Helping an angry person – Part 3

Last time

Part 1 – a brief look at anger and safety

Part 2– helping someone who is aware of their anger and its consequences

And now on to helping someone with no insight.

Broken mug on the floor
Broken – some broken things are hard to put back together

No insight

When our angry person doesn’t have insight as described in Part 2 [Link], some different strategies are required. This is primarily because the angry person doesn’t accept responsibility for their feeling or actions, either due to an inability (too young, poor cognitive abilities, disability) or cognitive dissonance (the idea that they are responsible is at odds with a foundation idea of self such as narcissism, culture or self esteem phobia). The person will not adjust their actions to the environment.

Person shrugging indicating denial of responsibility
Insight – If someone can’t accept responsibility, the they see no reason to change

Therefore the environment has to be adjusted for them.

Understanding the Mindset

Angry People without insight are very sensitive to feelings of power and threat. By power, we mean the ability to choose and implement that choice to have a good outcome. Imagine a scenario where you need to solve a problem to avoid an electric shock. If you can easily solve the problem you feel you have defeated the scenario, if you have no hope of solving the problem you feel powerless to defeat the scenario. That feeling of powerlessness and hopelessness at the inevitable shock triggers anger, which the insightless person automatically responds to with aggression. The more they feel they have no choice, the more aggressive they become, and transversely, the more they feel they can affect positive outcomes, the less aggressive they become. This is the “hit it with a bigger hammer” solution mindset – if a small hammer doesn’t budge the thing, get a bigger hammer. After a while, the person just reaches for the bigger hammer first – the aggressive response over the sutble response.

Series of hammers indicating escalating solutions of violence
If at first you don’t succeed – hit it with a bigger hammer

Another factor to consider is the perception of threat. A perceived antagonist who has little effect on you is not very threatening, while an antagonist that has a large effect on you seems very threatening. The bigger the perceived threat, the bigger the aggressive response.

Little Dog Syndrome [Link] is another important concept to get your head around. People who need to be seen as powerful are generally secretly very insecure. There is a condition known as “Imposter Syndrome” the feeling that you don’t really belong and the attached fear that others can tell. A person struggling with Little Dog Syndrome wants to be seen as a Big Dog / Boss Dog, but fear you won’t buy their act. So they get more aggressive to compensate for their feared small stature. The threats are people who don’t see their act as real.

Triggers

Keeping in mind the above mindset, take a look at your angry person’s triggers. What things are happening to decrease their perception of good choices, to be a threaten to them, or destabilise their ego perception of themselves? Which of these can you moderate and ameliorate versus what have you no influence over either?

Putting some energy into subtly ameliorating situations can help an angry person feel less out of control or threatened, and thus need to less need to use aggression. The risk is that if the person catches on that you are making them safe, you may be perceived as invalidating their ability and undermining their show of strength, triggering their ego perception problem – where they think that you think that are a little dog.

Chihuahua growling indicating a small dog wanting to be taken seriously as a big dog
Small dogs want to be taken seriously as a big dog

Oasis of Calm

Consider the times that you are stressed – you are late to work, you’ve just spilled coffee on yourself which is both hot and messy and now you have to get changed, you have that big meeting to explain that thing. You go out to get to the car after getting changed and cleaning up the mess and there is someone who has just broken down, blocking your driveway with their car. The chances are that your reaction won’t be friendly and understanding, it will be angry and aggressive. Even if you contain yourself from an outburst, your temptation to be temperamental will be much higher. In effect, the stress around this last incident aggravates this incident.

The idea of the Oasis of Calm is to try to remove likely stressors that are increasing aggravation to our angry person. When they are showing signs of stress is not the time to discuss finances, to challenge their behaviours or to start renovating the TV room. Timing, as has been said previously, is really important.

This can leave you thinking that there is no time to tackle tricky things because you might trigger aggression. Communication, as also has been indicated in earlier articles, is key. Ask your angry person – “Hey, I want to talk about X, is this a good time?” Depending on their response you can either go ahead and talk about X, or ask “when do you think would be a good time?”, or as a worst case scenario back away slowly and carefully.

Having a space that is seen as safe allows the angry person to retreat to that room when they feel unstable. While this does require a level of insight for the angry person, it doesn’t need much and people can often be subconsciously trained into certain actions. For example, in the dinner room we never talk about tricky things – that is only in the lounge room. After a while of this consistent rule being acted out by you, the angry person will find themselves automatically going to the dinner room when they want to avoid a confrontation.

Avoiding Enabling

If Angry Person continually says “not now” and doesn’t commit to discussing touchy topics, if you keep trying to keep the calm and go out of your way to defuse everything, or change your values to the ones they espouse then perhaps you have started enabling their aggression. In essence you’ve made it okay for them to be aggressive, to use violence and threats to avoid them having to deal with certain issues and or to train you into the shape they want you to be.

Sometimes enabling is an important safety strategy. Agreeing that Other Person is being unreasonable, or ensuring the dishes are done because angry person gets petty when they aren’t can be a way to minimise certain types of harm.  As with all of this, we aren’t dealing with black and white, we are dealing with situations case by case.

The risk of enabling is when you do more and more to smooth the friction, to decrease the aggression and lose who you are and your position in the relationship. Picking your battles to push back, when safe, keeps the boundary of how much aggression they display at manageable levels, otherwise you risk them running roughshod all over you. It is important to say “no” occasionally, but pick those moments when it is safe.

