How can I control my words when I am angry?

This post is based on an answer I posted on Quora.com to this question. While the question addresses (angry) words, the same advice applies to unwanted or inappropriate (angry) actions.

In my answer to an earlier question, I noted that the message of anger is that you perceive a threat to some VITAL aspect of your life that you believe you can eliminate if you throw enough power at it.

I also noted that the body’s anger initial reaction to any perceived threat is to go on “red alert” and prepare for battle. In your case, your “angry words” are your battle plan.

As it turn out, there is a slight time delay between the message that goes to the amygdala which prepares you to react to the threat and the message to the cerebral cortex which allows you to decided what to do about the threat.

It is this time delay that you can learn to use to your advantage.

Regarding anger, most writers talk about anger management.  I believe that anger should be mastered (strategically applied to remedy the situation which elicits the anger) rather than managed as “management” implies primarily “control”.  While mastering anger does, initially, involve controlling one’s physical and psychological reactions to anger as the anger management approach teaches, anger mastery teaches you to validate the anger, assess the nature of the threat, and match your response to the level of that threat.

The angry words to which you refer are usually your first reaction to the threatening situation you perceive.  You want to defend yourself and lash out.

Anger mastery always recommends controlling this reaction as it may or may not be appropriate to the situation once you have assessed what is actually taking place.

If the best you are capable of doing for now is controlling your anger and your behavior, then “bite your tongue” (figuratively, not actually), force yourself to keep quiet or walk away.  This is better than cussing out your boss or getting yourself in trouble with friends and loved ones.

Anger mastery can be learned but it takes time.

With this in mind, there are three components to mastering your anger and the behavior you engage in when angry.

The first component involves the cerebral cortex (the thinking part of your brain)

In order to give yourself a few seconds to think about your situation and make a decision, you have to reduce your level of arousal and give yourself some space between you and the threat.

This is the basis of taking a physical step backwards, taking a deep breath, and counting to 10.

While this is easy advice to give (and it is accurate), it isn’t always easy to do in the heat of the moment.

So, it is important for you to prepare yourself to take a deep breath before you get angry.  You can do this by thinking about the situations  which “push your anger button” and imagining yourself taking a deep breath in that situation.

You can also think about where, in your body, you experience anger. Do your muscles tense up? Do you get a warm sensation somewhere, etc.

Knowing how your body alerts you to anger gives you some additional warning time.

If the above sounds strange to you, I understand.  Do the best you can.

With practice, you will be able to anticipate your anger and reduce your arousal just enough in the situation to stop yourself before you react.

The second component is to evaluate the nature of the threat.

If the threat is to a vital goal, a critical belief, to your family or your reputation, you will need to take action. But, you will learn to respond rather than react.

If the threat is to your ego, some less important aspect or your life, or is, in fact, not a threat at all, you may not have to take any action at all.

The third component involves deciding what  you will do about the threat.

Based on your evaluation of the nature of the threat, you can make a plan involving what you will do to resolve the threat.

Rarely, in the case of anger, does action have to be taken “right now”.  In the vast majority of cases, you can take a few moments, reduce your arousal (count to 100 if you have to or take a couple of deep breaths), and then choose how you will RESPOND to the situation.

In summary, to manage your anger rather than control it, remember the following”:

1. You always have some time to choose a response

2. The message of anger is that you perceive a threat you believe, on some level, that you have the ability to eliminate.

3. Think about what kinds of situations “push your anger button” and become aware of how your body alerts you to your anger.

4. Practice in your imagination, reducing your arousal in these situations.

5. Take a moment in the anger eliciting (not causing) situation to evaluate the nature of the threat.  Your first perception of the situation is not always accurate.

6. Based on your evaluation in the moment, choose how you will respond, and do what you decide.

7. Practice the above in your imagination as best you can and implement it as needed.

I welcome your comments.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.