"Speak when you are angry and you will make the best speech you will ever regret."
– Ambrose Bierce
Many years ago, I worked with an extremely unpleasant man who irritated me relentlessly. Because he was much older than I and had seniority at work, I kept my feelings to myself. Then one day, he said something fairly innocuous – something that at any other time wouldn't have caused me to raise an eyebrow. I turned around and let him have it – sounding off for a good five minutes, in front of other employees, no less, about just exactly what I thought of him.
You may think this experience disqualifies me to write about anger management, but in fact, it taught me an important lesson: Anger is a perfectly normal human emotion. It only becomes a problem when we don't know how to handle it in a healthy, constructive way. And surprisingly few of us do. That's because in many families and cultures, we're taught to corral our negative emotions. Women, in particular, are expected to be polite. Salespeople are taught that the customer is always right. And many children, students and low-level employees are supposed to kowtow to their superiors and not make waves.
But isn't it a good idea to keep the peace, you might ask? The answer is, it depends on the situation. Appropriate anger in the face of injustice is what propelled people like Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi to fight for important social reforms. Unexpressed anger at a spouse or co-worker can turn inward and lead to depression or high blood pressure. What's more, anger can lead to passive-aggression (behavior expressing resentment in an unassertive way) which, as in the example above, can pave the way for a meltdown that takes both parties by surprise.
In short, it's better to learn how to manage anger than to try to ignore or avoid it – or to allow it to explode. To take control of your anger, remember the acronym: C-A-L-M.
Cognitive restructuring. It's easier to change the way you think than you think! We tend to fall quickly into patterns of thought such as, "He's always out to get me," or "There's no hope of fixing this" if we've thought that way all our lives. The following are ways you can control the messages you send yourself:
Of course, this all takes practice. After all, it's practice that helps us form new habits.
Assertiveness. There is an important difference between assertiveness and aggression. Assertiveness means that you respect both yourself and others. If you are unjustly accused of mislaying an important document at work, state your case clearly and concisely without getting nasty and defensive. This will not only make you look calm and in control, it will also prevent escalation of the conflict.
Most people respect those who are assertive, whereas they tend to bully or steamroll over the needs of those who let them. When you feel that you are respected, you will have less reason to get angry.
Laying back. Yoga, anyone? Deep breathing, visualization and other forms of relaxation are key to calming the angry spirit. Remember the old saw about counting to 10 before you respond to someone who makes you mad? Simply slowing down your reactions – and getting much-needed oxygen to the brain – can often help to stabilize out-of-control emotions.
Sit in a comfortable chair and loosen your tie or belt. Breathe deeply from your diaphragm rather than shallowly from your chest. (Your abdomen will rise with each inhale when you're doing this correctly.) You might also want to slowly repeat a simple word or phrase, such as "calm down" or "relax." If you practice these techniques on a regular basis when you are not angry, you'll have them at your fingertips when you need them to help you unwind.
On the other hand, if you're in the midst of the full fight-or-flight effect with pumping adrenalin, racing heart and shaking limbs, you may want to work off that energy with a brisk walk around the parking lot or calisthenics in your home or office. In this way you're channeling the body's natural reaction toward a more useful goal.
Memory aids. Have you seen people walking around with inexpensive rubber bracelets? These are often used as mnemonic devices that help keep us on track with any new initiative. Try wearing a bracelet, plain rubber band or other concrete reminder to help you focus on controlling your anger. You might switch the hand you're wearing it on every time you engage in undesirable behavior and count how many switches you make during a day or a week. It's a great way to chart your progress.
Changing a lifetime of reaction to anger isn't going to be easy. That's why there are assertiveness training classes and counseling sessions that can give you tailor-made techniques to meet your particular needs. In some cases, a psychologist can make a difference in a highly angry person's behavior in as little as eight weeks. You may also want to take a look at a few books and Web sites [see box] that can help.
Anger management will improve life for you and for those around you. Once you begin to rethink angry attitudes, determine what caused your unhealthy reactions to anger, learn how to effectively express anger and move past your past, you're sure to live a happier, more productive life.