Anger Management – Part 2

Anger is the feeling we have that tells us that something is wrong. That wrong could be a threat, an inefficient thing or a situation of powerlessness. This feeling can prompt several different responses, a spectrum of inaction (passive, passive aggression) to action (assertive, aggression, getting out).

Last time [link] we looked at understanding anger – what is the feeling for and how do we judge what it is trying to tell us.

In this post we look at our responses to anger.

In the next post [link], we will look at what you can do when you realise your anger is not helping you.

Responses to Anger

Belo is a diagram model that helps understand anger responses. As the threat approaches (crossing boundaries) we should have an escalating response to that threat.

A series of responses to anger
Understanding the Anger Responses

Passive

Passive means no direct action is taken. This phase is preparing for a worsening of the event and induces mild stress to the self.

Generally we have a passive response when we feel that it will take more energy to fix the problem than the problem deserves, or that the problem will leave on its own, or that we just simply can’t actually do anything that would have a positive outcome.

Passive - Dog submitting to the more powerful wolf
Passive – Dog submitting to the more powerful wolf

Passive Aggressive

Passive aggressive also means no direct action is taken to the perceived threat, however indirect action is present. This phase is trying to non-directly tackle the problem or vent off stress to manage the self.

Either a perceived power imbalance between you and the threat exists (eg the boss is telling you to do a rotten job) or the effort required to fix the problem (quitting) seems worse than putting up with the problem or there is some other reason not to directly address the perceived threat. Yet the stress has built to the point where something needs to be done. This introduced the idea of venting.

Sabotage

When we feel powerless against the problem, we will find ways to demonstrate power in some way, even if that is going to penalise us later. We will do the task poorly, or promise to do the task and not do so, or undermine the thing in some other way. This gorilla tactic is about non-direct confrontation to prove that we have a say, even though we don’t.

Wooden shoe called sabot, the origin of the word sabotage
Sabot – a wooden shoe. The origin of the word “Sabotage” from “saboter” – to walk noisily, to make damage.

Transfer

So I can’t yell at the boss, because the consequence of that would be me losing my job and I really need my job. I can, however, take it out on Alex, who has done something that I can justify venting my aggression at. Alex, of course, doesn’t feel they deserve this. And they are right, because the thing that I am actually upset with isn’t anything to do with Alex, and the excuse of my aggression is a flimsy lie to justify my action. I have transferred my anger at my boss to an innocent bystander.

Scared child
Transferred anger – Sometimes we miss the harm we do

Often we take out work aggression on family, or family aggression on friends. A key element of who we pick to transfer our anger to is that they seem less powerful than the source of the anger, and we feel that we have a safer venting ability with them – that is, the consequence to our action will be less. We either hope that the victim of theis transferred aggression will understand, or feel sufficiently powerless that they will just put up with it.

Debrief

Debriefing is about talking about the problem to anyone and everyone. This is actually somewhat useful as a mechanism as it increases the chances of finding a solution that we haven’t thought of. There is also a chance that someone that we grumble to will directly fix the problem for us.

Two people talking
Talking can be useful – to vent, to solve, to get help

Often, though, we aren’t looking for solutions, we are looking to vent our frustrations in a non-aggressive way. We are not receptive to solutions, only sympathy.

When we grumble to someone else and they fix our problem for us, we learn that we can’t fix the problem ourselves. Instead when next we have a problem, we grumble yet again. When this doesn’t work, we feel trapped and helpless. We have accidentally taught ourselves learned helplessness.

Self Harm

When we can’t grumble, don’t dare transfer aggression, or do a gorilla tactic to sabotage the problem, we may find ourselves trying to release stress in another way. We can’t direct the damage out there, so we internalise it.

Self harm can be done in a number of ways. It can be substance abuse, diet abuse, tissue damage, social harm, financial harm and so on. The common element to all of these is it is bad for the self.

Drug Paraphernalia
Self harm – substance abuse

This harm expresses or relieves the internal pain in an external way that isn’t supposed to affect another. The worse the self harm, the more it indicates the stress that the self is under such that this is the way to vent that strain.

On the one hand this is a useful way to relieve the stress before it becomes explosively bad – suicide or murder – but on the other hand it delays actually solving the problem such that self harm is not needed. One should not stop self harming if the trigger problem still exists and no ameliorating actions have been put in place. Also note, this is not black and white – go see a professional and get good advice about your situation, how to reduce the problem and how to reduce your self harm.

Assertive

Being assertive is all about having the confidence to be forceful and powerful in your position and pushing a solution forwards in a non-aggressive way.

This should be the first method of resolving the problem use employ.

If the cause of your anger is another person, then surely they should be intelligent, capable and willing to resolve the problem with you. This “surely” has a number of assumptions built into it – assuming the other person has the capacity to understand the problem, the insight to recognise their share of the responsibility of the problem and the willingness to do something about the problem.

