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Stress Mastery : Pathways Through Anger - Coping with Anger

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Reframing Revisited

We have found that the most effective way of beginning to use anger, rather than be used up by it, not surprisingly involves beginning with the Master Strategy. First, remember to breathe. Take a couple of deep diaphragmatic breaths and then shift your attention to your muscles, particularly the muscles in the shoulders, neck, and jaw. Take a moment to relax these. Then assume the witnessing stance. Look at the situation from the outside. Ask yourself, “How can I look at this differently?” 

Look for Comedy

One approach involves viewing your life as a sitcom in progress. It asks that you think of yourself as a comedy writer of your own life. In almost all situations, an element of humor or absurdity can be found if you look at it from a different perspective, and seeing the humor inherent in a situation effectively defuses much of the anger. Think for a moment; if you were an objective, uninvolved bystander witnessing your situation, could any aspect of your circumstance be seen as humorous? Who is your favorite stand-up comedian? If that person were observing what was happening to you, what pithy or funny remarks would he or she make about you or your dilemma? You can probably remember times when you witnessed an event where a friend, colleague, or relative became angry, while you had a hard time keeping a straight face because you could see the absurdity in the situation. You can do this with yourself as well. As a matter of fact, almost any situation will seem funny when you are looking back at it after the passage of time. Realize that you have the choice to imagine that time has already passed when you are involved in your particular dramas.

The Unfolding Drama Viewpoint

Yet another useful reframe involves looking at your situation from a frame of reference in which you view your life as an unfolding drama for the benefit and entertainment of a higher being. And why not? Your life is God's gift to you. How you live it is your gift to God.

Write a Chapter in Your Life

A related reframe is to consider that your life is a novel in progress, and what is happening to you at any moment can make for a fascinating chapter in the book that is your life. How can you write this chapter, taking into account what you will ultimately learn from the experience?

We find that any of these perspectives will help to get you unstuck from the anger of the moment. If none of these appeal to you, can you think of others that would serve you better? Take some time to reflect on this now.

Case Study 1 in Anger Control: Road Rage

Sally is a high-powered executive who works downtown in a major metropolitan area. She enjoys the excitement and cultural amenities of the big city, but she prefers to live in a more rural atmosphere. To accomplish this aim, she purchased a home on the outskirts of the suburbs in an area that still feels like the country. This also enables her to have a lot of land and a barn in which to keep her horse. The price of this is that she has a very long commute, in rush-hour traffic, to and from her job. On a good day it takes her forty-five minutes to get to the office, and most days it takes over an hour to reach work. She hates the drive, but she is very satisfied with her job, and has no desire to move closer to work and lose the country environment she cherishes.

Lately Sally has found herself frequently engulfed in road rage, getting furious at bad drivers or inconsiderate motorists who cut her off. She found herself often screaming in her car, leaning on the horn unnecessarily long, making obscene hand gestures to other motorists, and then feeling agitated throughout the drive and even after she reached her destination. She was very concerned about her feelings and her behavior. She feared that she might anger strangers with her offensive gestures, who might then attempt to retaliate in some fashion. Mostly she was upset about the holdover agitation she felt even after getting out of the car. Her blood pressure was up and she was getting frequent tension headaches during her drive home which lingered all night.

Assisting Sally to work through road rage to achieve road peace first involved helping her to recognize that she had a choice whether to respond with anger to difficult driving situations. Sally was encouraged to identify the underlying assumptions that were fueling her anger. She believed that she had no control in the situation; after all, she couldn't stop lousy drivers from making driving mistakes, going too slow, or cutting her off. But the thought that triggered the bulk of her anger was her assumption that “they got away with it.” That is, the person driving like a madman got away scot-free while interfering with her and putting her in danger.

Sally was able to overcome her road rage by being willing to shift her thinking. She began to acknowledge that while she certainly had absolutely no control over the driving behavior or competency of other motorists, she always had control over how she chose to respond to any given driving situation. She then searched for a way to reframe the trigger assumption: that bad drivers get away with it. She recognized that if a given driver was really that unskilled, then it was just a matter of time before that person was either ticketed by police or hospitalized from a traffic accident. The next time she witnessed a bad driver (a speeder weaving dangerously in and out of lanes on the expressway), she fantasized that that driver got a speeding ticket later that day. She further realized that when drivers are not incompetent but just inconsiderate (for example, those who cut you off because they are in a hurry), this inconsideration will catch up with them in other areas of life, particularly in interpersonal relationships. People who always put their needs above those of others rarely can sustain lasting relationships. So the next day, when a dapper businessman in a new Mercedes almost ran her off the road to cut into her lane, Sally imagined that he returned home that night and discovered that his wife had left him for being such an insensitive cad.

