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Damn! I Just Lost my Temper Again

There it was, out of my mouth before I knew I felt it.

The morning routine had been rolling along fine until I brought up yesterday’s lost lunch box – yet another! – and my son complained with a whine that he didn’t know where it was. With the speed and intensity of an electric jolt, my mouth opened and a harsh and far too loud reprimand came tearing out.

In the few seconds it took me to cool myself down, my son’s whine became tears and my aggravation became horror. I’d done it again.

Anger. Like a troll under a bridge, those of us who struggle with it never know when it’ll leap out and attack. Meanwhile, those who live or work with temperamental people can carry a nearly constant dread of an unexpected blow up.

Participant issues with anger kept surfacing in our last Personal Mastery seminar. When I asked who wanted an ad-hoc discussion about how to more effectively manage it, all but one of the 70 participants either struggled with anger or struggled to deal with an angry person. It plays out in our workplace, often as irritated judgment, and at home, with those we care most about.

Where does it come from and what can we do about it?

Anger is a ‘Secondary’ Emotion

Anger is rarely, if ever, the deepest emotion at play when we lose our temper. It is a coping mechanism, a sign that something that matters to us is not as we want it to be – and we feel powerless to change it. This last point is crucial. If we believed we could effectively change the situation, we already would have and wouldn’t feel such intense frustration.

We choose (unconsciously) to get angry because the powerful feelings of anger are less painful and uncomfortable than the more raw emotions beneath them. Feelings of powerlessness, inadequacy, shame and failure are common instigators of anger, and avoiding them helps me feel invulnerable, in control, and numb to what is hurting me in that moment.

The first task in mastering your anger, then, is to identify and let yourself feel what is really at play for you.

The Power to Change Lies in the Costs of the Problem

Once the wave of anger has crashed to the shore, it can recede quickly, and we often move on – even as those we got angry at nurse their bruises for days. In the aftermath, we may grapple with our behavior through guilt (“What I did was awful and I feel so bad”), rationalization (“I shouldn’t have, but here’s all the reasons why it was justified”) or forgetting (“Boy do I need a drink”). All of these responses distance us from our ability to change by numbing the acute pain we feel about how we hurt the other person.

(Yes, even guilt, which can be so upsetting, is an unpleasant, comfortable way of criticizing ourselves without committing to change. I call it an “anti-responsibility mechanism”.).

At our core, the pain we cause someone we care for can feel similar to shame in its intensity. As much as I want to flee these intolerable feelings, though, I have learned that they are our most powerful source of change. It is the highest part of our humanity crying out, “I don’t want to behave that way; it’s unacceptable.”

Letting ourselves feel these emotions compels us to take a stand with ourselves – no matter what, I commit to never again unleashing my anger on others.

Commitment Gives us the Courage to be Vulnerable

The more your commitment rooted is in the costs of your anger, the more powerful its change potential is. Another time will come when your team is under-delivering, or a colleague in a sister organization is protecting his/her turf, or your child or spouse refuses to see things your way – and the pressure cooker will steam to the boiling point.

Your outrage will take on a life of its own, far too strong for you to control. What’s going to support you to stay centered in that moment? It’s already too late…

The key to mastering (not controlling) your anger is to notice the early warning signs – the smallest emotions of discomfort or hurt – and learn to constructively express them. Over the years, this has led me to admit to myself and others all sorts of things I preferred to keep secret: that I needed help, that I wasn’t smart enough, that my feelings were hurt, that I felt inadequate, like a failure. As uncomfortable as it is to tell my children I feel powerless in a situation with them, I’ve noticed time and again how dramatically it changes our interaction to something healthier.

In so many of these cases, my entire body yearned to get angry; it was so familiar, so powerfully satisfying. Only my commitment, rooted in my awareness of the costs of my anger, was powerful enough to force me to authentically express my feelings at the first sign of irritation.

Authentic Vulnerability is Potent Leadership

Our greatest misunderstanding about expressing vulnerability is that we feel weak, when in fact we are at our most powerful. Anger is a destructive act of aggression, causing others to withdraw or escalate. When we express the truth of our feelings, we forge a creative space for connection, where the magic of human interaction becomes possible. Going beneath our anger allows us to lead constructively.

I would love to hear your experience about your anger, personal and professional, what you’ve learned and where you’re stuck.

Next time, I’ll explore the challenges of responding when someone else is angry.

16 thoughts on “Damn! I Just Lost my Temper Again

    • I took this as a tongue in cheek comment. However, a few remarks to challenge you. First, if it is a joke, the brain doesn’t know the difference; it will believe you all the same. Second, whatever challenges your entourage may have, being complete idiots is likely not a factual description. (Again, your brain will believe what you think/say 100%, so be careful).

      Third, this is a classic example of what Dr. Maxie Maultsby calls “It Monster” thinking. If you are angry, it is not because of them, but rather the thoughts you have about them. Even when we know this intellectually, it is difficult to take that distance.

      That would be a first step in mastering your anger.

  1. I really wish that this article would fix my anger problems, but I’m doubtful, but it was a good read and at least you’re trying to help. Besy of luck with your own anger problems.

  2. Charlene Sullivan

    I really look forward to the next article, I work with some really angry people and it has just becoming so damn tiresome.