Businessman closing powerful fist
Being Firm – Personal power helps being assertive, be confident with what you are and can do

When this assumption is correct, then working with the other person to resolve the problem is relatively simple and effective. However the other person may not be as willing as you are to take on their share of the burden, or willing to acknowledge how big of a problem there really is, leaving you to be the one to shoulder the solution and the consequences of it.

Assertiveness is used to not allow the other person to shirk their responsibility. Clearly you need to have a good idea about what is your responsibility and what isn’t, what you should do and what you shouldn’t, and what you are willing to accept and what you aren’t. Knowing these things allows you to more confidently confront the other person and push your agenda forwards.

It is important to remember that you are supposed to be working collaboratively with the other person towards a solution rather than finding ways to blame the other person for everything that has gone wrong. There is a big difference between recognising an error and finding fault in a person.

“When you did this thing, the result was bad” versus “you are bad for doing this thing”.

If you are too passive in your approach, you permit the other person to make the problem yours and therefore the solution yours to do. If you are too aggressive, the other person may try to resist you or will leave out of fear. Assertive is that bit in between being passive and being aggressive (not to be mistaken for the passive aggressive phase) where you stand up for yourself but are also willing to acknowledge that you can change things too.

Beware of losing focus on the problem. If the other person is manipulative they will seek to find fault in you about things that are not relevant to this problem to distract from the things they have done that have contributed to this problem. So while it is important to recognise that you will need to make some changes to resolve this problem, it must be focused on this problem and balanced with what the other person has done and will do about this problem.

I’ll write a post about more on this soon.

When the cause of the problem is a non-animal, such as a defective item, then calming down and finding a logical solution to the problem is highly effective. For example, computers don’t respond well to violence. They just break or ignore your swearing. However a logical solution will exist- replace a part, try a different command, re-install the program, upgrade the machine etc.

If none of these work, then consider a new plan. For example, I may be frustrated that it will just take too long to get from this part of my holiday plan to a thing that I want to see. No logical solution will fix that – some things are just not feasible. So either I need to sacrifice some of my holiday elsewhere to make this work, or give up seeing this side line thing.

Aggression

Aggression is the solution to solving problems when we can’t reason with the cause of the problem, or can’t find a reasonable solution. It is a solution that either threatens to use or actually does use violence.

Aggression should be the last ditch effort to solve a problem, or a solution born of desperation.

Fists
Aggression is the use or threat of violence to force your agenda forwards

Direct Physical Threats

Previously I talked about a dangerous dog attacking. Passive won’t work – I’ll get bitten. Passive aggressive won’t work – I’ll get bitten. Assertiveness won’t work – I’ll get bitten. Aggression is my solution.

There are stages to aggression.

Posturing

The first part of aggression is looking like we are ready to do violence. This means seeming bigger (standing taller, hands on hips and elbows out, puffing out the cheeks slightly), sounding more menacing (deepening the voice, being louder), using threatening body language (raising a hand, looming over another, getting into their personal space) and some other body language means to communicate that you are not only ready for violence, but that you will win.

Woman standing with hands on hips, showing domination
Powerful stance postures dominance

If this bit is done successfully, the fight is over before it begins and you won.

Vocal Threats

Using the dangerous dog example, using my angry voice I scream at the dog. This comes out more as a roar than a high pitched scream. The roar indicates ability to do harm, the high pitched scream indicates being a victim. This is still about bluff.

Humans respond more to promises of harm. If the other person believes they will be hurt and tunes into that future pain, they may rethink their action. This is about bluffing the person into believing the fight is not worth their effort, that they will experience more harm than the good they are hoping to achieve.

Again, if this bit is done successfully, the fight is over before it begins.

Demonstrations of Violence

Demonstrating violence on things around you show your ability to do harm if needed. This can be foot stomping, banging on things, breaking an item near you, slamming doors or knocking furniture over. This shows not only a willingness to create damage, but an ability to do so as well.

Broken plates and cups
Local destruction and noise can scare the danger away

Violence

As a worst case scenario, you are in for a fight. You have not managed to fend the dangerous dog off with threats of violence and it is actively trying to bite you. Now you need to use your body to minimise harm to yourself and cause harm to another. There are excellent self defence courses you can go to in order to learn the most effective ways to remain safe, do escalating damage to another and stay within the legal limits of the law for self defence.

I am certainly not going to cover that here.

Bengal tiger fight
Bengal tiger fight

Indirect Threats

If the threat of direct physical violence to you is not present – there is no dangerous dog or human – then aggression is not your solution. But it may feel like it is.

We often substitute a feeling of powerlessness with aggression. If a bit of effort doesn’t resolve the problem, then more surely will. We want to escalate the effort until the thing is fixed. Consider trying to get a thumb tack into the wall. If the wall is harder than expected, then the thumb tack doesn’t go in by just pushing it, so we want to get a bigger thing, like a hammer, to hit it in. If that doesn’t work, we reach for a bigger hammer.

