An Adult Guide to Anger Management

Taking on our inner rage

Photo by Arren Mills on Unsplash

You’re driving in the parking lot at the mall, and someone snakes you for that cherry spot by the entrance. Everywhere you go, there’s an endless line, made worse by spending more time in traffic than you planned for. You have a deadline to make at work, and someone pulls you away for a different, unrelated task. A customer yells at you at work.

What do we do when we’re confronted with frustration, incompetence, or just plain innocent mistakes? Do we punish others for their mistakes? Do we ruminate about how we would punish others if we only had the power to do so? Do we curse the other drivers as we drive alone in our cars? Where did we learn this?

We live in what looks like an agitated culture. Our civic culture is about law and order, but in the last decade, that has taken a decidedly less tolerant turn. A noticeable fraction of our society is starting to look for authoritarian solutions to social and economic problems. Our pop culture in TV and movie drama and action films is tit for tat, aggression, reprisal, melees, and in the end, the bad guy is summarily dispatched.

If a hammer is our only tool, then every problem begins to look like a nail.

This article is about learning to use another tool, well, a set of tools. Those tools are in a box called, “Anger Management.” The first tool is awareness. Sometimes we’re not even aware that we’re angry. Someone does something we don’t like, and without even thinking, we pop off at them for their mistakes. Someone says something we find offensive, so we reflexively go on the attack back at them. Just knowing that we’re angry is the first step towards anger management.

On Becoming Aware Of Your Anger

Try it yourself. Take notes throughout the day as you go about your business. Did you express anger at anyone? Do you notice when you’re angry or does anger feel “normal,” like it’s your normal state of being? Would you say that you feel mad often?

Anger is evidence of an inability to accept the way things are with people, places and things. Anger assumes that other people will change for me. Anger assumes privilege and impunity. Anger expects that people will respond appropriately to punishment, that other people will turn to one’s liking once the “offenders” are presented with a threat of punishment.

Sarcasm is a punishment. Insults are punishment. Calling others out for their deficiencies is another form of punishment. Making others “pay” is a form of punishment.

When we punish other people, we tend to overlook our own contribution to a situation that we think calls for punishment. We forget that it takes two to tango. Living in peace together requires that we notice our contribution to an uncomfortable condition or circumstance. Whether we’re at war or peace, we’re relating to other people.

Relationships are systems. In every system, there are inputs and outputs. Long ago, when I first learned of computers, I heard this, “Garbage in, garbage out.” In any system, if you put anger into it, anger is reflected back to you. For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.

If you push really, really hard on the universe, be prepared to duck.

So when I’m “relating” to others, I think through my plans before I act. I would consider the possible outcomes if I were to say something offensive. I mull the possibility that the other person may cry, may respond with retribution, or that I may lose the trust of that other person. I contemplate whether or not the outcomes I imagined are even desired. I take note that I cannot hurt someone else without hurting myself. I ask myself if what I’m about to say is a demand or a request for someone else to change. So I err on the side of peace.

Nothing is permanent, yet for many of us, anger feels like it’s forever. We sometimes live in anger thinking that we won’t get what we want (a prediction), that if we punish the other that we will finally get what we want (another prediction) and that if we don’t make a change in anger that we still won’t get what we wish (yet another prediction). Anger is often rooted in predictions about outcomes. When we’re angry, we tend to forget that we’re not very good at predicting the results of our choices made in anger.

Character vs. Capacity

Anger assumes that another person’s actions arise from character rather than capacity. Decades of work conducted by Dr. Ross W. Greene, Ph.D. has shown us otherwise. Dr. Greene has been working with children for more than 40 years, and he has summed up his experience with the following statement:

Children exhibit challenging behavior when they lack the skills or capacity to respond proactively to the demands of their environment.

To put it differently, children would do better, if they could. When a child makes a mistake in reading, we don’t punish the child for his error. We work with the child to show the error, demonstrate the correct way to read the text and allow the child to try again. And again. The lesson will be repeated until it is learned. We gently work with the child until he reads correctly.

Now compare that to how we treat a child when it comes to cleaning his room. Here, we punish the child for not cleaning his room. Or we threaten punishment if he doesn’t clean his room. It sounds like extortion, doesn’t it?

We don’t see a messy room as just a phase of the child’s development. “Huh. He cleaned his room before, so we know he knows how to do it, but today, he’s not cleaning his room.” Attempts to punish the child fail to yield better results, in fact, his behavior only becomes more challenging. This is what happens when we assume that an error is due to character rather than capacity.

When a young child is having a meltdown, we assume it’s about a character deficiency. We think that the child made a decision to be angry. Two-year-old kids in their “terrible twos” lack the capacity to make a choice about anger. Their brains are not developed enough to make those kinds of decisions. That’s why they get angry. Once we can frame a meltdown as a lack of capacity rather than a lack of character, we can find compassion for the child and work with him or her.

