Over the past year most of us have been dealing with stressful circumstances in the close quarters of our own homes. (Quarantine cabin fever, anyone?) Add in the everyday common irritations of life and we can easily create a simmer that sometimes boils over into anger. Which can result in us saying things we really don’t mean to people we really do care about.
In my research I’ve found that when we are angry with a friend or family member, most of us handle it wrong. And following our instincts isn’t usually the best choice. So let’s review what those instincts might be, and consider some better options.
When you feel your temperature rising, here’s how you can handle it without losing your cool.
Realize That Venting Is Only Going To Make Things Worse
Most of us have bought into the myth that venting is OK, or even healthy—that letting a little steam out of the kettle now prevents it from exploding later. And spending a few minutes venting to or about your spouse, child or boss sure does feel satisfying when we have steam coming out of our ears. But there’s a problem—it turns out that venting actually hurts instead of helps.
Neuroscientists such as Dr. Brad Bushman at Ohio State have discovered that expressing the anger we feel further activates an interconnected anger system in the brain and only makes the kettle boil that much more. So while we certainly can express anger any time we want to, the question is whether we should if we want to keep our temper in check and preserve a relationship, a job, or our sanity.
Instead Of Letting Off Steam, Remove Yourself From The Heat
If we’re at the boiling point and don’t want to be, the researchers suggest the equivalent of putting the lid on tight and removing the pot from the heat. When we decide to be calm, it is the equivalent of smothering the anger and denying it the oxygen it needs in order to burn. When we remove or distract ourselves from whatever is making us mad, we find our anger cooling off until, in many cases, we’re simply not angry anymore.
So when you’re beyond annoyed that the boss is making everyone work late again tonight, instead of venting over lunch with your co-worker and creating a list of additional grievances together, calmly say, “It sure is frustrating. So about these quarterly numbers…” And if the other person persists in venting, feeding your negative emotions, go back to your cube and force yourself to think about something else. Like the project you were working on. Or your upcoming vacation.
(A hint for husbands or boyfriends: given what we discovered in our research about how women are wired, if you have to remove yourself from an emotional conflict, be sure to reassure your wife or girlfriend that you two are okay and you’ll be able to talk about it later. That gives her the assurance of your love she needs to give you space without simmering and wanting to vent herself.)
Pause Before You Speak
So how do you manage to communicate calmly to your coworker (or spouse, or in-laws…) in the midst of your anger? Here’s the answer: force yourself to pause for a few seconds before you reply. That pause allows your will to catch up with your roiling emotions, so you can choose your words well. More important, if you’re a person of faith, it also gives God a chance to touch your heart and steer your reply before you forge ahead with guns blazing and cause casualties you’ll regret later.
So when you’re worried about your son’s progress in school and turn seven shades of upset because your husband didn’t agree to hire a tutor to help him, force yourself to pause and get your thoughts together before you speak. Think before you speak is one of the earliest lessons we teach our kids, and yet sometimes we forget it as adults. We need to relearn that skill, especially when it comes to those relationships that are most important to us.
Apologize When Needed
Since we won’t always get it right, despite these strategies, we also need to practice offering apologies each and every time they are needed. “I’m sorry, honey. I know you care about Billy, and I shouldn’t have implied that you don’t. Will you forgive me?” You don’t need to necessarily agree (“Maybe this weekend, we could talk more specifically about why I think a tutor is so important, and how we can get the money to pay for it”), but you do need to apologize.
Apologies are important because our research with the happiest relationships found that we need to keep short accounts, be willing to make up, and always ask for forgiveness when we have wronged someone else—regardless of whether they have wronged us too. But also: when we know we’re going to have to apologize if we let our temper run away with us, we’ll be far less likely to do it!
So the next time you feel anger rising inside, try these strategies: refrain from venting, remove yourself from the conflict, pause before speaking, and apologize when it’s warranted. Instead of blindly following your emotion-driven instincts, take the time and make the effort to choose your response. Your relationships—and your own well-being—will be the better for it.