Often the solution isn’t try harder. It is try smarter. The smarter idea for the thumb tack is not to use a sledge hammer (you’ll just squish the thumb tack), it is to instead pre-drill the wall. Perhaps a thumb tack isn’t the solution you should be using on this wall.

Working with government agencies can be a nightmare of red tape and powerlessness. We think the solution should be simple, but we have to fill in form after form after form. We do all the things we are told, despite the contradictions, and still get nowhere or are told we are ineligible.  We have tried to be passive (comply with the forms), assertive (work with the front desk staff) and now we feel aggression is our best answer.

It isn’t.

The temptation is to yell, be belligerent and create a problem.

The actual solution is that you need a new plan. A bigger hammer won’t solve the thumb tack in the wall. Instead, using a smarter tool or change the thumb tack. In this case, go to the complaints line and then the should that not work ombudsman. Becoming aggressive to the front desk staff just won’t work.

There are times to tactically lose your shit. That is, snap a bit, look dangerous, clearly regain control of yourself and be reasonable again. This shows the other person that you are pissed off, but trying to be reasonable. Now is the time to say something like “I get that you can’t help me, and I know you want to, and clearly this should be a reasonable thing. So, what can I do now? Where further can I take this?”

Sometimes it is important to relay to the other person just how angry you are. However if they fear you, you are probably not going to get what you want. Instead it is about appropriate levels of display. There is a huge difference between a clear and crisp swear word, a pause and a retry versus knocking the staff members monitor off the table. Don’t do the latter.

Next time

In the next article [link], we will look at what you can do to manage how you feel.

Anger Management – Part 1

Anger is the feeling we have that tells us that something is wrong. That wrong could be a threat, an inefficient thing or a situation of powerlessness. This feeling can prompt several different responses, a spectrum of inaction (passive, passive aggression) to action (assertive, aggression, getting out).

We have looked at how to help an angry person (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3).

This post series is about how to manage your own anger, which on the one hand is easier because it is you, and on the other hand is harder, because it is you.

First we will understand what the feeling of anger is about and how to measure it.

In the next post [link], we will work on understanding what our responses to anger are likely to be and how they are useful to us.

Lastly [link], we will look at how you can change your anger and manage it when you realise the automatic feeling and response aren’t useful to your situation.

Understanding Anger

Humans have a range of emotions that help us to identify a situation and come up with a valid response. It takes far too long to manual perceive everything around you and manually process what it means and then manually go through your decision tree of actions to remain safe in a timely manner. We use feelings to automate a lot of this process and prepare the body for calm, flight or fight.

Angry child's face
Anger

The Anger feeling is triggered when our feeling assessment part of our brain (mostly thalamus, hypothalamus and amygdala) recognises a situation that indicates that something is wrong and to our detriment. You don’t get angry when you win a door prize of $100, but you do get angry when someone tries to take that $100 away.

Impact – judging threat, consequence and boundaries

Something that goes wrong that has little impact upon you will only prompt a small reaction, while that same thing that goes wrong that has a big impact upon you will have a stronger reaction. The impact of a the event is based on our perception of the threat and the strength of the consequences that event has.

Because the feeling of anger is based on our perception of the event rather than the reality of the event, how we interpret the situation and its consequences is key to how angry we get. Anger is personal rather than objective. The same event can affect different people in different ways.

We all have boundaries which vary from situation to situation. They may be physical boundaries, emotional boundaries, social boundaries, conceptual boundaries, intellectual boundaries and so on. Boundaries indicate the edge of where someone or something else affects you, and each progressive stage of affect until it is actually you that is harmed.

If someone is far distant they are not a factor to your safety. As they cross your first boundary line, you become aware of them and their potential threat, as they come closer you become more ready to act depending on who they are and what they represent to you. If they are a trusted loved one, those boundary lines are much closer, if they are a dangerous looking stranger, those boundaries are further away.

Each progression past each boundary that heightens threat increases our anger level if the perceived outcome is negative.

Powerlessness

In therapy, power is defined as the capacity one has to affect change. If we perceive ourselves to have a great deal of capacity to affect the change we want, we feel powerful. If not, we feel powerless.

Man standing in front of tanks in Tienanmen Square - a depiction of power
Man vs Tank – an interesting depiction of power

Once an event has occurred that affects us, we feel the need to address it. If we can do so without much effort or risk, then we feel we have sufficient resources  and ability – capacity – to fix the problem. While we often don’t feel powerful per se, we do note the absence of power – that is, when we can’t fix the problem.

Power is a strange concept. Every time we succeed at a task, we generally dismiss it as easy and not really worthy of notice – we minimise successes. If we have put a huge amount of effort into it, then we can feel accomplished and powerful.

We supplement our effort with anger. This form of anger is often secondary to the initial event as it has to do far more with ongoing consequences to the event than the initial reaction to it. More on that later. However it is important to note that the more powerless we feel to an event, the more it angers us and the more we want to be aggressive to compensate.

