Anger management skills that make things better

So you go to a restaurant and have to repeat three times to your server that you want your eggs scrambled. Sure enough, 30 minutes later you’re served cold, runny eggs sunny-side up.

Or you are on your way home from a long day at work. Not a great day. And the guy behind you is riding your rear bumper. So you tap your brakes a couple of times to signal “back off.” The driver behind you sees an opening to pass you (barely avoiding an accident) and then slows down! You are now doing 10 miles UNDER the speed limit with no opportunities to pass on the curving two-lane road ahead.

Do you find your heart beating a little faster just reading about these situations? Welcome to what anger management trainers call “anger invitations.” Actually, we get them several times throughout the day, and most of the time we won’t even notice them. If we did respond to every rude remark, door in our face, car left on empty and so on, we would probably need to be put in isolation for awhile. It can happen in a split second — do we decide to accept the invitation or ignore it? What we choose can make all the difference in making things better or worse.

Trying to avoid getting angry is not the goal of anger management. Anger is the messenger: “Something’s not right here. I feel mistreated. I feel hurt. I feel the need to protect myself and my interests.”

Go back to those proverbial runny eggs. We might choose to eat the eggs and forget about it (declining the anger invitation) — maybe making a mental note to ourselves not to come back to this restaurant. Or we might feel some accountability is needed here and calmly ask for the manager to explain what has happened and possibly get a correctly-prepared breakfast for free (we felt angry, but thought through our options before acting). Or this might have been the last straw for us, and we take that anger invitation hook, line and sinker. We call the server to our table, yell every insult we can muster and send them back to the kitchen to “get it right!” Chances are that next dish might not be one we would really want to eat.

Consciousness is the key. If we are able to recognize our “triggers” (anger invitations that touch our vulnerable feelings), we can stop that train before it leaves the station. We can learn to be conscious of our bodies (tightness in our jaw or fists, knots in our stomach, and our heart beating faster) and take those physical cues as a signal to assess what we need to do. Sometimes the only thought that can get through in that millisecond of “red alert” zooming through our brain is “get out!” In other words, we might need a place to escape for 15, 20 or 30 minutes to calm down so that we can re-engage with others.

If you find yourself struggling with anger control or see your anger becoming the primary emotion you feel day after day, there are more tools to help. Having someone to talk to is one of our best resources.

Being conscious of our anger and the results of how we use that anger are key to making our lives better.

Steve Pults, LMHC, is an individual, couple and family therapist at Mercer Island Youth & Family Services, For more information about counseling services at MIYFS, contact Gayle Erickson, clinical supervisor, at (206) 275-7611.

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