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.