feelings. Learning the tools of anger management empowers children, makes them more effective and pleasant human beings, and improves the world by decreasing hatred, violence and conflict.
Following are six tips for parents to help their children manage anger, based on our model of anger management called the “eight tools of anger control”
Tip #1- TEACH HOW TO RESPOND INSTEAD OF REACT
Parents can teach their children the difference between feeling angry and acting on anger.Â Michelle explained to Brandon that feeling mad is neither good nor bad, but hitting someone out of anger is not OK. She then explained that we have choices as to how to deal with angry feelings.Â Encouraging your child to take time-out until they cool down, to keep a journal, draw, or talk out their emotions are positive outlets for feelings of anger.
Providing a means by which to channel feelings into positive actions is another tool to help your child deal with his or her angry feelings. Examples might include taking a relaxing walk, writing letters and cards, doing something nice for another person, or donating time to a worthwhile community project geared toward helping others.
In the short run, life at home will be easier when children learn how to work through anger. In the long run, children will continue developing ways to cope with anger as they become teenagers and adults, and will pass these skills along to their own children.
Tip #2- BE AWARE OF HOW YOUR CHILDREN ARE SEEING YOU
Start by setting a good example. Children learn from observing your behavior. Be aware of the messages you are sending your child in terms of how you behave toward them, how you behave toward other people, and how they see you handling your own anger and stress.
Unfortunately, some misguided parents create hatred in their children by modeling prejudice, intolerance, disrespect or violence toward other people that may be different from them or have different word views. Teaching â€œempathyâ€ (the ability to see the world from the perspective of another), openness, tolerance and understanding are extremely valuable anger-management tools to teach yourself and your children.
Tip #3-TELL CHILDREN PERSONAL STORIES OF TRIUMPH
Your children need to hear stories of how you may have overcome hardship, adversity, or other life challenges. Research shows that hearing your stories of empowerment over rough times or situations can make your children feel more attached to you, and give them more hope for themselves to be able to overcome their life difficulties. Having more optimism and developing more positive attitudes can often reduce anger in children and adults alike.
Tip #4- BE CONSISTENT IN PARENTING
At any age, anger is often generated between the gap between what is expected and what actually occurs in reality. With children, it is especially important to outline exactly what the consequences are (positive and negative) for their behaviorâ€”and then stick to it! Consistency makes children feel more secure, less anxious, and less likely to react angrily if they donâ€™t get â€œtheir own way.â€ Parental consistency between parents or other adults in your childâ€™s life is also very important to create stability and a sense of predictability.
Tip #5- REDUCE FAMILY STRESS
Coping with family stressors is an important tool of anger management, as angry outbursts are much more likely to occur as personal and family stress levels rise. There are many ways to buffer family stressors such as maintaining regular rituals for eating together, sharing the day with each other, finding time to play together, and emotionally supporting each other.
Parents can also help their children learn to calm themselves or self-sooth when angry.Â It is often helpful to calm their anger by using the five senses: touching, smelling, tasting, hearing, and seeing. Squeezing play dough, splashing in water, running around outside, listening to music, painting a picture, tensing and relaxing muscles, taking slow deep breaths, or eating a healthy snack are all good responses to angry feelings.
Children who respond well to touch can be taught how to massage their own neck or arms as a self-calming technique. These same children also may find a great deal of comfort in stroking or caring for a pet. To reduce stress, try telling your child the following:
* letâ€™s draw a picture about how you feel
* a warm bath sometimes helps wash away angry feelings
* when you feel hungry and irritable, tell me and Iâ€™ll find a snack for you
* sit down and take slow deep breaths until you have calmed down.
Tip #6 â€“ TEACH YOUR CHILD HOW TO SOLVE PROBLEMS
Parent can teach their older preschool, school-age and teenage children to problem solve as a “prevention” tool for getting angry. Michelle, for instance, taught Brandon to â€œstop and thinkâ€ the next time he was angryâ€”before losing control and striking other children. She also taught him how to listen to his cousin with both his eyes and ears, before getting upset so that he could â€œnameâ€ the problem and discuss what was upsetting him.
Turns out that Brandonâ€™s cousin had made a disparaging remark about Brandonâ€™s father who happened to be incarcerated. Once the issue was named, Michelle taught Brandon to think of different ways to solve the problem. They agreed on Brandon telling his cousin how much it hurt his feelings to hear â€œbadâ€ things about his father. As a final step, they agreed to discuss how well their planned worked in a few days.
Most children will need adult help in thinking through this process and coming up with creative problem-solving techniques, but the skills learned will serve your child well throughout his lifetime and might greatly reduce stress in you rhome.
My wife and I spent time on New Year’s Day to attend the new movie “Avatar” which is an incredible creative production.Â I was particularly impressed with James Camerson’s portrayal of the destructive forces of lack of empathy (by some humans) on the mythical moon Pandora.Â Empathy, of course, is one of the eight tools of anger control that we teach in all our anger management classes and programs, as it is a key concept for anger control.Â Empathy is the ability to see and feel things from the viewpoint of the other which then changes how you respond to them or deal with them.Â In Avatar, some of us humans are portrayed as aggressors/bullies/militants who want something very valuable on Pandora with no regard for the indigenousÂ peoples or how our greed will affect their lives. As we have written in numerous other blogs, this complete lack of empathy is at the root of much human misery, conflict, and wars. The underlying thinking of the non-empathetic person is: “you have something I want, so I’ll just take it and I don’t care how you feel about it.” The aggressors in Avatar didn’t even see the local people as humans (well, they weren’t exactly humans, but they had human feelings and human relationships), but as
“blue monkeys.” (Seeing them that way makes it easier to abuse/ravage them!).
Wouldn’t it be a much better world if more people did care more? Having more empathy often improves relationships on all levels, starting with marriages, families, neighbors, and communities. Now, I must add that it is also possible to have too much empathy and be taken advantage of. But, most of us don’t have that problem and, in fact, could benefit ourselves, our relationships and the worldÂ by increasing our empathy skills.
This is a great time of the year to start practicing empathy. Try it and see if it doesn’t change how you feel about yourself and also see if it doesn’t change how people are with you. Happy New Year to you all.