Someone on Quora.com asked me:
How do I control my anger when someone lies to me? (emphasis added).
While my original response to this question prompted this post, my response below is more updated, more detailed and more adequately addresses the important issues.
Anger Myths and Controlling Your Emotions
There are two operative myths regarding one’s emotions (or feeling) and the concept of control. Both myths have some truth to them. They are myths because they don’t tell the whole story.
The first myth is that emotions such as anger (and others) control you.
The second myth is that it is important (even beneficial) that you control your emotions. While the idea of controlling your emotions is probably more frequently applied to anger because of the inappropriate actions take while angry (and blame the emotion for those actions), people believe they should control any emotion that doesn’t feel “good” to them like anxiety, guilt, hurt, sadness.
Let me address both these myths in the context of the Anger Mastery Cycle (AMC).
Note: By the way, you can download a free PDF of the anger mastery cycle by clickingor on the tab above.
Myth #1: This myth is partly true. It is a myth because it doesn’t take into consideration the entire AMC.
Your emotions don’t control you. The perception of control happens because of the unconscious part of the Anger Mastery Cycle. You are hard wired to constantly scan your surroundings for threat. Humans have done this since we lived in caves. Our ancestors depended on their emotions to both alert them to and prepare them to deal with threats that would kill them. This unconscious process still operates today as it did back then. Because the process is fast and unconscious, people believe that their emotions control them. And, at this early stage of the EMC, that is true.
The issue of control and emotions is a myth because it fails to consider that evolved humans (you and me) have developed the ability to assess our emotions and choose how we want to respond to them. This gives us control of our situation and allows us to utilize our emotions as tools.
We don’t control our cell phones (an important tool). We learn how to. master it and make it work for us. It is the same with all emotions (including anger). The ultimate goal in dealing with any feeling is to use the information your emotions, including anger, give you to improve your life and your relationships. I discuss this below.
Myth #2: This myth is also partially true and it also fails to consider the whole anger mastery cycle.
The first part of the anger mastery cycle is anger management. This is the “control” issue that most people refer to when they say you should “control your anger”.
Yes, you need to lower your arousal and control your behavior to prevent yourself from reacting to the other person and possibly doing something you later regret. But, this is only a step to mastering your anger. You control your anger at this point by taking a deep breath, “forcing” yourself not to react to the person, and taking a second or two to assess the situation as described below and choosing how you want to respond.
Please note that while it is easy for me to tell you what you need to do and it is doable, it will take some practice on your part to put it into action.
Anger, lies and you.
Anger as a primary emotion is a primitive threat detector. I discuss anger as a primary emotion and a threat detector in my book. You can also access all of my posts on Anger by clicking on the Index tab above and the anger category. Access to all of my posts on anger is then one click away.
The message of anger is that you perceive the lie and, possibly the individual who lied to you, as a threat. This is where anger mastery comes in.
Mastering anger in the context of being lied to.
As I have said, anger is a tool. To master anger as a tool involves assessing the validity of the threat you have perceived.
Your anger informs you that you perceive the act of being lied to as a threat.
Well, there are several possibilities here:
- There is no lie. You have misunderstood what was said to you.
- You are being lied to and that act is a threat to something that is important to you such as your goals, your trust, your values, your expectations and so forth.
- You are being lied to but there really is no threat to you. The lie is the problem of the lier.
Given multiple possibilities, you have to assess the nature of the threat.
Your first choice should be to clarify what you believe to be a lie.
You start here, by the way, because if there is no lie, you avoid later complications and, if there is a lie, you still have all of your options available to you.
You do this by asking for clarification of the issue. This involves stating your own understanding of the “facts” and giving them an opportunity to clarify as needed.
Secondly, if convinced that a lie has been told, you need to decide what is it about this particular lie from this particular person that you perceive as a threat?
This is a critical question in addressing your question for this reason. You can’t decide how you want to respond to this person (another step in the anger mastery cycle) until you decide the nature of the threat.
For example, if the “liar” is your kid, the threat you perceive might involve issues of trust, insuring that your kid understands certain values or develops a moral compass and so forth. If this is the first time he (or she) lied to you, you might choose to approach it as a teaching moment. Or, suppose that your kid lied to protect another kid from being beaten up? Again, you might have initially perceived a threat to your sense of right and wrong when you found out about the “lie” but, once you understand the reason for lie, your response to your kid could change.
If the liar is your spouse, or significant other, and this is reflective of a pattern, the threat might be not only to your sense of right and wrong but to the very foundation of your relationship.
If the liar is a co-worker, again, you would need to assess the nature of the threat.
I think you get the idea.
Thirdly, you might decide, for whatever reason, that there is no threat, you would move down one fork of the anger mastery cycle which involves:
- choosing to do nothing
- letting the anger dissipate, and
- moving on.
Finally, if you decide there is indeed a threat, you move down the other fork of the cycle, which involves:
- deciding what action you need to take (noting that you are angry, disappointed, etc and assertively questioning the person, questioning what result the individual expected to achieve by lying, seeing a counselor or a lawyer, and so forth
- making a plan, and
- taking action on that plan.
In order to implement some of my suggestions you may need to assertively respond to the person who lied to you. If you are not familiar with the concept of interpersonal assertion, I suggest you Google “interpersonal assertion” (or click on the link) for more information as this topic is beyond the scope of this post.