Managing anger in controversial times
Editor's note: This post was edited June 3 from the original version to remove references to recent protests. Thank you to readers who spoke up.
We’re in the midst of two pandemics, both invisible at the root, and both causing extreme outcomes once realized. The first pandemic is COVID-19. The second pandemic is anger.
Whether it's road rage, attacks on social media, cyberbullying or terrorism, anger is escalating and spreading as only a virus can. Can we stop this second pandemic? We may not be able to cure the world, but we can take control in our area of influence as leaders and in our personal lives. Here are some methods to increase awareness and help stop the spread.
When I get a client who says, “I have an anger problem,” I usually tell them, “You may just have an awareness problem.”
We have become disconnected from our inner landscape, consisting of feelings and emotions. We don’t notice the signs of frustration and we don’t know how to monitor judgment-producing thoughts about others. We believe every thought, including our assessment of other people’s intentions.
What to do: Set your watch timer for one-hour increments. When the timer goes off, do a quick body scan, taking note of muscle tension, facial expression and tightness. Your body is a mirror reflection of your state of mind. If you are frowning, close your eyes so you know how your muscles feel when you frown. Also, notice your thoughts. Self-awareness is the path to getting more familiar with the slightest hints that anger is taking root.
If you’ve ever lost your cool and didn’t have control, it’s because something triggered you. Do some research on triggers and you’ll see that triggers are personal. For example, you might get triggered if someone rolls their eyes while another person doesn’t notice. Triggers are embedded in the subconscious mind out of awareness. For example, if your friend Kim accused you of being disrespectful when you were late for lunch, you might think Kim overreacted. What’s going on under the surface has to do with a childhood memory: Kim was always punished for showing up late.
What to do: Make a list of times you have been accused of overreacting or misunderstanding someone’s intentions. Now that you have the list, what’s the behavior you exhibit when triggered? Is it defensiveness, aggressiveness, resentment or rage?
Next, examine the thought patterns. Your thoughts are the interpretation that happens right before the behavior. See if you can alter your interpretation to shift your trigger response. In the previous example, Kim interprets lateness as disrespect, when in fact lateness may be due to many things, such as a car wreck, a detour or poor time management.
Align anger with purpose
Many people believe anger is bad, yet anger channeled to a purpose can work for a positive cause and can leverage energy needed to make change happen. Unmanaged anger can create destruction.
What to do: Before saying anything, ask yourself these questions:
- What is my purpose here?
- Will this build a bridge or a barrier?
- Does this represent me at my highest and best?
Master your energy
I often say, “Anger is just energy that wants to go somewhere.” But if we don’t know how to channel anger it feels bad. Therefore, many avoid, ignore or suppress their anger. In fact, one of the biggest problems I see in leadership is avoiding difficult conversations because of the fear of escalating anger. However, these coping mechanisms contribute to all manner of physical and mental health problems.
As a result, we get heart attacks, suffer from depression, or resort to alcoholism or gambling to overcome anger. Before long, we become beholden to our energy instead of mastering it.
What to do: The key is to create space. Don’t take immediate action when you’re angry. Breathe, and get your heart and brain into a state of coherence.
You won’t want to.
Every cell in your body wants to do what you’re used to doing to make discomfort disappear. But the key to expanding conflict capacity to let the energy process. You can journal. You can go for a walk or a hard physical workout, but don’t initiate conversations or make any important decision while you are filled with judgment or rage. Once you’ve regained control, you can use your logic to make good decisions.
We are seeing some systemic anger too large for one person, but one person can make a change at the cellular level by increasing self-awareness, identifying triggers, aligning anger with purpose and mastering energy.
Marlene Chism is a consultant, international speaker and the author of "Stop Workplace Drama" (Wiley 2011), "No-Drama Leadership" (Bibliomotion 2015) and "7 Ways to Stop Drama in Your Healthcare Practice" (Greenbranch 2018) and an advanced practitioner of Narrative Coaching. Connect with Chism via LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter and at MarleneChism.com.