One sunny morning around a year ago, I stormed into my office shaking with rage. In half an hour I was due to counsel someone.
My husband had driven me to work; he and the children were going on to soccer training. It had been a typical Saturday morning: coffee, croissants, music played probably a tad too loud and the children bounding around.
As we’d approached the office my husband had said something (I can’t even remember what it was), and I’d exploded with anger. My voice had sounded weird. Even as I’d glimpsed the thought “You need to keep it together,” every cell in my body steeled to fight ~ run, hit out, fix, prove ~ NOW. My eyes narrowed and hardened, and my heart felt like it was curling inwards.
I walked away, leaving my family, the people I hold most dear, sitting in the car shocked and still.
There was no turning back. I had to keep my feet moving, eyes dry; half an hour was all I had. The heavy glass doors were light as I pushed them open, fuming. Fragments of shame ~ collided with the Imposter spectre that’d whooshed in ~ collided with phrases from ACT ~ bah!
Thanks to a few less dramatic bouts of anger over the preceding months, I had found a few things which helped…
By the time the session began I was feeling a bit bruised but otherwise fine. Guilt and apologies were tucked away to manage later.
If out-of-the-blue rage is something you struggle with, these are some things you could try:
In the heat of the moment,
- Slow and deepen your breathing, eyes closed if possible. Do this by counting slowly, in… 2… 3…..pause….out… 2…3…. a few times.
- Soften the muscles around your eyes, especially if a child is present. My dad had what we called “The Pirate Look” when angry, and it terrified us!
- Rest your tongue gently on the back of your top teeth. This helps relax the jaw.
- Run cold water over your wrists. Have a swig of cold water and notice how it feels as it moves down your throat.
- Take note of the different parts of your experience: notice how it’s possible to unwind thoughts, feelings and impulses to act from the tangle of fury.
- Open up: make room for discomfort. With anger it can be easy to be swept back into whirlpools of argument during this step. Loving-kindness, prayer or self-compassion offer guide-ropes which you can try using. I found this post particularly helpful, maybe because it was quite visual.
- Picture: This will sound corny, but try softening your vision and seeing the person you are angry with at a time when you loved them to bits. This may be helpful in opening up and connecting with your values. Experiment and see what works for you. It could be a role model. Or a beloved pet. Or it could be yourself that you see, managing the situation in a way that’s true to your values. (Assuming these are peaceful!)
- Pursue your values: do what matters, with uncomfortable feelings in tow if need be.
- Perspective & problem-solving: can be tricky in the eye of a storm, but do-able later on, and important. It’s tempting to get stuck in how right you are and how wrong they are..
- Apologise (although it may feel easier to skip this step and move on.) Something we did later that Saturday which also helped, was talking about how anger had been managed in our families as children ~ and about how we wanted things to be different.
When you have calmed down somewhat,
- Learn about anger. This is a gem, “ACT on life not on anger” by Eifert, McKay & Forsyth. Many posts on this blog may be helpful, for example, this one on touching fear and other difficult emotions.
- Make a note in your diary when anger visits. See if there’s any pattern.
- Get clear on the type of person/colleague etc you want to be, and the atmosphere and communication style you want in your home/office. Use this as motivation to make changes.
(Reading about values on this blog was, for me, like seeing colour TV for the first time. “Values” till then had been abstract, dry and dull. So, Dig in! “Your Life on Purpose: How to Find What Matters and Create the Life You Want” by McKay, Forsyth and Eifert is also excellent.)
- Get to know the triggers. This takes effort, especially if the anger seems to have no cause. Use them as alerts; to plan strategies and to problem-solve.
- Become clever at spotting, and responding to, the earliest flush of anger possible.
- Practice, practice, practice – even with minor annoyances.
The order is not important, nor do you need to do each step. In the service of self-compassion and workability, experiment, and see which tools work best for you.
I hauled myself off to the GP that week. She reassured me that it wasn’t Alzheimer’s, nor was it my dad’s fiery genes. Turns out it was medicine I’d been taking.
Catharina Belgraver is a counselling psychologist in Brisbane, Australia. After many years in the perinatal field, she is about to embark into health and wellbeing counselling, using ACT. Follow her on Twitter at @Rina_Belgraver
11 thoughts on “Guest post: When Anger Strikes like a Bolt out of the Blue”
Great post, Catherina. For what it’s worth, anger is one of those emotions I’ve utterly changed my relationship with since learning ACT. I never flew into rages, but I always felt guilty about feeling angry with things. These days I regard it as one of the best things about me.
thanks again, Rob
Thanks Rob, and for the invitation to write here. You make a brilliant point. It’s easy to think of anger as “negative” and “unacceptable;” but it can be a terrific motivator to make changes, for example.
Catharina, this is quite beautiful. I love your honesty. I love that sense of observing the tangle of feelings around anger and softening into and around them. Thank you!
Thanks too for your encouragement and support in posting this.
Thank you Rachel!
It’s spooky how clever some ppl are. Thsnak!
Thanks for this. This is a great blog overall, & this is guest post a really well-done look at what can sometimes seem a tired topic. I’m going to print this out & try the suggestions that are new to me.
In my case, anger typically strikes after a perceived threat and is seemingly so visceral that before I know it, I’m out of control. One thing that is interesting to me (and something I can work with) is the sense of shame I experience after such incidents. Lots of self-punishing thoughts show up. I am finding the “open up” strategy mentioned by Catharina to be helpful in the aftermath – e.g. metta and acceptance directed toward myself.
Thanks so much for your kind words. (This is indeed an incredible blog overall; I love how the team here makes ACT live-able and use-able, while keeping its richness intact. A huge honour to post here!)
I am glad that this post might be helpful, and that you are finding the “open up” strategy useful. It can seem counter-intuitive not to begin with defusing from the super-painful and loud thoughts. For what it’s worth, with anger/shame I certainly found opening up to be the more useful starting point (in parallel with valued action, apologies etc).
Thanks again for your comment!
Thanks & I agree that sometimes self-compassion is the place to start. I actually think this can be the case for many persons working with ACT, not just for anger but other situations that are really sticky & involve self-punishing or shameful thoughts. Defusion techniques as such are just one point of entry & not the only one.
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