Self-control may be the trickiest task to master when learning to manage anger. It requires that we stop and take a pause before reacting to a situation. It means we are not responding instinctively but rather we respond thoughtfully. Self-control creates the space to sit back and take a mental inventory of our thoughts, feelings, physical reactions, and needs. How do we do that?
In the previous unit we spoke extensively about unmet needs and how these interact with feelings of anger and conflict. There are four things to consider when attempting to build self-control:
- Relaxing our bodies
- Being present in the moment
- Labeling our emotions/feelings
- Taking responsibility for our reactions
Let’s take a look at why it is important to relax our bodies. Strong emotions often trigger powerful reactions in our body. Anger frequently shows up as tension and tightness in the body. As anger escalates and intensifies, the brain can read these physical responses as danger, as a threat. This can cause our fight/flight/freeze response.
It also means our brain goes into survival mode, focusing on the physical functions necessary to stay alive and not on problem solving. Relaxing the body, and releasing some of that tension, allows us to keep our anger from escalating. It also helps us think clearer, as relaxed breathing sends a signal to the brain that you are safe, that your life is not in immediate danger. Now with this ability to think clearly you are less likely to react impulsively.
Being Present in the Moment
Many times it is our thoughts and beliefs related to the past or the future that tend to cause us distress. You can get caught up in feelings related to a past we cannot change. Likewise, our brains can over-work with worrying thoughts, beliefs and feelings about a future we cannot predict. This can keep us mentally spinning and can negatively influence how we react to present day situations. Using practices such as the one used in the exercise we did in the previous section can help us stay present.
One way to think of being in sync with the present is that we have the ability to appropriately assess the amount of danger that exists in any given moment. Without the trappings of the past or the future influencing your thinking, you are better able to see what is in front of you, and thus better able to control your thoughts and emotions.
Labeling our feelings and emotions is an important step to self control. You have to have awareness of how you are feeling in order to label your emotions. Once you have labeled your emotions, you have taken the first step to taking the power out of them. By labeling your emotions you create distance between you and them, making them something you feel versus something you are. Notice how it feels to say I am angry versus I feel angry.
You are not your feelings and your feelings do not control you. With practice, you can watch your feelings roll in and then roll out, just like clouds in the sky. Sometimes it’s sunny, sometimes it’s stormy, but your feet are firmly planted on the ground in either case. The action of labeling helps you to take responsibility for your reactions.
Once you take responsibility for how you are feeling, you are also proving to yourself that you are in control. Ever notice that the same thing that greatly irritates you doesn’t seem to make a difference to another person? Or maybe the same thing that irritates you on one day, doesn’t irritate you on another.
It is not that other people who are unaffected by what bothers you do not feel irritations or anger or distress. It just means that they have learned to not allow these feelings to escalate, to take control of them, or to cloud their thinking. They take responsibility for their feelings, take note of what may be behind their emotion, and respond with a thoughtful action. In other words they use self control.
Consider the following:
Edna is going about her business around the house. Her child, Ernest, is playing by the coffee table. He bumps into it and a steaming hot cup of coffee spills to the floor. Edna shouts out and she feels herself getting angry.
She notices her anger and brings her awareness to her breathing, trying to be fully present. She thinks, Why am I so upset? And she realizes she is upset because she is surprised that the coffee spilled. She had not planned for it to happen, but it did. She asks Ernest if he would like to help clean it up, and she pours herself another cup that she will keep safely on the kitchen counter.
Consider the following:
Mike thinks that his local mayor should step down from office. Lucy disagrees because she has a family member that knows the mayor personally. She thinks the mayor is a stand-up guy based on personal interactions with him. She believes he should remain in office. Mike asks about why the mayor never attends council meetings, or why the mayor seemingly failed at declaring a local emergency that had occurred earlier the year.
Lucy feels angry and begins to think negative thoughts about Mike, How can he be so stupid?!
She realizes two things. One, she feels Mike is being dim-witted because of her own unmet need of consideration (she doesn’t get why Mike can’t use empathy to see her point of view). Two, on the flip side, she feels angry because she was not willing to see Mike’s side of things, as she was stuck in her own beliefs regarding the mayor.
Do you see how Edna calmed and relaxed her body, allowed herself to be present in the immediate moment, took notice to how she was feeling, and seemed to take ownership of it by changing how she saw the situation? Lucy engaged in some of the same steps, controlling her response to Mike’s difference of opinion.
Self-awareness and mindfulness are keys to acceptance. They allow you to focus on the moment, living with it, and not against it–to feel your emotions and then let them go. This is different than trying to push your emotions away or to try to stuff them down. This practice of mindfulness and self-awareness can allow you to feel and move through a feeling versus stopping it, attaching to it, or hiding from it.
Why It Matters
When we hold tightly on to a belief, we are increasing our suffering and pain, as well as opening ourselves up to anger. This could be a belief about yourself, such as “I should be more organized,” about someone else, such as “my child should behave in public,” or about the world, such as “it shouldn’t rain today.” A lot of rigid beliefs are related to those “should” and “should not” thoughts..
Being able to let go of a belief or a struggle gives you control over the situation and how you can respond to it.
How to Let Go
Sometimes things aren’t easily accepted or released. That’s okay. When you have a tough time letting go of something here are some tips to help loosen your grip.
- Focus on your breathing and bringing your attention to the present.
- Slow down. Take steps one at a time and take each day one at a time. This does not mean you have to stop planning for the future or ignore your daily routines but rather to just try not to think too heavily on tomorrow.
- Write down your concerns or frustrations. Make a list of everything bothering you. A huge project at work? Unresolved conflict with your husband? Unpaid bill? Write down everything that is causing you stress currently.
- Reorder the list you created from the most important to least. Now your worries have turned into goals, ordered and prioritized. If there’s something you can do immediately to resolve some of your concerns, do it, and if not, keep the list and return to it later.
- Resolve what issues, worries, concerns, and frustrations you can. Change what you can, knowing that you cannot change someone else. For those things you cannot change or resolve, see if you how you can shift your perspective or to make peace with the situation.
- Think about the amount of time it took you to create your list of worries, now spend double that time to create a list of things you are grateful for.
- Don’t concentrate on what you don’t have or what your life doesn’t look like. The “should” or “shouldn’ts” of how your life should be.
- Ask yourself if you will remember why you are upset in a year’s time. Figure out the magnitude of the thing that is bogging you down.
Take a moment and think back to previous exercises where we asked you to get in touch with your experience of anger.
See if you can allow yourself to remember these incidents in great detail. See if you can feel the sensations of anger start to bubble up. Practice walking through the above components of self control. While feeling angry, see what you can do to slow down your breathing and relax your body. Start to focus on the present moment, maybe noticing what you see around you or what you can hear. Label your anger, and take ownership of feeling angry. Now think back to that incident and see if you can access a different perspective of the situation that made you angry in the first place. Write down the different thoughts, feelings, or bodily sensations that came up for you while completing this exercise.
Continue to think about any unmet needs and how these correlate with anger. Think about relating unmet needs to other emotions also. Maybe you are feeling depressed because you lack a sense of connection or partnership. Can you think of how thinking, I’m sad, is similar to thinking, Sam is stupid. Here’s a hint: They both deal with unmet needs, and they are both criticizing, or judgmental, thoughts. (A less judgmental approach would be to say: I am experiencing sadness, or, Sam feels differently about the situation than I do.)
Don’t forget to breathe. Breathing is known to calm the mind and put a stopper on bodily reactions to things such as fear and anger. Breathing, and paying attention to your breath can immediately help you calm down in the face of anger. Try it! Write down how it helps you control your response or reaction to conflict.