Knowing When to Get Out

If you find that you are losing yourself, that you are alway scared or that you are visiting hospitals because of domestic violence injuries it is time to get out.

Leaving isn’t always easy. We talked about why people chose to stay in Part 2 [link], and these are some excellent reasons to stay. However if the violence is too high, or the risk of losing your own self is too high, then those reasons need to be re-examined.

For example, finances may be complex and a reason to stay and minimise harm. However if the harm is not being minimised, then that part of the reason for staying may now be invalid – the level of harm has exceeded the complexity of the finances prompting you to stay. There is no point holding on for a fortune if you die or spend the rest of your life in hospital.

Fractured ribs indicating damage from domestic violence
Hospital visits are an indicator of not safe to stay – time to plan to get out

Keeping other family members safe is generally the most common reason people stay despite harm. This self sacrifice seems totally worth it to keep another loved one safe, but it is actually a carefully crafted illusion perpetrated upon you by the angry person. Call domestic violence help lines to get help to save the whole family, to get out with some financial support or if being deported is the threat keeping you in the relationship.

Women – Women’s Domestic Violence Helpline (24 Hour Service) 9223 1188 (Western Australia)

Men – Men’s Line Australia 1300 78 99 78

Clearly state you are in a domestically violent relationship, the victim and need help to get out. Sometimes you need to call from a safe place on someone else’s phone.

Children and Cognitively Impaired

Children under the age of five have little enough personal awareness that they can’t easily understand the feeling of anger, power, choice or rationality. Trying to explain to your child that they are being irrational in their aggression is often not as effective as we would want. In this case, the child lacks the insight to discuss their situation and make wiser choices.

As a guardian, it is your role to inform the child that they are feeling angry, that they are using aggression / violence and that this is not right. If the child cannot ameliorate their behaviour, it is your job to contain them until they regain enough composure for them to explore whatever problem triggered their behaviour.

Containing a child should start with gentle verbal cues, such as “I need you to calm down”, “everything is alright so you can stop doing that”, or “go to your room”. Escalate verbal tone and sharpness of command if this isn’t successful, such as firmly stating “stop” or “don’t do that”, or commanding “go to your room”. It may be necessary to raise your voice quite a bit to startle your child into listening.

If necessary physically restraining your child by holding the offending digit (the hand that is being used to create violence) especially if that is being used to harm a human or animal. It may be necessary to further immobilise your child by containing all of their limbs in a great hug or other fashion such that they can’t create harm. They will initially fight against this, but once they fail to make progress they will calm down. It may take a few minutes for this level of calm down to occur – but it will happen. It is important to calmly keep saying “shhh” or “I need you to calm down”, or “I love you, but this is not acceptable”. This calmness in your voice, combined with painless immobility will signal to your child that the aggression is not going to succeed and another strategy is needed.

The goal of this bit is to disrupt the aggression, achieve a state of calm that is enough to more rationally deal with the actual problem. When the feeling is too high, the child cannot rationalise. Even preverbal children will calm down and understand the “no” cues you are giving.

I have also found an effective technique getting ice cream or some other sweet out and eating it in front of them. Ask them if they want some, and let them know that they will need to be calmer to have some. If you have a good carrot, it beats a stick any day.

I have never found it necessary to strike a child. The signal that is sent when striking a child is that aggression is used to meet aggression, while the signal that we want to send is that aggression is not the best or only answer.

These same techniques work on people with intellectual disabilities, however some of the physical restraint methods need to be tailored to the strength of bigger children or adults.

Once the person is calmer, look back with them (as they are able) or on their behalf (if they are not) at what triggered them. Go back up and read the trigger section for some inspiration about the types of trigger situations to look for. Was the person denied a choice, felt out of control, threatened or startled? These are things that can be adapted around – give a choice, even if it is limited  to safe and feasible options (it has to be a real choice); did the person know what was coming next and have enough but not too much time to adjust their thinking to the new thing?; what was the threat and how can that be managed, or what was the point of startle and how can that be managed?

Remember the four D’s – delay, distract, disrupt and go drink some water.

The Illusion of Control

It is very important to consider your awareness of how effective you can control a situation where you are not the one having the emotion or chosing the physical actions of that emotion. You are not in control of what happens. While there is some effect you can have on their affect, it is limited and second hand.

The Theory of Mind is used to explain how we assume things are happening internally to someone else, that is, that they are thinking, feeling and reacting to things just like you. There is no proof of this. We cannot look at someone else and actually know what they are thinking, we can only guess. Guessing introduces error due to assumptions and lack of direct knowledge. The more errors we have, the worse our conclusions and plans are going to be. At the least, this means we have no actual ability to factor in all the elements to control our angry person. Heck, they can’t control themselves, what hope do you have?

Part 3 is not about curing an angry person, stopping them from being angry, or removing aggression. It is all about tempering their emotion with environmental control and de-escalation techniques. It is about recognising the need for  you to be safe, when to get out and the limited things that you can do if you stay.

If you find yourself concerned after reading all of this, please, go to your GP and get a referral to a counsellor, call the Domestic Violence Helplines, or talk to a level headed and stable friend. There is a limit to what you can do on your own.

Women – Women’s Domestic Violence Helpline (24 Hour Service) 9223 1188 (Western Australia)

Men – Men’s Line Australia 1300 78 99 78

If you are the one trying to ameliorate someone else’s anger, remember to inform the operator that you are the victim.

If you are the angry person, and would like to address that, let the operator know this.