On not giving away your power

Quite a number of times during my years in community mental health I had public school students (mostly boys) referred to me for counseling by their schools, due to fighting. These students definitely did not want to attend mandatory counseling sessions, so I used that as a lever, saying “Let’s see if you can learn to control your temper in two or three sessions. It’s up to you how long you have to come in for counseling.” I fully understood that when a teenager is being taunted in front of his peers, it feels more powerful in the moment to start swinging than to stand there feeling humiliated. So I framed their problem as one of giving away their personal power when they let themselves be goaded into losing their temper and fighting. Before I got into teaching anger management skills, I had to convince these students that I could help them. I often used set-up “punchlines” and strategic metaphors in therapy.

My first therapeutic hook was to show them a hand-lettered cardboard sign on a loop of string, which I’d hang around my neck. The sign read “If you want to make me mad, call me a _______.” I had a number of smaller signs that  I’d hold over the blank: “retard” “punk” “homo” “Mama’s boy”. With a straight face I’d offer to give the signs to the student, to wear at school. Of course he’d decline my offer, confused as to why I’d think he’d want to wear it in the first place. Then I’d give him my punchline: “You may as well wear it. Your behavior already tells people the same thing the sign says. The guys who give you a hard time just have to find out which of these things to call you, to make you lose control. It only makes you feel strong when you fight, but you’re actually giving away your power. When a bully goads you into throwing the first punch, he’s gotten what he wants. He knows that you’re the one who’s going to be suspended.”

My second hook was a metaphor that actually involves fishing. I’d ask the student if he’d ever gone fishing, and most had. I’d ask if they’d ever tried fishing without bait. Of course they’d say they always used bait. Then I’d say, “Because you know that a fish wouldn’t bite a bare hook, and the bait hides the hook. And that’s what happens when your enemies at school make you lose your cool. Their words are the bait that hides the hook. Once you bite, they’ve got you.” I’d pantomime reeling-in a fish, then suggest that keeping control of your behavior when you’re angry is a strength. (I realize that there are times when a cool-headed decision to fight is an appropriate response to bullying, but I won’t get into that circumstance here.)

There are other ways that people frequently give away their power to other people or to circumstances beyond their control. An event such as a traffic jam doesn’t have the power to make you mad, unless you invest it with that power. It’s one thing to say that you became angry when you got stuck in traffic, and quite another to say – as many people do – that being stuck in the traffic jam “made you” angry. The traffic might have triggered your anger, but it didn’t cause it.

Sometimes people blame their feelings or actions on others: “I wouldn’t have hit him if he hadn’t dissed me!” People who attribute their anger to other peoples’ behavior (i.e. “You make me angry when you contradict me!”) are making an indirect demand: “Don’t contradict me, or you’ll have to deal with my anger.” As with blaming circumstances for one’s anger, there’s a big difference between “I get angry when you _________” and “You make me angry when you _________.” The difference is in locus of control. Does control exist within me, or outside of me? Owning your anger is a strength.

If I blame external triggers for my anger, I’m giving them power over me. If I own my anger, I’m more likely to control its duration and its influence on my behavior. I’m not stating this as an absolute. If someone were to sucker-punch me, I’d certainly attribute my anger to his behavior. I’m just making the point that if I own my anger, I’m less likely to reflexively hit him back. (Which may or may not be the best response.) Thinking that I generate my own anger in response to external triggers is more rational than thinking that others can pull my strings, and that external triggers cause my anger.  Staying in control of your behavior and making good decisions while experiencing a strong emotion is a strength.

Another common habit of people who can’t differentiate between their rational and irrational thoughts is catastrophizing or awfulizing. When something inconvenient, unpleasant, disappointing or hurtful happens, there’s nothing to be gained by mentally labeling it as “terrible” or “awful,” or saying that you “can’t stand it.” Of course real tragedies and major losses can truly be terrible and overwhelming , but exaggerating the negative impact of an unwanted, unpleasant experience just makes it all the more unpleasant. Each of us has the ability to assign meaning and give weight to events, and catastrophizing is another way that people diminish their own power. Sometimes we spend ten dollars of adrenaline on a ten-cent problem, because of the way we think about it.

 

Anger management

I’ve taught anger management to groups of police officers, incarcerated felons, Marine drill instructors, and school teachers, as well as to many individuals – some of them referred by the Family Court. A lot of people with anger problems are highly resistant to attending anger management classes or counseling sessions, so I’ve had to learn how to get past people’s defenses if I was going to help them.