Culture

Different cultures have different ways to display anger, defining suitable methods of addressing things that provoke anger and what is a transgression of a boundary that should prompt you to be angry.

Some cultures include displays of mock aggression to symbolise social stature, or actual aggression to enforce social stature.

Respect is a concept that can either mean authority, recognition of capability or fear. If the definition you are using is recognition of fear, then you will use aggression to try to inspire respect from another person. For the person who sees respect as recognition of capability, they may fear you and disrespect you. Culture can have a strong foundational part of which definition of respect someone uses.

Treating another human as equal to you is a relatively new concept that is slowly propagating around the globe. There are cultures who still view “others” as lesser, or a part of that countries population as lesser. Each country has a sub-culture that suppresses another group. If you find that you are easily angered at someone for who you identify them as rather than what that person is actually doing, then you are practicing cultural suppression – an ism of some kind. Racism, sexism, ethnicism etc. You see that group as less than you, or a threat to you. This ism often ties into subcultural stereotypes and the disgust emotion.

Stressors and Compound Anger

In physics, stress is a force applied to a material and the effect that force has on a material. In psychological stress, the person feels a force acting upon them – work, arguments, hunger – and experiences that effect as stress. Some ongoing low level stress is good for us, and occasional large amounts of stress are also beneficial, so long as that force applying the stress doesn’t break us or last for too long.

Person being handed a phone, list, pen and writing pad indicating stress
Too many stressors

The more stress we feel, the shorter our fuse is with anger and the more prone we are to react with aggression. Suppressing the aggressive reaction to anger is stressful and so compounds our shorter fuse and our aggressive response.

This plays into one of our responses to anger – passive aggression / transference. More on that later in Part 2 [Link].

Primary and Secondary Anger

When anger is informing you that something is wrong and needs to be addressed in the absence of other strong feelings such as fear or disgust, then it is the primary feeling. The trigger may need to be addressed or monitored (more on this later).

Often anger is secondary to an initial emotion. This is common in some subcultures where feelings are represented by either good or anger. Feel happy? Translate to good. Feel comfortable? Translate to good. Feel surprised? Translate to anger. Feel disgusted? Translate to anger. Feel scared? Translate to anger. Feel sad? Translate to anger.

Disgust expression then triggers anger
Disgust can often trigger anger

Sometimes the correct fear response is aggression – if I a see a big nasty dog coming to bite me, I should swell up, raise my voice and scare the dog so it doesn’t bite me. I need to be ready to fight the  beast if this fails or face the consequence of being harmed by it. This aggressive fear response is going to trigger anger as a secondary feeling. After the event, where the dog has been fended off, I will continue to feel anger because I was scared and had to defend myself. I may look for reasons to feel angry to justify my secondary emotion.

Often the anger I feel towards a thing isn’t well balanced. If that is the case, then it may be that my anger towards this thing is secondary to a problem I have somewhere else.

 

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.

Helping an angry person – Part 2

Managing your own anger is hard enough, but what do you do when you need to help someone else? After all, you  don’t really know what is going on in that person’s mind, and you can’t change their actions. All you have is some minor influence based on second or third hand knowledge of their situation.

Last time [Link] we covered a basic understanding of anger, assessing the risk/severity of anger, how insight plays a part in someone’s ability to change and when to leave.

Boy throwing paper in a temper tantrum. Rage. Anger.
Rage – an extreme version of anger

Why you might stay with an angry person

There are several excellent reasons to stay with an angry person. Four of the most common reasons are:

Transitional Anger

If the person is coping poorly with a temporary stressor – such as the end of a work contract, poorly managing grief, or a conflict with a family member – then the anger should resolve when the temporary situation does.

Once the situation has resolved and the anger dissipates it is time to have a serious sit down talk about what happened and why that reaction was bad due to how it affected other people. Remember to include in part of this discussion avenues for better managing anger so as not to create aggressive consequences. If this happens semi frequently, then the person should probably see a counsellor about their anger management problem.

Statue of grieving person
Grief – a common phase is anger, but it is generally short term.

Safety

Abusive partners use fear to keep their victim controlled. When the victim (measured by who is scared of the other in the relationship) tries to leave, the perpetrator will frequently escalate their violence (various methods to create fear – such as physical assault, sexual assault, intellectual and emotional abuse, destruction of property etc) in an effort to reassert dominance and control. The risk of murder increases significantly at the point of or shortly after leaving.

This is not to say that all angry people are perpetrators of domestic violence, or that if they are that they will intend to or accidentally kill their victim.

The risk increases and the victim may not feel safe to leave without a good exit strategy. This leaves the person trying to de-escalate the aggression and violence of their perpetrator.

On a side note, I have mostly tried to leave this section gender neutral as it is often assumed that men are not victims or that perpetrators cannot be women. This is not true, however it should be noted that most harm is done by males and that is mostly against females. It is also important to note that most males are not abusive, nor are most females.

