Over the past 18 months, I have found the world to be a lot angrier than I remember it being before. The fallout of the Covid-19 pandemic has certainly had a negative effect on people worldwide. But, even before this virus, humans tended to have a bad habit of vomiting their angry words on one another without much restraint, some giving little thought to the damage their words and actions may cause.
I once worked with an incredibly wise and humble leader for 14 years before he retired. I appreciate those years where I had the opportunity to observe and experience the characteristics of an exceptional leader first-hand. He shared many pearls of wisdom, but one that stands out is, “anger is best served cold.” He often voiced those words when anyone in the team felt aggrieved or angered by someone.
It’s been a few years since I worked with him, yet those words come to mind every time I feel the heat of anger rising within me, or when I am a victim or observer of someone else’s fury. I’ve tried to practise serving anger cold many times since. It’s seldom an easy task and I’m sure it will take a lifetime of practice to master but it certainly pays off and has the power to save relationships.
Sometimes, all it takes is thinking about your words before spitting them out – you don’t necessarily have to walk away to calm down when you feel angered but rather reflect for a moment or two before responding. Thomas Jefferson once said, “when angry, count to 10 before you speak. If very angry, a hundred.” This is sound, age-old advice; by doing so, you are emphasising two key elements of anger management – time and distraction. It allows you to delay a response and it offers a helpful distraction from the anger-arousing incident. It also prevents you from mulling over the event, which we know just adds fuel to the fire. Taking a few deep breaths in between counting also counteracts the fight or flight stress response that underlies anger.
I wonder what the world would be like if more of us purposefully cooled off before lashing out at a friend, family member, lover, colleague, spouse, stranger, animal, pet, employee, employer, or even at inanimate objects (some people self-mutilate when angry). A cooling-off period allows the aggrieved person to reflect on the reasons why they were so triggered in the first place. This is seldom possible in the heat of the moment. Serving anger cold means you step back and reflect, or remove yourself from the person or situation before reacting. During the time away from the person, it’s often a good idea to introspectively consider the actual reason for your anger and ask yourself:
Am I really angry at the person for what they said or did?
Am I angry because they hurt or embarrassed me or someone I love?
Have I been a victim of abuse and their words reminded me of a past event?
Did a caregiver neglect me at a young age and this person’s behaviour prompted a deep-seated, painful memory?
Did I simply have a bad day and need someone to take my mood out on?
Am I currently worried about something else and on edge because of it?
Do I feel out of control for whatever reason?
Am I tired and/or hungry?
Am I more stressed than usual?
Am I sad?
The list goes on…
There may be many more questions you could ask yourself. Only we truly know what is going on inside of ourselves. Some people don’t even know that much, they may prefer to shove it so far down that it never comes up as the pain they’re experiencing may be too unbearable. Yet, it never stays hidden forever, does it? Inevitably it manifests in one form or another. Often in the form of an outburst that inflicts pain on someone else. Hurting someone else may feel less painful than experiencing your own agony – be it past or present discomfort.
Unfortunately, lashing out at others rarely makes you or them feel any better. Neither does your anger towards them eradicate your pain, worry, frustration, grief, or whatever the reason behind your rage. All parties usually walk away feeling worse.
It dawned on me the other day, that a good dictum to live by (even in our fallible human way), is “seek to understand first.” We often assume that someone is behaving a certain way towards us because they don’t like us, or want to hurt us, or whatever. What would happen if we rather retreat from the anger-induced incident, cool down (even if the cooling down period takes a few days, weeks, or months), deal with some of our own stuff first, then seek to understand why the person behaved the way they did?
You may not have the same likes, dislikes, interests, concerns, or ways of expressing yourself but sharing how you felt at the time when you were angered at a later stage, after having calmed down, and trying to understand why they said or did what they did, usually sheds a lot more light on the situation, yourself, and the other person. Usually, this also avoids the relationship from being tarnished. The same applies even if the person who upset you isn’t someone you particularly like or want anything to do with. In the end, it will be more healing to you both if the matter is discussed and dealt with civilly before parting ways.
Bottom line: Anger is a normal emotion – out of control anger is not
Instead of heaving an instantaneous attacking, hurtful response towards a person who angered you, whether they intended to harm you or not, first cool down. As you reflect, consider what part of your anger has nothing to do with the other person or event. Sieve out those parts, share with them how you felt, and seek to understand the reason behind their words or actions.
It is important to remember that anger is a normal emotion, which is usually also a healthy one. But, it can lead to problems in your life when it gets out of control and becomes destructive.
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DISCLAIMER: The information contained in this article is the author’s opinion only. No material contained herein is intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health care provider with any questions you may have if you are experiencing out of control anger or issues concerning a medical/psychological condition or treatment before undertaking a new health care regime, and never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read.
Authored by Delilah Nosworthy
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