Four Part Series on Anger. Part 4: 4 Secret Tips for Unlocking Anger and Deploying it Strategically

In my last three posts…

I noted that anger was just a tool that could be strategically deployed and that anger did not control you, make you angry, or cause you to act in any particular way.

I discussed different manifestations and several faces of anger…

In this post, I discuss 4 tips regarding how you can unlock the power of your anger.  I call them secret tips because they are not obvious and tend not to be widely recognized or emphasized.

When utilized, however, these tips will both legitimize your anger and guide you to using your anger as a strategic tool to improve your life and your relationships.

The four secret tips:

#1 Practice “safety” first.    (create both psychological and physical space)

This tip is part of the anger mastery cycle and is absolutely critical to learn.

The goal is to create a habit that focuses your attention on creating safety for you and others  as soon as you become aware that you are angry.

This tip also sets you up for the other 3.

Two points are important here:

  • The first is that it will take practice to link the action of creating safety to the awareness that you are angry.
  • The second point is that the “safety” you are creating is both for you and for  the other person (or people) you are angry at.

Let’s unpack these points to make this tip more accessible.

When I use the word “link”, I am referring to the creation of a habit.

A “habit” is a sequence of behaviors that becomes automatic so that, when the sequence is triggered, one action follows the other without requiring a whole lot of thought.

As an example.. When I had hair, I would get in the shower and go through my hair care routine (shampoo, rinse, conditioner, rinse).  After doing it so many times, the hair care routine became an automatic sequence of behaviors. In other words, a habit.

Now, the evolutionary value of a habit is that you can actually multitask without losing any effectiveness.  Once a habit was formed, I would execute the sequence of behaviors while thinking about something else.  When I exited the shower, I often couldn’t remember (without some effort) whether I had used the conditioner or not.  I had, in fact, applied the conditioner but it was “automatically” done without much thought by the habit I had created.

Habits can work for us if the behavior we are automating is advantageous.  If, however, the behavior is destructive, the habit will still automate it but it won’t be good for us.

So, the habit I am suggesting you create for anger will increase your ability to practice safety first and involves this routine:

As soon as you  become aware (by knowing how your body signals to you that you are getting angry), you immediately take a deep breath and take a physical step backwards.

The breath creates psychological safety in that it lowers your arousal level and gives you the time you need to assess the situation. The “safety” here is the gap that you create between the initial angry reaction and the response you will make to the situation.

The physical step backward creates a physical safe zone both for you by separating you from the other person and for them by separating them from you.

With practice (and, like with any habit, you will have to practice it in order to make it automatic), the routine becomes:

  • unconsciously perceive a threat
  • experience anger physically in your body
  • create safety by taking a deep breath and stepping back from the situation

The logic behind thinking safety first is this…

The idea of safety is already a concept that is familiar to everyone.

When you link safety to anger, you are acknowledging that anger is a strong emotion that prepares you for war.  But, you want to plan for war from a position of safety so that you don’t make the wrong decision that could negatively impact you and the person you go to war with.

Keep in mind that creating safely first does not eliminate any of your options regarding the situation and does not invalidate your anger in any way (which is the next secret).

#2 Validate, do not  engage, your anger.

Validation means to accept that this is your anger and that it might be important.  By validating and accepting your anger, you are acknowledging it as a possible source of useful information.  This means that you do not fight your anger, try to deny your anger, or resist your anger in any way.

Validating your anger keeps all of your options on the table.

When you engage your anger rather than validate it, you give in to it.

This means that on some level you are assuming that it is legitimate anger and accurately reflects what is actually going on.  Engagement acts as-if  the threat is real and that it is what it appears to be.

Let’s look at the logical options here..

1.The threat is real.

If the threat is real, then engaging the anger would be appropriate, functional and effective if you make the right choice of how to overpower the threat

If, however, you act impulsively and your intervention is either too excessive or too weak, then you have made the situation worse.

2.The perceived threat is not real and you have made a mistake.

If there is no threat and you go to war when you engage your anger, you will most likely overreact and create significant problems for yourself interpersonally and, possibly, legally.

This is the mistake that those whose anger seems to be controlling them make.

Validating your anger serves two purposes.

On the one hand, it acknowledges your anger and helps to prevent resisting or denying your emotion. Resistance and/or denial only make the anger stronger.

Secondly, it prevents you from engaging your anger and acting impulsively.  This keeps open all of your options for responding to the situation in which you find yourself.

#3 Assess twice Act once (resist reacting)

This is very similar to what people who construct things advise which is to “Measure twice, cut once.” The idea in construction is that you should double check your measurement before you make a cut that you can’t undo.

When it comes to anger, the idea is that you assess the nature of the perceived threat, think about it and then take a second look before you do something that you can’t take back and might have to atone for with an apology or, perhaps, a trip to court.

Assessing twice does not necessarily take a lot of time.

If you decide to exit the situation, think it over, and then reengage with the person  you are mad at, then assessing twice will take some time.  And, it may be time that is very well spent.