Progress

The angry person has insight into their anger and the consequences of it and don’t like the effect. In this case people will often stay with their angry person in the hopes of either the return of the person they fell in love with, or an evolution to a new relationship.

As life is not binary – black or white – there is no stay or don’t stay advice for this. Each case must be assessed on its own merits. If your safety is reasonable and the angry person is making good headway into changing – attending counselling, communicating, making actual changes – then staying can be good.

Signs that it is not good are that you seem to be the source of anger, the person is making token changes that don’t actually make a difference and once you back off they return to their previous behaviours or the risk to you becomes too high.

Dependency

Dependency comes in two permutations that are not necessarily exclusive. On the one hand, you may need the angry person due to financial, social or some other factor. Leaving them may seem to be more harmful to you than good.

Another key factor is they may be dependent on you. For example, if your under aged child has anger issues, you can’t just leave them. Instead it is important to work a way through issues with the help of professionals.

Other vulnerable demographics are disabled people and the elderly. Again professional help is generally available for these situations. If the person has insight they may chose to go to a facility, there are community supports available or perhaps they person has lost insight and can be moved to a suitable facility. See your doctor to gain options for your local area.

Tempering Anger

Once you have decided to stay, it is important to categorise your angry person. They either have insight into their actions (explained in the previous post) or they don’t.

Insight

If the angry person has insight into their actions and is motivated to change, then they will be willing to go to counselling to seek anger management. This can be done in group sessions or individual sessions. There will be more than one – it takes time and dedication to change a bad habit. Sometimes the counsellor is not the right one for the angry person, so they need to persist in finding a compatible counsellor/facilitator. Gaining skills to manage anger is a process.

You and/or they can read up on self anger management here [link].

That is great for what they can do to help themselves, but the question still remains – what can you do to help them?

Assessment

Angry people are generally angry for a reason. Charitably they are angry because they feel threatened and unable to meet the threat in a dispassionate way, thus they escalate in aggression to meet  the perceived threat. When someone is already feeling pressured or stressed, excuses can be made to vent out frustration, excusing their anger.

The assessment section is to try to primarily ascertain what is the cause, if possible, for the anger; and secondarily how strongly are they reacting. Ideally this is done via a conversation with the angry person.

Communication

Keeping lines of communication is essential to resolving anger quickly, but it isn’t always feasible. The angry  person is likely already feeling threatened and may perceive questioning as a threat or an excuse to be aggressive.

Having a conversation with the person before they are angry about agreed upon signals to identify concern and ways they can assure a lack of anger, or a need for space is important. Remember that the last thing people who are angry want to hear is the phrase “calm down”. Instead ask questions, starting with short answer and working your way up to conversation. Start with an observation like “you seem a bit miffed/angry/peeved/frustrated [pick one]” and let them voice or indicate an affirmative or negative such as “yeah” or a head nod. If they affirm, then perhaps it may be suitable to ask “are you okay?” allowing for a short response. If that goes well, open a conversation with “what’s up?” or “want to tell me about it?”

Sometimes whens you are in a crowd it is bad form to ask “are you angry?”, so having a code phrase like “green light or red light?” where green indicates things are going okay and red indicates problems allow for you to support your angry person without alerting everyone to the situation.  Your angry person may have a code phrase to tell you they need to go out and get some air.  Having these codes available to you both that have been organised when they are feeling cool and level headed is essential.

Giving Space to Support Self Management

There are various methods to self manage. Often taking oneself out of a bad situation is a first good step, or doing a distraction to shift focus away from the source of anger, or helping oneself to a drink (not alcohol – that can fuel anger or detract from self control). Take a look at our Anger [Link] page to look at more self-management techniques.

When to Judge

While the angry person may not be responsible for their mood, they are responsible for their actions. It is more than possible to be furious and do nothing. It is important to challenge bad behaviours – aggression and passive aggression – and not take responsibility for the actions of another.

However it is important to consider timing. A calm discussion to explore the consequences to actions is civil and likely to have a good outcome, while pointing out the other person is being bad in the middle of an enraged temper tantrum is basically poking the angry bear. Keep in mind that as feelings become stronger, the ability to think rationality decreases.

Above we talked about communication and phrase words. Things like “you are scaring us/me” or “you seem really furious” or “is it punching bag time?” are observations and prompt the angry person to regain control of themselves. If this is ineffectual, then it is time to get out for a while to be safe.

Judging is not a bad thing. Holding onto that judgement despite newer facts is.

Next time [link] we will be covering how to help someone with no insight.

Helping an angry person – Part 1

Managing one’s own anger is challenging, but managing another’s can seem impossible. While the common answer to facing someone else’s anger is to walk away, if you are in a relationship with them, that isn’t always the best solution. Here is some ways that you can help.

Frustration indicates anger
Feelings of frustration are an indication of anger

Understanding Anger – a Quick Recap

First of all, we will recap a bit about how anger works and operates. For a full write up on this, go here [link].