I have two young kids myself. I’ve developed a routine for working through their meltdowns after reading Dr. Greene’s books, The Explosive Child and Raising Human Beings. Those two books have completely changed my perspective on humanity.

I’m An Adult. I Can Choose Not To Be Angry

So when one of my kids has a meltdown, I work with them in the context of skills. I immediately assume that they are doing the best that they can by observing the skills they have demonstrated to me. I sit on the floor with them while they are standing, so that my face is at their eye level. And I talk with them. I let them know that I’m not angry and that I’m making a choice not to be offended. “Just because you’re angry doesn’t mean I have to be angry, too. I can make a choice about being angry.”

And I keep talking with them until they start to soothe themselves. I model calmness. I don’t try to use force or threats of force to overwhelm them and cow them into being quiet. I talk with them and keep talking because I know that it’s hard to be angry and to listen at the same time. Eventually, they decide to set aside their anger and listen to me. And then I give them a hug. Well, I offer a hug. I let them know that they can always have a hug no matter what. When they’re tired from being angry, and they’re done with being angry, they always come to me to get a hug.

I also know that their minds will wander. The human brain is made to host a wandering mind. We were hunter-gatherers once, so I think that a wandering mind is favored by natural selection. I also know that people can only be angry for so long. Anger is a very taxing state of being, and anger makes people very tired afterward. The brain can make endorphins for anger for only so long, and then it has to do something else.

Anger is a luxury that few people can afford. So when I’m dealing with angry people, children and adults, I just keep talking because I know their mind will eventually wander. And when their mind wanders, we can have a conversation about resolving our differences or solving the problem that gave rise to the challenging behavior in the first place.

Anger is addictive. When people experience anger, they get a massive jolt of adrenaline that is every bit as addictive as the runner’s high (adrenaline), sex (oxytocin) or drugs. Engaging in anger can lead to a cycle of abuse just for the high. I can recall being in a fight in elementary school feeling the jolt of adrenaline that comes from a physical confrontation. That hit from adrenaline can be extremely addictive. So I choose to err on the side of peace as an adult.

Adults can also fall into the same trap engaging in acts of revenge against another. They exact revenge not just for vindication or to prove dominance, they exercise revenge for that jolt of adrenaline.

Many adults in life are basically a little kid in a big body, and they have not mastered anger. They are making unconscious choices to be angry, decisions that can lead to life long emotional scars, significant financial loss, or serious injury. One only needs to read the local news to see how adult anger can play out. The preceding are reasons why I don’t want to know how far someone will go to prove they’re right when they’re angry. So I de-escalate.

The Universe Is A Reflection Of My Thoughts And Feelings

As parents, we can remind ourselves that kids are the world’s greatest imitators and that when we display anger, the kids are watching and reflecting. Parents are often surprised to see that their kids have learned to be angry from them. Sometimes parents realize their error when their 13-year-old flips them the bird, in anger. But if you make a choice to err on the side of peace, your kids will imitate you, too.

To really get a feel for a kid’s capacity to imitate me, I tried this with my daughters:

“OK, whatever you do, don’t do what I do.”
I stuck out my tongue. They stuck out their tongue.
I touched my nose with my forefinger. They touched their noses with their fingers.
I pulled my earlobe. They pulled their earlobe.
I told them again not to do what I do. They kept doing what I did.

I went to the park with my kids the next day and did the same thing with a group of kids who did not know me. Except for one older kid, they all did what I did, completely missing my instructions.

This works with adults too but in a more subtle way. If you are calm, other adults will be calm. If you are angry or in a panic, they will be in a panic. In a stressful situation, you can use “mirroring” to bring calm to a room by being calm.

When we realize that we can make a choice about being angry, we can also make a choice to observe the feeling of anger. We can watch the anger rise and pass. When the angry feelings pass, we can decide what we want to do next. We can choose to err on the side of peace.

Imagine the change in our perception of our world if, instead of seeing every mistake on the part of others as a personal and intentional insult to ourselves, we assumed it was not. We can choose to assume ignorance before malice. I could imagine that those other people, out there, beyond my body, did not wake up thinking that they will intentionally fail to complete a request, accurately and promptly, just to piss me off.

This is an assumption I have learned to make about others. I assume ignorance before malice. I assume a lack of capacity rather than character. I assume that what could anger me has nothing to do with me, it’s on them. I know this to be true because most people are so self-conscious about making a mistake, that they don’t even notice my errors until later, if at all. So I forgive them.

The Takeaway

  1. Learn to notice your anger and observe it.
  2. Learn to let the feeling pass, for it will pass.
  3. Know that you can make a choice not to act in anger.
  4. Know that you can choose not to be angry.
  5. Notice the part you played in precipitating an uncomfortable situation.
  6. Know that when other people offend you, it’s not about you.
  7. Mirror peace and calm in tense situations to bring peace to the room.
  8. Keep the channels of communication open by talking.
  9. Forgive them for they know not what they do.