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.