Anger is the feeling we have to tell us something is wrong, and by wrong we mean detrimental to our wellbeing.  If someone gives you a $100 door prize, you don’t generally feel angry about it, yet when someone tries to take that $100 from you, anger is a fairly common response. If someone offers you a cup of coffee you don’t feel angry, but if someone tells you to drink that coffee, you do.

The first example was about loss resource and the second was about lost choice.

Anger comes in a spectrum of levels. Annoyance, frustration, seething, anger and finally rage. There are, of course, more versions – but let’s keep this somewhat simple.

When you can address the thing you are angry about and resolve it, you feel less angry. When you can’t, your anger rises. We can resolve problems by putting up with them (passive and passive aggressive), solving them (assertive and aggression) and avoiding them (running away).

Passive

It will take more resource to fix the problem than putting up with it. Waiting a while will likely mean the thing goes away.

Passive Aggressive

It is still not worth fixing, or trying to fix it will make it worse. However there is a rising feeling of aggression that wants to be vented, so either sabotage the thing, redirect aggression to a safe outlet, or internalise the aggression in self harm.

Assertive

Try to solve the problem like adults – it takes two to make this work.

Aggressive

Use force to make it fixed.

Avoidance

It isn’t going away, it isn’t listening to reason, you can’t use force to fix it, so get out and get away.

Primary vs Secondary Response

While anger is a basic feeling, one of the basic 6 feelings (Joy, Anger, Sadness, Fear, Surprise, Disgust), it may not be the first feeling you feel when presented with an event. If it is, then it is the Primary Response – that thing that happened really annoyed me.

Often, though, anger is a Secondary Response. The thing may trigger fear first and anger second. Trying to resolve the anger without addressing the initial fear well lead to resistance to calming down and potential retriggering of anger because fear is still present.

It is common for many cultures to channel any non joy basic feeling into a secondary response of anger. Disgust leads to anger, surprise leads to anger etc. This is often because we are not well versed in dealing with these other feelings, and or they are not perceived as allowable feelings, but anger is. This makes it particularly tricky to manage both the primary and secondary response to the event that triggered an emotional response.

A full rundown of this section on anger can be found here.

Managing Another

There is quite a difference between recognising your own anger and managing that versus understanding someone else’s anger and managing them.

First of all, from an egocentric perspective, you can look at your own feelings and triggers with much greater clarity than you can guess what another person is feeling and why. Secondly you can take direct steps to manage your own anger (walk away, breathing etc) but only indirect steps to manage the angry feeling in someone else.

Necessarily managing another person is tricky. You run the risk of either enabling their behaviour or triggering a greater anger response.

Impact

Sometimes your loved one is angry once in a blue moon, sometimes they are angry all of the time. Sometimes the level is mild and sometimes it is terrifying.  Sometimes it is warranted and sometimes it makes no sense. All of this has an impact on you and others.

Frequency  – How often a person is angry – infrequent or frequent

Level of anger – How angry does the person get? Minor irritable or explosive aggression?

Circumstances – Does it take a significant event to provoke anger, or is the anger waiting for any trivial excuse to be let out? Anger tied to circumstances can lead to predictability or unpredictable aggression.

These three aspects are the larger part of establishing the impact of another’s anger to others. For example, a person may be infrequently angry, but it is extremely explosively aggressive and seems to be at triggered by random occurrence. This makes the impact seem random and scary. This can leave people wondering what is going to trigger the anger and how bad it is going to be.

If someone’s anger impact is low to moderate, there is little call for an intervention. However if their impact is medium to high, then there may be.

Insight and Responsibility

Insight

The fact that you have recognised someone else has an anger problem is only a small fraction of the issue. They need to recognise it too.

Being aware of your own behaviour and traits is an important first step to actively doing something about it. Another key component of anger is recognising that it is an issue to other people – that is, their anger affects others, and that this is a problem.

We call this awareness Insight. If angry person is unaware that they are angry, then they can’t do something about being angry.

Responsibility

Once a person is aware of their actions and recognised that their actions are affecting others, they also need to acknowledge that they are responsible for what they do and that effect on others. Dodging responsibility often goes hand in hand with statements like “look what you made me do”, or “if you hadn’t done X I wouldn’t have to do Y”, or “Why are you so upset?”

A person who has insight and takes responsibility is primed and ready to do something about their anger and how their aggressive response is impacting other people. The best solution is for the person to go to therapy and get some anger management counselling. Remember, feeling angry isn’t the problem – it is how that anger is managed that is failing.

Managing Angry People

When the angry person doesn’t recognise that they are having anger issues, or that they are responsible for managing this and the effect is has on other people, then they are not going to manage themselves. You have two options: avoid them, or manage them.

Avoiding sounds easy in principle – just leave. Get out. Get a divorce. Get a restraining order if needed. Cut the heart strings to them and get on with your life.

In practice, though, it is much harder than that.