  3. I have had to deal with this issue, especially because I have young kids and the last thing I want is for them to be afraid of their father. Honestly examining myself, learning the warnings and the whole process of managing my anger has onestly reduced my stress levels and made me an overall happier and more productive person.

    • Really glad to hear you’re ratcheting this down. I feel similarly about how I don’t want my children to be afraid of me — or learn anger as regular coping skill which they perpetuate onto others and the world.

    • I understand the difficulty in changing. I would direct you towards really identifying and letting yourself feel the costs of your anger. How do people feel when you get angry with them? What impact on your relationships? On your own state of mind? On goals and endeavors that are hampered or undermined by your anger?

      Our ego doesn’t know well how to do this accounting without going to guilt and shame — both of which send us back to anger. But beneath guilt and shame is emotional connection with the consequences. This can be a starting point of a clarity strong enough to generate greater mastery.

      I discuss above and can say more if it is helpful.

  4. I tend to fall victim to the rationalization problem a lot, I’m not generally an angry person but when I do explode, I always tell myself it was necessary.

  5. I’ve honestly been making strides lately, mainly because I have become so good at noticing the early warning signs and seeking to defuse the situation before I go all hulk smash on some innocent or not so innocent bystander.

  6. I think that the powerlessness factor is my main motivator, because I honestly struggle my the frustration of my workplace and the only thing that ever seems to relieve it, is to explode.

    • Without knowing you, I would say that in your powerlessness are feeling and perceptions that you need to express directly and constructively. Since you are not, they then over-boil.

      Do you think you have a conflict avoidance problem? Anger almost always comes from avoiding conflict. Building greater communication skills on difficult topics could help.

  7. William A Wheaton

    I had this problem with my son (when he was about 8), and I solved it by a trick that may work for others. I decided to fine myself every time I did it, $1, and give the fine to him. I explained this to him, and apologized. The fine was tiny for me of course, but real for him, and a sign that my apology was in earnest. The result was remarkable: He only got $2 out of it, as I stopped yelling at him almost immediately. So I think it was a good deal for us both. I tried the same trick years later (for $20 fine) when I found myself raising my voice with my wife. That has not worked, but I think I will try it again and try to be more persistent.

  8. Mai Linh Spencer

    Hi Shayne! I’m a voice from the past — like, 2003!

    I came across your post while snooping through Thuyen’s email. I would love to hear elaboration on “As uncomfortable as it is to tell my children I feel powerless in a situation with them, I’ve noticed time and again how dramatically it changes our interaction to something healthier.”

    With my 12 and 9 year old daughters, I try to manage or at least verbally recognize my own anger and underlying feelings of powerlessness, but I find myself saying unhelpful things like, “I am trying not to get angry. I feel frustrated that I asked you 7 times this morning to feed the dog and you kept telling me you would when you were done watching Suite Life on Deck, and YOU got angry at ME for reminding you those last 6 times, and now it’s NOON and the dog is starving and I feel like I am trying really hard to keep this household running but I’m not getting any help. I know it is not a big deal, but I am overwhelmed. I am going to my room so I don’t yell at you.”

    That seems unconstructive in about 25 different ways — including sending the message that my children are somehow responsible for my ability to make it thru the day — so I’d love to hear what you actually say to your kids when they lose that 3rd lunchbox.

    Hope all is well,
    Linh (Mai Linh Spencer)

  9. Linh, I’ve been wanting to respond to this for days. First, I want you to know that most of all, I felt deeply understood by your comment. Right down to the 3rd lunchbox. At-a-loss Parents Unite!

    A few thoughts about your experience:
    1. I can say words like ‘I feel overwhelmed/I need help’, etc and still be feeling aggravated/frustrated. The energy I transmit is going to trump the words I use, and it would appear that you are still communicating your anger vs. your vulnerability. (Important note: what you are doing sounds much more constructive than acting out your anger (yelling, etc) so I think it’s an important step in a productive direction.)
    When I actually refuse the anger, I usually calm down. Sometimes I’ll cry. You might say that a parent shouldn’t do that, but it amazes me how my children take a step towards me in those moments. (Different than manipulative crying by a parent as a guilt tool – no specific behavior is a recipe, it’s the space.) They have a reaction of empathy, whereas when I say the same words with aggravation they tune me out/want to go away.

    So there is an additional space of emotional vulnerability to allow yourself to go to.

    2. More tactically, I aim to address these types of dynamics in other moments than when I am caught up in the emotions of it. I’ll go away, calm down, talk about it with Lara, then call a family meeting to discuss the issue, vs. trying to strong arm their compliance in the moment of the conflict.
    When we have these conversations, I put the issue on the table, but then I make sure to give them space to talk about their point of view first. They usually can’t listen to me until they’ve felt heard (i.e., they can submit silently but that’s different than really hearing my experience and request). They often have a very personal experience of the issue that is different than mine. They don’t like how I ask/nag, my tone makes them feel shut down. So then we can talk about how I can ask differently, and how they can step up in their responsibilities (which, when they are not reacting to me, they actually feel good about doing).

    And then, as soon as I think I have it figured out, my technique doesn’t work anymore!

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