But, in a tense situation, assessing twice can simply mean that you immediately guage the situation, take a second deep breath, make a second assessment and then respond.

#4 Choose an effective response

Let’s break this one down.

First,you need to be aware that your goal is always to respond and not react.

Secondly, you are always responsible for any action you take even if it is a spontaneous reaction to an event. As I’ve noted above and in other posts, you can never justify the excuse that “My anger made you do it.” because, ultimately, all your behavior stems from thoughts and decisions that you make.

Finally, your response should be effective in that you have determined that it will neutralize the threat with a minimum of collateral damage.

There are several elements involved in effectiveness…

  • your assessment of the threat,
  • the level of “force” needed to meet and deal specifically with the threat,
  • the skills you need to implement the action you will take and
  • the degree to which you can carry out your plan.

Finally, in choosing an effective response, there are 4 important considerations:

  • it is important to accept that you are making a choice as to what you will do.
  • You are not forced to do anything.
  • You are responsible for the choice you make.
  • You might make the wrong choice and can always make a different choice.

Thanks for reading..

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Four Part Series on Anger. Part 3: You Are NOT Your Anger

When  you saw the title of this post, did you wonder what point I was trying to make?

Or, did you think something along the lines of, “Duh!”?

In either case, the point I am making is that sometimes people act as if their anger has taken control of them. Or, in other words, they have become their anger.

As I will discuss below, while it may feel like your anger is is calling the shots, your anger NEVER has control over what you do. It is always a tool that you can deploy to make your life better.

Let me unpack this a bit using pain as an example.

Let’s say that you have a headache. You are uncomfortable and, maybe, you are even a bit surly with those around you.

I know this has happened to me.

Should you be challenged about your behavior, you probably would apologize and explain that you have a headache and it was really bothering you.

If the headache persists over time and doesn’t go away after you’ve taken some OTC medication, you might decide to call your doctor.

This action of using the pain as a source of information encouraging you ro get some help is actually using your pain as a tool.

Pain is a physical phenomenon which, as a tool, both informs you that something is wrong and encourages you (because it hurts) to stop what you are doing (straining something) or seek professional help to look into what is going on inside you that might be problematic.

By the way, this is the function of pain.

You would not say that the headache forced you to be surly or that the headache was in some way controlling you.

In other words, it would always be clear to you that you had a headache and not that your headache had “become you” and taken control of you.

If you did blame your headache, then you would be engaging in the psychological phenomenon of suffering from your pain. Suffering involves giving unwarranted meaning or significance to the physical pain.

This process is analogous to that which happens with the  emotion of anger.

Here is how the Anger Cycle works:

  • You are hard-wired to constantly, and subconsciously, scan your surroundings for threat.
  • When a threat is perceived, a fast message is sent to the Amygdala in your brain telling your body to prepare for battle.  This is your anger reaction. The physical signs of this preparation are the changes that your body goes through when you get angry.
  • At the same time, a slower message goes to your cerebral cortex which tells you that a threat has been perceived.  This gives you an opportunity to assess the nature of the threat and choose your response.

As I have noted in other posts, anger is a tool, the function of which is to alert you to and prepare you to deal with perceived threat. Your anger is like the smoke detector in your house.  It sends out an alert and screams “Check out what is going on!”

Your anger does not tell you what to do next anymore than the smoke detector tells you to grab your “go-bag” and move to higher ground.  After all, it may be that the toaster just burned the toast. Or, you could have just misunderstood what was said to you.

Or, there just might be a fire and the perceived threat is real.  This is where your assessment and response options become important.

Sometimes, however, a person will act as if their initial reaction is absolutely correct (and not take the time to assess the situation) and go to war.  In this situation, they have become their anger and that the anger is eliciting behavior that is often seen as inappropriate or extreme.

 

Notice the words in italics.  (Act as if) The individual, here, is abdicating any judgement to the anger and is assuming that “war” is, indeed, called for.

It is, as if, the anger got inside them and, like an insidious virus or alien being, took control of their actions and gave them no choice but to lash out at or hurt another person.

In other words, they have become their anger!

When called out for their actions, while angry, they will plead that this just wasn’t like them and that their anger made them do what they did.

When a person takes no responsibility for their behavior and blames their anger, they might as well saying that they were possessed.

To put it another way, when you over-identify with, and distance yourself from, your anger, you, in a sense, become your anger.

In essence, you are acting as-if it controls you.

Three important points are critical here.

First, your anger, as an emotion,  results from how you perceive your surroundings.

Secondly, because anger is a hard-wired emotion and can happen very quickly,  your experience may very well feel like your anger is controlling you. This is the fast track process of anger that I have addressed in other posts and in my book Beyond Anger Management: Master Your Anger as a Strategic Tool.

Thirdly, because the emotional process of anger, always sends a slower message to the the thinking part of your brain (the Cortex), you always have a choice as to how you will respond to the perceived threat.

In other words, your anger does initially happen to you based on how you perceive your surroundings.  But, it never becomes you as you always have a choice as to how you will respond.

You just have to learn how to recognize and strategically utilize this choice.