For a start, you care about them, you care about the consequences to leaving or are scared of what will happen once you are gone. Often you love the person who isn’t angry and aren’t sure of what to do with the person who is. You keep hoping that if you wait a little bit longer, plea a little harder, try a bit more, then they will change and become that person you knew.

The reality is that if the person has no insight awareness of their anger and its consequences, then the angry person is not likely to change. If you can safely leave, it really is the best option. Call the domestic help lines, either Men’s if you are male, or women’s if you are are not. Clearly identify that you are scared of your angry partner to get put to the right channel. Each country will have their own variant of this. This opens the door for your leaving.

Sometimes it really isn’t possible to leave. When that happens, you have to manage your angry other – we will deal with those options in the next post.

There is no dark side

Popularly emotions are described as good (joy, love, hope) and bad (anger, sadness, nastiness). Emotions are not good or bad, they are informative. The only “bad” emotion is one that is either too strong or too weak to be useful, while the only “good” emotion is one that informs you correctly about the situation you perceive. It is not the emotion, in general, that is good or bad, it is the situation that generated that emotion that is good or bad.

Emotions can be split into three major types:
1) Basic / Primary
2) Simple
3) Complex

Basic or Primary emotions have been studied around the world to try to get to the biological response that all humans have in common. The studies have attempted to take out cultural bias, age of the person (for the most part), and time in human history. On average the basic emotions are described as between 5 and 8 different basic emotions. For this article, I am going to use 6 – Anger, Joy, Sadness, Disgust, Surprise and Fear.

You may notice that only one of these is seen traditionally as “good” while the other five are traditionally seen as “bad”. This type cast is because on average we like to feel “joy” while we don’t like to feel any of the other five basic emotions. If I could choose which basic emotion I was feeling, “joy” certainly would be the one I pick.

Liking our emotions isn’t really what our emotions are for though. Our emotions are here to inform us about the world we perceive. “Perceive” is the key word here, as it isn’t what we sense at all. Our senses give us raw data about the world we live in, in a timely sense, which has no bearing on the past or future. This raw sensory information is filtered, passed through a pattern recognition section of our brain (which is generated via our past experiences) to create a prediction for what is coming such that we can act now to survive.

As a slight aside, consider that everything you see and hear right now is in the past. You can not sense the present as by the time the information gets to your body (let alone your brain), the thing that has occurred has already occurred, it isn’t occurring. We are always slightly behind what is going on. If we try to catch a falling ball based on the assumption that what we are sensing is happening now, we will never catch the ball because the place we move our hand to the ball has already passed. To catch that ball, we need to predict where the ball will be, not know where it has been. Then we can move our hand to where the ball will be and catch the not yet occurring event.

Now switch the ball heading towards us to a saber tooth tiger (mainly because I like saber tooth tigers). We only want to know where the tiger has been such that we can predict where it is likely to be, and for us to not be in those likely places. This keeps us alive instead of dead (when we are right).

To bring this back to emotion, one of the components of how we sort our senses is for our predictions to colour our sensory data with emotion. When we recognise a pattern from the past that hurt us, we predict that pain coming and taint the perceived current experience with the colour of fear. If we did not have that fear, we would not act to avoid the upcoming pain and we would be harmed. Seen in this light, it is clear that fear is working for our protection and safety rather than against it. This makes it “good”, right?

We often concatenate (that is put together and make as one) the situation that is good with the emotion we feel that tells us it is good, or alternately, the situation that is bad and the emotion that we feel that tells it is bad. We then mistakenly try to avoid or create the emotion instead of the situation. My intention here is to separate the emotion from the situation by understanding what the emotion is trying to tell you so that you can now use that source of information to analyse the situation you are in, and make intelligent decisions to act to change that situation into the situation you want, or preserve the situation if it is the situation you want.

As described above, the basic emotions are our biological survival mechanisms. These emotions are what helped each one of your ancestors get old enough to have at least one child, which eventually led to you. They must have done a pretty good job since you are alive to read this (I apologise to any undead who are reading this blog, but I have yet to receive proof of your existence – and technically your ancestors stayed alive long enough to produce you too).

The simple emotions are the culturally generated and acceptable emotions. Not all cultures share the same specific feelings or concepts. For example, razbliuto means the “feeling for someone you used to love but no longer do”, which is a single word in Russian, but is quite complex and poorly understood in English. Simple, but culturally specific. Often their are large amounts of overlap, such as guilt, shame, pity, tiredness and so on. Yet not all cultures express it the same way, or have these feelings triggered by the same stimuli.

Complex emotions involve complexity about what you feel based on what you are stimulated by, combined with distortions due to your past experiences or expected future ones. As I said, it’s complex. For example, the visceral feeling of fear you have in putting your hand in the outside bin to retrieve an item you accidentally threw out, complicated by your aversion to germs and cockroaches and knowing that often they inhabit these areas. Logically there will be germs, there may be cockroaches, but neither of these pose any significant threat to you. Yet if you have fears associated with these, your prediction of their presence creates an intense feeling of frozen fear baring you from retrieving that item, thus you accept that it is gone but kick yourself for being scared and wasting resources. Often you don’t analyse these complex emotions, so instead you just feel awful but don’t know why.

