Anger ~ When Doing the Opposite Can Help
In Out of Control Part 1, we talked about the brain, and how that non-thinking, emotional part of our brain, right smack in the middle of our heads, can hijack us, and cause us to react in ways that tend to hurt others or ourselves.
In Out of Control Part 2, we discussed thinking errors, and how our feelings in childhood can affect the way we think. We also learned that the way we think can affect our feelings, and that our feelings can affect our behavior, and on and on!
In Out of Control Part 3, we discussed how learning to be mindful could help us, not only control our emotions, but also, in some ways, reshape how our brain works. It’s almost like a reboot.
So, in Out of Control Part 4, I want to leave you with a tool to help you when you feel one of the hardest to control emotions – anger. Anger is one of hardest emotions to control.
One of the skills in Marsha Linehan’s DBT Skills Training Manual for Treating Borderline Personality Disorder(1993) is the skill of Opposite Action. This skill can actually help slow down and even reverse an emotion if we know what we are doing and we are willing to do it. But being willing is key to any skill. And being willing with this skill is particularly relevant.
In the case of anger (and other emotions as well) the first step is to figure out if the anger is justified. Usually, when we become angry with someone, we have a reason for that stirring up in our bodies, that clenching of our hands, that tightening of our jaw. But sometimes, we get angry because we misunderstood something we thought someone said or did. Sometimes we get angry because we are experiencing “triggering” emotions. Our feeling arises because we were just reminded of something that happened in our past. But sometimes, it’s actually justified. What then?
We know that the first urge when angry is to “approach.” In other words, we want to defend. We want to strike out in words, or in a look, or even in a closed fist sort of way. The thing is, rarely do these actions help us in any way unless we are actually protecting ourselves from danger. Other times, we at least want to get the anger to come down a little bit before we decide our next move. So what can we do?
Opposite to Emotion ~ Anger
One of the first steps to changing the level of anger we are carrying is to “gently avoid” the person we are angry with. What does it mean to “gently” avoid? Let’s say you are in a heated discussion with someone and you know if you storm out and slam the door they will either follow you or at least become more angry, making the situation worse. To gently avoid, instead of storming out you simply excuse yourself and walk into another room. It can be the bathroom, or the kitchen, anywhere other than where the argument is taking place (this predisposes that the other party is a reasonable person). You can say something like, “Hold onto that thought,” and leave the room long enough for both of you to calm down.
By the way, while you are in the other room there’s a couple more opposite actions you can take. Try to avoid rethinking the argument, planning your latest comeback, or developing a case against the person you are angry with. Try to think about something else for a few minutes.
Try to put yourself, just for the moment, in the other person’s shoes. What could be triggering their response? Is it possible they are thinking of a past event? Are they having a particularly hard day? Are they defensive because their feelings are hurt?
Now this one is hard…but it works. Many times, we are reacting to the way someone is treating us. What if we were to do or say something just a little bit nice? Chances are, the other person would respond differently, which would calm our anger, which would cause us to act differently, which would then cause them to act differently, and the whole entire blow-up may be avoided all together.
The skill of Opposite Action is not guaranteed to work in every situation with every person you get angry at. The more the anger is justified, the harder this may be to implement. But for someone who feels they have a “problem” with anger, a skill like this can be extremely helpful. Give it a try, and let me know in the comment box if it worked for you. Any questions? Give me a holler. Join the conversation.