Damn! I Just Lost my Temper Again
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.