I’ve successfully completed two rounds of therapy. I say “successfully” because the first (marriage counseling) saved my marriage after a checkered first year. The second (anger management) helped me harness my emotions.
Like Wreck-It-Ralph, my passion bubbles very near the surface. I’ve known this since adolescence. But I didn’t know how to manage it until group therapy. This is that story.
Admitting myself to anger management was a humbling experience. I was mostly surrounded by court-ordered classmates. Some you would expect. An oversized, intimidating biker dude in leather. The combative, loud, chain-smoking mother. 60% men. 40% women.
Others, however, looked completely out of place. The shy computer nerd. The sweet-looking grandma. The frightened-looking overweight kid. In other words, book covers are lousy indicators of content. The class, it seemed, was a microcosm of larger society (aka everybody’s got problems).
In a class of 20, I was one of only three “self-admits.” For me that meant attendance was optional. But the curriculum, insights, and exercises were so empowering, I only missed one day.
Almost four years after finishing the course, here are 10 things anger management taught me:
- How to identify my true feelings. Anger is not a primary emotion. It is usually a masked emotion for inadequacy, fear, guilt, hurting, confusion, depression, or loneliness. I don’t get angry when feeling inadequate, guilty, or depressed. But I can fly off the handle when feeling fear, hurt, confusion, or loneliness. Understanding this helps me process my feelings and act assertively, instead of reacting aggressively to a perceived threat, obstacle, or–especially in my case–an injustice, which really gets my blood boiling.
- Anger is what the powerless often resort to. Two decades ago, when I was raging against the machine as a teenager, I remember getting in an argument with my dad on our front porch. I don’t remember why. But I remember swearing up a storm and yelling at him profusely. He reacted by calmly letting me vent. Then he taught me something I never forgot. “Blake,” he said, “swearing is a poor and inarticulate man’s attempt at feeling heard.” Although I still swear when angry, his lesson and this class motivated me to strive for restraint as best I can. Both gave me something to shoot for; an empowering compass that makes me feel like I’m headed in the right direction.
- How to measure my satisfaction with life. I’ve always been an optimistic and happy guy. I’m overjoyed with the path I’ve chosen. But sometimes I deviate from that path. This class taught me an important lesson for gauging that. Honestly answering, “How is this, that, or the other working for you?” is the best way to overcome deviations or destractions. If the answer is “poorly,” make a change. Otherwise, “if you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always gotten.” We cannot always chose what happens to us in life, but we can always choose how we react to what happens.
- Saying “no” to someone else is saying “yes” to yourself. This expression makes me chuckle because it reminds me of those hilarious Skeletor affirmation memes. Nevertheless, it is sound advice that can improve your life. So the next time you’re asked something you don’t want to do, simply say, “No, that won’t work for me.” Don’t apologize. Don’t volunteer excuses, even if you have good ones. Just say, “No, thank you.” You don’t have to justify your decisions to anyone. When someone asks an inappropriate or uncomfortable question, always reply with “Why do you ask?” to check if the requester’s intent is noble, or better yet, respond with “I don’t feel comfortable answering that.” In summary, the inability to say “no” without apology or justification is really just a lack of confidence. It’s okay to be selfish when it comes to your mental well-being, because your happiness is solely your responsibility.
- Events are neutral until proven guilty. Preconceived, false, or otherwise “hot” thoughts usually lead to angry reactions to otherwise neutral—sometimes even positive—events. For example, a woman baked her husband a loaf of bread and always gave him the last encrusted piece, my therapist recounted. After 10 years, the husband finally blew up, demanded to know why, and the wife sadly replied, “Because it’s my favorite piece.” Instead of assuming you know the reason for someone’s behavior, ask them first. Respect that most events in life are neutral, hence most events that you interpret as intentional were never meant that way.
- Cooling thoughts (like the above) are your friend. They give others the benefit of the doubt, which is what we expect from others. To put it differently, humans are innocent until proven guilty. Don’t convict someone before seeking to understand the facts and intent of their behavior. For example, “Even though I was disappointed by their behavior doesn’t mean they don’t care.” Or “Maybe s/he is having a bad day.” “Her/his needs are just as important as mine.” As a bonus, don’t say things like “always” or “never” when quantifying someone’s actions. For instance, “He isn’t ALWAYS lazy. Somethings he works very hard.”
- How to set boundaries on relationships. First, stay away from negative people. Don’t let toxic relationships drag you down, because they will if you let them. Say “no” to them indefinitely, and if you must, say, “Please don’t contact me anymore.” My wife had to do this once. It was really hard but she was happier for doing it. This isn’t to say negative or toxic people are necessarily bad; just that they’re not a good fit for you. For obligatory relationships that you cannot terminate, set strict boundaries on what or how you’ll interact with them. Maybe you don’t talk religion, sports, or politics with them. Maybe you don’t interact with them alone. Whatever it is, set boundaries on the relationship. Explain the boundaries to them and warn that if broken, you’ll remove yourself from the room, the home, or on a permanent basis if you must.
- Communication is 93% non-verbal. If you just rolled your eyes upon reading that, I once shared your skepticism. But overwhelming psychologic evidence suggest that communication is 58% body language (how you look when communicating), 35% intonation (the way you talk), and just 7% verbal (the actual words you use). Knowing this is like gaining a HUGE communication cheat-sheet. For instance, whenever someone’s non-verbal language is incongruent with their actual words (yours included), they’re usually still upset. If you/they refuse to communicate, try priming them with something like, “I hear what you’re saying, but your body language suggests you still don’t feel heard. What else is on your mind?” For your sake, the more you align your feelings and non-verbal language with the actual words you use, the faster you’ll see results.
- Assertiveness is best for conflict resolution. There are four types of communicators: aggressive (which I struggle with when dealing with matters of the heart), passive (which my wife struggles with at times), passive-aggressive (manipulative people that use deceit to get there way), and assertive (the smartest people in the room). Everyone does a little of each, but with exception to being naturally assertive, most of us lean towards one of the other three, according to how we were raised. That said, we should all strive to be more open, honest, confident, and direct with our feelings and desires (aka assertiveness). Doing so is proven to make us happier, resolve conflict faster, and gets us what we want more often.
- Bonus life hacks. Holding in frustration and giving in to outbursts are both poor displays of anger. When emotion is high, intelligence is low. And finally, respect that women and men are wired differently. For example, women usually want men to listen so they can validate their feelings. And men want to fix the people and things they care about. Don’t fault the opposing gender for how they approach stress and mental anguish. Women, don’t get offended when a man offers ways to fix a problem. Recognize that he’s doing this because he cares (i.e. men who don’t care don’t offer to fix things), then assertively ask him to listen first. Men, don’t get offended if a woman wants to talk about her feelings instead of immediately fixing the problem. She confides in you because she cares. Be patient by respecting the order she wants to take.
For everything else, you’re on your own. Unless, of course, you see a therapist.