I will go into more depth about the basic six emotions I have hinted at above and throw in shame and guilt in a future blog.

Moving through anger

Emotions can exist in three states. Basic, secondary and complex.


When anger is basic, it simply states that your boundaries have been crossed. When it is secondary, it usually means you don’t know how to respond to other emotions, so you feel out of control. Anger is then used to regain your perceived loss of power such that you can feel in control again.


When anger is complex, it’s source is hard to grasp, often leaving you guilty/shamed that you feel angry or you find yourself trapped in your anger. For example, you may be angry that a loved one has passed on, leaving you in a mess. You feel guilty that you are angry at the deceased, which complicates your ability to do anything about your situation. In this scenario, what you are really angry about is that you feel trapped in your situation, not that your loved one escaped, or created the situation you are in. In effect, you are transferring your anger at something intangible to something tangible. You can’t affect the state of life/death of your loved one – thus you feel powerless and your anger emotion you raised to rebalance your power is misdirected and thus can’t help.


Complex anger is often mixed up with other complex emotions, such as complex guilt, leaving quite a maze of emotions and perceived causation of events for you to navigate before you can find a path to happiness.

Ceasing stagnation

Stagnation is not a country filled with male reindeer. It is where there is a lack of movement, such as your life going nowhere. This can be due to not doing anything, or doing the same things in a closed circle repeating loop.


It is all well and good finding that you have stagnated, but how do you break it? How do you start moving when you have stopped, and how to you find a direction so that you no longer travel in small circles?


The answer to this is to find a goal you want to achieve.


Let us pause to understand the goal. The point of the goal is to head you somewhere other than where you are. To achieve this goal, you will have to change those habits that have lead to stagnation, those aspects of your life that have lead to immobility, and probably some or all of your friends, who enable this lack of movement.


So this goal must be pretty impressive to make you want to put all this work in.


To find an impressive goal, an inspirational destination, it is important to include emotional elements in the goal. Each of us has a key emotion that we are trying to find – love, comfort, joy, safety, self importance and so on. The goal must be a physical means of attaining this emotion in abundance. Often when we talk about goals, it is things like “get a job” or “move out” or “be around more people”. These are often given to get people off our backs and look like we are doing something. Sometimes these are goals we actually want, but we don’t know why we want them.


To examine the goal “get a job”. What is it about the job that you want? Is it going to a work place? Is it the money? Is it the structure? Is it… and what about those aspects contains the feeling you are hoping to get? If it is the going to a work place, is it because you don’t want to be home? This may mean aspects of safety or discomfort. If it is the money, does money represent freedom, status, power…?


Understanding the emotion behind the stated goals can help us understand why these goals are important to us.


For some, there is no clear indication of what we might want. That is fine. Instead of working backwards from the goal to the emotion, we can start with the emotion and work forwards to the goal.


To begin this process, consider what you have now and it will tell you what you want. Part of this assessment includes physical things, such as shelter, availability of food, physical health and other very basic needs. There is little point talking to a dying person about there relationship with their mother when you should be putting pressure on a gaping wound! So addressing these basic needs is fundamental, but should not be the only focus.


The next focus in understanding where you are is to look at the people you rely on and those who rely on you. This can give you a good idea about balance, give and take, and if you actually like this part of your situation.


Once the shape of your current physical and social being is known, the next things to focus on is your current emotional being. I don’t mean current as in right this second, I mean as a trend over time. Consider the basic questions of “are you happy”? If you are happy and content, why change?


The odds are though, especially if you are reading this, you aren’t happy and content. You itch to change, and something is up that prompts you to do this. So look at yourself and work out what emotion is the dominant one. Do you feel safe? Do you feel loved? Do you feel worthy of receiving good things? Can you accept compliments? There are a whole stack of questions that can help elicit the fundamental emotions behind your current state of being. There is a fair chance that a negative emotions is dominant. It may even be hiding behind depression or some other confounding state. It is important to figure it out.


Once you have established the dominant emotion, this gives an indication of your goal. For example, if your dominant emotion is fear, then your goal is safety. If it is grief, then your goal is securing joy in what is here. If it is anger, then it is to change the status of power. If it is sadness, then your goal is to re-discover joy.


Sometimes it is hard to find a dominant emotion as there are no emotions. That is okay. Your goal is quite likely to be to find your emotions.


Once you have a basic idea of what your goal needs to feel like, you can start to create physical representations of those goals. That is, when I am safe, my world looks like… When I feel joy in what I have, I am … etc. This gives the basis for something to aim for, something to gauge the changes you are going to make. After all, if you want to change your life, you need to make changes in your life.