My definition of anger management took a lot of people by surprise. “Anger management,” I’d say, “doesn’t mean that you don’t get angry anymore, or that you can control when you get angry. Everybody gets angry, and sometimes anger can be a good thing. Anger management simply means that no matter how angry you feel, you can still make good decisions and you don’t do things you’ll have reasons to regret later. It means that you don’t let your anger control you.”

Nobody has absolute control over their emotions. Sometimes we feel carried away by them; it’s part of the human condition. People aren’t accountable for what they think  and feel, but for what they do. In certain situations, like combat, anger may help you to survive. But if your anger creates problems in your life, you can learn to stay in control of your behavior when angry. In order to do this you first need to understand some things about how your anger affects you: your personal triggers and cues, and your choices.

The roots of anger in childhood. You’re less likely to have anger problems if you grew up in an environment where your primary role models practiced anger management. Some parents know the right words to say to their kids: “Just because you’re angry at your brother, that doesn’t give you permission to hit him.” But role modeling works better than lecturing, and if adults can’t practice what they preach, their children learn more from what they do than from what they say. If you grew up with physical or emotional or sexual abuse, you’re not necessarily destined to have anger problems, but it’s more likely that you will. Bad tempers aren’t an inherited trait; but if you have one, you probably came by it honestly. If we were taught by our social environment that violence is a solution to interpersonal conflicts, we need to learn that there are better solutions.

Abraham Maslow said that if the only tool you have is a hammer, you’re likely to treat every problem as a nail. Some people learn to rely on anger and physically- or verbally-aggressive behavior, using intimidation tactics and threats to get their way, and resorting to violence when they don’t. Sometimes people take out their anger, not on the person who triggered it, but on those weaker than themselves. Dad yells at Mom, then Mom smacks Junior, who kicks the dog. It’s called displacement.

Triggers. The first step in learning anger management is to be aware when you’re angry. This may sound elementary, but often people who are angry are focused on externals, not on their here-and-now feelings. “I’m not ANGRY, you messed up!” People have different triggers for anger, and awareness of your triggers can help you to own what you’re feeling right now, and take those feelings into account when you choose how to respond to the situation. Sometimes the best thing to say is something like, “Look, I’m just too angry to continue this now. Give me time to chill and we can take up where we left off.” Personal insults, taunts, or sarcasm may or may not be triggers for you. Tone and loudness of voice, and body language, may be triggers if they remind you of someone with similar features. Situations (i.e. traffic jams) can be triggers. We all have identifiable triggers, and it helps to know what they are.

Cues are physical sensations we predictably experience when we’re in a specific emotional state, although a focus on the triggering experience might eclipse our awareness of our subjective state. Common cues for anger are a rapid heartbeat, heavy or rapid breathing, tensed muscles, a flushed face, and an adrenaline rush. Awareness of your cues in the here-and-now can help you to recognize and own your anger, and make good decisions despite it.

Owning your anger means not blaming others, or external circumstance like traffic jams, for what you feel. As a therapist I’ve encountered many people who typically, reflexively blamed others for their feelings, rather than owning them. “You make me so angry when you talk to me that way” is a cop-out, a manipulation. If others are responsible for your anger, then they need to change their behavior to stop “making you mad.” The idea that others will always have the power to make you mad puts you at a disadvantage in relationships. It’s much more rational to think of it as, “When you talk to me that way, I get angry.” If you don’t own your anger, you give away your personal power. If you own your anger, you can learn how to make decisions you can live with, no matter how angry you are at the time.

Physical anger management.  Here are some suggestions for physical things you can do to deal with angry feelings. (1) Vote with your feet. Walk away from the triggering situation, if that’s an option. Stay away until you calm down. (2) Slow your breathing. You don’t have an on/off switch for your anger, but breathing slowly has a physiological calming effect. (3) Physicalize your anger. Once you have the opportunity, release your anger by exerting yourself in harmless ways: do pushups, run, shadowbox, work out on a punching bag, or whale away at your bed with a pillow.

Mental anger management. In teaching anger management, I’ve compared anger to building a campfire. You can’t start one without an initial flame or spark, and once it’s started you need to keep adding fuel, or it will go out. First you ignite twigs from the spark, then you throw branches on the blaze, then logs. Anger is like that. It starts with a spark (trigger) and needs fuel to grow. The fuel that’s required for momentary anger to grow into a rage is angry thoughts. All people engage in self-talk. Some of it helps us to feel compassion for others and to make rational decisions, some of it can lead us to do irrational things that we’ll regret later. Rational self-talk (“She didn’t mean to hurt my feelings.”) can extinguish a blaze of anger, while irrational self-talk (“He needs to get his butt kicked!”) can turn a spark into a bonfire. Rational thinking will be a continuing topic here. It’s a cornerstone of cognitive therapy.