Sally was amazed at how adopting these alternative perspectives and engaging in these reframed fantasies defused her anger. Remembering to breathe slowly from the diaphragm when the driving got tense helped her to keep her mind open to new perspectives, rather than engaging in knee-jerk reactions of rage. She also began using her time in the car more constructively. She began listening to books on tape, rather than complaining that she didn't have time to read. She also began carrying a tape recorder in the car and periodically dictating reports that she didn't get to finish at work. Using her time more productively lowered her stress level and reduced her feeling that she was wasting two hours a day in the car. The distraction value of these activities was such that she stopped spending time searching the landscape for bad drivers or driving errors, as she had before. Within two weeks of adopting this change in perspective, Sally was free of road rage.

Case Study 2 in Anger Control: Workplace Anger

Carlos had been working at his sales job for a mid-sized manufacturing company for two years and had enjoyed phenomenal success. He had quadrupled his earnings in that time, due to his high sales figures and the company's commission structure, and he was the top salesman in the company. His forte was in developing new accounts and generating increased orders from existing customers. Rather than enjoy his success, Carlos became even more driven and began having inappropriate temper outbursts at work when other workers did not meet his expectations. He became enraged when other workers made minor errors that delayed the processing of orders for his customers. He would often yell at these co-workers and insult them. What upset him the most was what he perceived as the meddling behavior of the sales manager, his immediate boss. When his boss would attempt to assist him on an account (to help with paperwork), Carlos took offense. He assumed that his boss was implying that he couldn't handle it by himself. Mostly he was worried about getting fired either because of his temper outbursts or because he was disliked. He feared that the bosses wanted to can him so they could hire someone else at a much lower salary level. He knew he had to deal with the situation when his boss took him aside and told him that he needed to work on his attitude. Carlos was having problems sleeping at night and relaxing on the weekends with his family because he was so caught up in anger and worry.

Carlos was encouraged to use diaphragmatic breathing and to wait ten minutes before responding to any mistakes made by co-workers or perceived slights by his superiors, so he would have time to cool down. Using cognitive restructuring, he confronted his irrational expectation that people should always be perfect and never make mistakes. He was also encouraged to identify the other assumptions that were underlying his anger.

The first assumption was that he was soon to be fired despite his success. To find a reframe to combat this, he was encouraged to think of everything his company had to lose by firing him. He quickly realized that the company stood to lose a lot of money and a lot of business if he was let go, even if they did hire a lower-paid replacement. He had to admit that it would be a very foolish move for his employers to fire him, even if they did find him to be a “pain in the butt.”

The second assumption involved his belief that his boss's efforts to help him with paperwork implied that he was not competent. When reflecting upon alternate explanations for his boss's behavior, Carlos realized that when his boss helped with paperwork it freed him up to do what he did best (that is, develop new accounts and increase orders from existing accounts). Therefore, his boss's assistance could help both Carlos and the company increase earnings.

When Carlos returned to work, he practiced breathing techniques and taking a ten-minute breather to walk around the office if hassles arose. When his boss came to assist with his paperwork, rather than resenting it and glaring at him as he had done previously, he thanked him. Within a week he and his boss were on much better terms. They had a heart-to-heart talk in which his boss confirmed that he wanted to pitch in so as to enable Carlos to focus solely on selling. Carlos suggested a brainstorming meeting between the sales and shipping departments to foster improved communication and problem solving to expedite timely shipment of orders. At the meeting Carlos practiced empathic listening and began to understand why his co-workers made many of the errors. This meeting was very productive, and as a result numerous suggestions were made to help fix the existing problems. Carlos acknowledged that mistakes would still occur, but he was hopeful that the frequency could be significantly reduced by implementing the ideas offered at the meeting.

Lastly, Carlos kept reminding himself that he was a very valuable employee who had control over whether he was fired by how he chose to behave in the workplace. Several weeks after his change in attitude, his bosses took him aside and praised his work and the improvement in his attitude. From the discussion it was abundantly clear to him that he was, indeed, a very valuable employee with a secure job. Within two weeks he began to enjoy going to work again. His sleep normalized and he began to relax and have fun on his weekends.

The two case studies presented here are actual cases presented by patients in our Stress Mastery practice. The names and some details have been changed to protect the confidentiality of the participants, but the methods and outcomes are stated as occurred.

Developing Your Own Plan to Defuse Anger

Take a moment and think about a situation or a person that often triggers your anger. (Notice that we did not say something or someone who makes you angry. No one can make you angry; whether you respond with anger is always your choice.) Now, take a few moments to practice diaphragmatic breathing, and consciously release the tension from your muscles to better prepare you to deal with the stress of these thoughts. If it is a situation that you are thinking about, what alternate perspective or reframe can you create to help you view things differently? Are you harboring any irrational ideas that contribute to your anger and could be challenged? Spend a few minutes pondering the situation from this new frame of reference. What happens to your anger? Do you find it diminishing or perhaps even fading entirely? If you have been thinking about a person who often triggers your anger, make your best attempt to put yourself in the shoes of that individual. What feelings or motivations might that person have that led him to behave in ways that anger you? This does not mean that you have to agree with that person or condone his behavior; the only requirement is that you spend some time viewing the world from his eyes. Do you notice that it is harder to generate anger when you understand where someone else is coming from, even if you don't agree with him? Does that person's point of view have any validity, given that person's experiences or beliefs? Now that you have likely attenuated your anger by thinking differently, could you adopt any other alternative behaviors that might help you cope? 

