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Monday, August 8, 2011

Monday Morning Check In: And the Winner Is Anger

Today’s topic is my favorite character trait. I say “favorite” because I seem to spend so much time thinking about it, and does it not mean “favorite” if we think more about something to the exclusion of other things? Well, anyway, my topic today is about anger.

In my opinion, anger is a fairly common character trait, if not the most common. Anger is also the most destructive and negative, not only because it can hurt the individual who is angry and unthinkingly expresses it, but also because anger hurts other people at the same time. Many people do go about in the world pretending that their anger causes no destruction, but for those of us who have been on the receiving end of this emotion, we know better about the destruction and hurt that ill-expressed anger can cause. Let us look a little closer at what anger is and can do and then discuss ways to eliminate anger or its destructive expression from our makeup, our behavior, and our personality.

Anger is a strong emotion that expresses hostility, annoyance, or displeasure about something or someone. I find it interesting to learn that the word stems from the Old Norse meaning grief and is related to the Old German word angst, which referred to fear. Nowadays we are all pretty clear about the meaning of the word. Like a bull provoked by a red flag, we “see red” and snort and charge. Anger is never gentle; we have a “burst” of anger when we are outraged.

We all experience anger about various frustrations in life. Anger is a natural emotion, but when we allow our anger to consume, destroy, or cause harm to others or ourselves, then anger becomes dangerous. I believe that it is important to understand where our anger comes from and what causes it, as well as to know what methods we can use to manage it or perhaps eventually eliminate it.

I have been known to be very thrifty (i.e., “cheap”). Once upon a time, I had an old upright vacuum cleaner for well over 20 years that I had bought used in the first place. The vacuum showed signs of its advanced age, but I kept replacing worn belts and other broken pieces. As time went on, the vacuum kept melting the belts, and the melted rubber smelled terrible and would get stuck all over my light beige carpet. One day I reached my limit. I picked up the vacuum and hurled it about 20 feet into the next room and called it a very satisfying name (probably “piece of junk”). Then I shouted, “why am I so cheap I can’t even buy a decent vacuum cleaner?” You should have been there. It was hilarious, even to me, but I was furious!

In a phone conversation later with my mother, I told her the story about what had happened. Her response was, “Don’t you remember the time your father threw the vacuum cleaner out into the middle of the street? I was horrified that your neighbors heard what he called it let alone saw him do that!” And that’s when my mental light bulb went off.

No, I had not remembered my father doing that until my mother reminded me. At that moment, I started to remember a lot of other times when my father was pretty upset at something and the entire neighborhood heard about it. Now, in all fairness to my dad, he is a terrific man. He just gets very angry and frustrated at inanimate objects when they don’t do what they are supposed to do. I hate to use the word “inherit” in this discussion, but there have been many times since my vacuum epiphany when I caught myself getting very angry at a “thing” that was not working as it should be and was holding me up on completing a task or getting out the door in time. I think I have “inherited” my father’s same behavior.

This particular manifestation of angry behavior really doesn’t hurt anyone else per se, but let me point out that the negative expression of anger vocally and with taut body language and physical expression really does poison the atmosphere around us and causes others to feel quite uncomfortable, and rightly so. Think of anger as a red, poisonous gas. When we express our anger, even by allowing ourselves to give in to the experience of it, we are basically allowing the poisonous gas to leak out and affect others and the atmosphere they breathe. It is one thing to allow your anger to affect another adult, but just think how anger can hurt your child or another living creature that depends on you and has no power to walk away from you or the situation.

I propose that we take the time to get a handle on this destructive emotion and find ways to eliminate it or minimize it down to something that is not even noticed or experienced by others. Here are my suggestions.

Find the Sources: Think back to the sources of your anger or behavior. For me, it was my father’s role modeling in this area. Of course, it was my own fault that I chose to mimic this behavior as well as I did. What are your past role models for this behavior?

Uncover Your Triggers: What are your triggers? This is going to take some time to discover. Pay attention to the things that set you off and make a list of them. For me it is anything that wastes my time, or inanimate objects (like printers and vacuum cleaners) that do not work correctly, or disrespect (I do not like being interrupted or patronized).

Break the State: Note what you body does during your anger, and then break that physical state. If you are tight in your shoulders or neck, then force your muscles to relax. Find a quick yoga pose or other physical stretch that will help you to eliminate this tension. If you find yourself holding your breath, then start breathing. There is a reason for the old adage: Count to 10. We cannot count to 10 without breathing somewhere in there, and the breathing will help you to relax and break the state.

Substitute a new Behavior: Plan in advance to substitute more acceptable reactions to your anger triggers when the need arises. I have already suggested a yoga pose or breathing exercise. If your kids constantly make you angry in a particular situation, figure out in advance how you will handle this situation in a different way the next time. Come up with several ideas. Ask your friends, neighbors, or relatives for suggestions. We have all been in the same place, and we are willing to share what we have learned. Instead of constantly yelling at my six pack of doxies to "come" back into the house, I started using the clicker and giving a small treat as they came in the door. Now I just click and they instantly run to the door. I am no longer angry at them for not obeying me because I have found a way to change their behavior by changing mine.

Keep a Record: Keep a record of your anger and efforts to work through it. Keep a journal. It is back to school time, and composition books are on sale. Get one and start keeping an anger log or chart. Make these kinds of notes:
  • When you got angry
  • Who or what caused it
  • Why you were angry
  • Where you were at the time
  • How you handled it
  • What you could do the next time instead
Record your reasons or motivation for taming the anger problem, whether it is the benefit to your children or your spouse, or the goodwill towards to your neighbors or co-workers. I believe I read in Dr. Suzuki’s “Ability Development from Age Zero” that he kept an anger chart of the number of times he got angry in a day. Eventually he was able to whittle down the number of angry times to zero. You could keep an anger chart and log on the chart each time you were angry during the day. Just the act of writing this down might cause you to stop in your tracks and try something different.

Widen Your Response Time: We are more than creatures that just react to things without thought. We are able to choose our reactions to things. Dr. Stephen Covey of the 7 Habits fame writes that within a stimulus and response there is a period of time in which we can choose our response. Granted, in the beginning our window of time might be quite small. Our goal then would be to widen this period of time so that it allows us the necessary time to thoughtfully respond.

Consider Other Options: Here are some other suggestions, and note that these suggestions will apply to just about any negative emotion we might experience or deal with. By following some of the following suggestions, we may find that we experience negative emotions less.
  • Cultivate good health habits:
    • Get enough sleep
    • Eat healthy food
    • Exercise regularly
    • Eliminate unhealthy habits
  • Schedule regular down time
  • Reflect regularly about things in your life; keep a journal
  • Avoid stress by being appropriately prepared for your life's activities
    • Anticipate the next day's meals, clothes, belongings, and set them out in advance of the time they are needed
    • Be prepared with lesson plans or errands
  • Stay in good practice so that you are ready for opportunities
  • Keep a calendar and maintain it regularly
  • Schedule free time for yourself
  • Take a bubble bath or go for a long walk
  • Find an accountability buddy with whom you can check in regularly and offer suggestions

Anger is a common emotion but can leave a lot of destruction in its wake if allowed to be “out of control.” Learn how to control it, how to express it, and in what way you can experience it without its being destructive to others.

Anger is not a good example of leadership, which always requires calm and assertive energy and expression, and therefore is not the best quality in a teacher or parent. Learn how to control it in an appropriate manner. Try the ideas above and make a commitment to re-experience the joy of life that comes from the freedom of anger.

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