Viewing Criticism as Feedback

One of the stressful things that often triggers our anger, particularly in a job setting, is criticism. It goes without saying that no one really likes to be criticized, particularly about our work or our on-the-job behavior. But some individuals handle criticism better than others. Why is it that some people seem to take negative feedback in stride and even appear to benefit from it, while others are overwhelmed with anger and self-doubt? Again the answer lies in the meaning attributed to the criticisms. One of the main reasons is that often people tend to equate criticism with themselves rather than their actions. Therefore, they view negative feedback as a statement about their self-worth rather than an observation about their behavior. When viewed this way, criticism tends to remind us of our inadequacies.

However, if we realize that it is not us but our actions that are being critiqued, it becomes easier to consider the possibility that there is validity to the complaint. You no longer need to feel as though there is something wrong with you, or that you are a bad or worthless person; rather, you need to focus your attention on the appropriateness, effectiveness, or worthiness of a particular behavior.

You need to recognize that in any situation where you receive criticism, three possibilities exist: (1) Your behavior is definitely out of line and the other person's complaint is valid; (2) your behavior is questionable but the criticism is also a reflection of biases, difficulties, or neuroses on the part of the critic; or (3) your behavior is fine and it is the critic who has the problem. (Remember the old saying, “Criticism reflects the critic.”) It is important to take a good look at your behavior, but how you respond will depend on which possibility you decide best fits the situation.

If you decide that your behavior has been inappropriate, you must be careful not to fall into the trap of taking this as evidence that you have done something wrong and should feel bad about it. This trap is avoided by remembering to look differently at mistakes. Mistakes are not necessarily always bad. They are not just evidence that we have done something wrong. You can decide to view mistakes as feedback—important feedback that helps train you how to do things properly. It is when we realize that our mistakes are invaluable teachers that we cease to continue to repeat them.

I have not failed 10,000 times,

I have successfully found 10,000

ways that will not work.

—Thomas A. Edison

Forgiveness

If prolonged anger and resentment damages our health and contributes to our level of stress, then clearly the ability to forgive and let go of past hurts and disappointments is a desirable goal. Let's be clear about what forgiveness is and is not. Forgiveness is not forgetting what happened, thereby placing yourself again in a situation where you could be mistreated. It is certainly not about condoning behavior you find offensive or hurtful. It is the process of letting go of the energy invested in past hurts or disappointments so that you can free that energy for more productive, growth-oriented activities. The decision to forgive stems from the realization that anger and resentment have a damaging effect on you. There is an old Chinese saying: “When working for revenge, dig two graves.” We wonder whether you or anyone you know has ever said, “I don't get mad, I get even!” As cool as that statement might sound, you must realize the eventual toll such an approach will take on you.

Although forgiveness begins with a decision to forgive, it is important to remember that forgiveness is a process. As such, it takes time and willingness to go through the particular emotions involved, be they hurt, anger, or even depression. The problem develops when you get stuck in this process because of righteous indignation. Do not get caught in the trap of believing that you can begin to forgive only when an apology is offered or amends made. When and how you forgive is totally up to you, whatever the circumstances. If you want to achieve stress mastery, a consistent attitude of forgiveness is extremely useful.

An important point needs to be made here. Not only do you need to forgive others; it is perhaps even more critical that you master the art of forgiving yourself. Too often we see people in our workshops and classes who claim to be great at forgiving others but who are harsh and unforgiving regarding their own past actions and perceived mistakes. Remember that the most important relationship in your life is the one you have with yourself. Be gentle with yourself. Remember that all the decisions you have made in the past have contributed to who you are today, and as such they all have their usefulness. A most important key to stress mastery is learning to forgive yourself, again and again and again.

To facilitate this process you could use a helpful visualization strategy discussed earlier, that of observer imagery. Imagine yourself sitting in front of yourself. Have your present self speak to your past self, the part of you that made those mistakes you have found so unforgivable. Visualize telling your past self that you are forgiven, that you are not pleased with the behavior and wish you had done it differently, but that you now recognize that we are all struggling human beings trying to do the best that we can. Furthermore, you consciously forgive your past self because you deserve it. Of course, this same process can be used not only with yourself, but with an image of anyone who has hurt or angered you.

Assertiveness

Some situations that anger you certainly call for some type of response beyond letting go of your anger. Many times you will need to respond to individuals who have angered you so as to rectify the situation or prevent future occurrences of whatever is provoking your hostility. This is best accomplished by dealing diplomatically and assertively with the other person, rather than passively avoiding conflict (and allowing your resentment to build and take a toll on you) or responding aggressively (where you risk alienating others, making the situation worse and later being ashamed of yourself). 

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