Many people who have to live or work with the chronically angry feel unprepared to cope with their titanic temper tantrums. When we don’t know what to do when faced with anger, we have an unfortunate tendency to make up our own interventions. This DIY approach to cope with someone’s monumental rage is usually counter-productive and ineffective. They only prolong the pain and magnify its destructive consequences. We are pouring salt in his wound. Here are some common mistakes:
1. Defending our innocence: “But I didn’t do it honey, I swear to God.” This response is perceived as “fighting” with him, as calling him a “liar,” and being generally oppositional. This intervention, therefore, does not usually have the desired calming effect. Our “innocence” is not the issue here. We are not guilty of a crime and we require no defense. The issue is that he is angry and his anger is painful. We need to relieve his pain, not make it worse.
2. Giving him orders: “Get a hold of yourself, honey. Pull yourself together, get a grip, babe. Stop it this instant.” He does not take orders. He is a controller. Our efforts to ‘help’ him are exactly what he does not need right now. A better option is to control ourselves. We have our hands full with us right now. He is not the only one in pain. If we do not look to ourselves, who will?
3. Inappropriate responsibility: When we see him behaving irresponsibly, our good intention is to assume responsibility for him. We try to take over. He also perceives this as a control. He fights us off. Our choice must be to assume appropriate responsibility for our own physical and emotional well being.
4. Predicting the Future: When our life in the present is being controlled by someone else, we try to solve this painful problem by escaping into the future. We come up with imaginary solutions such as, “If you don’t stop now, there’s going to be trouble,” “I’ll leave you,” or “I’ll call the cops.” These exclamations are accurately perceived as threats, bluffs, and overcompensations for our own feelings of inadequacy. He is not impressed. His hurt becomes even more painful. It is better to stay in the present.
5. Appeal to Logic: We also make the mistake of trying to solve emotional problems logically: “Be reasonable, babe, use your head.” Our naive attempt to appeal to reason through the use of logical thought is the delusion. It assumes that people are like Mr. Spock, all logic and that with enough information they will be swayed. Sufferers from this delusion often spend time giving evidence and explaining their point, but to no avail. We cannot change his feelings by imposing our logic upon him. They don’t compute.
6. “Understanding”: Our mistake is to try to make him “see reason,” to “understand” the reality of the situation, to understand the “error of his ways.” He hears our attempt to make him understand as 1. trying to control him with our manipulative, irrelevant logic; 2. trying to put him in the wrong when he “knows” that he is “right”; 3. trying to force him to submit; 4. trying to make him feel or look stupid.
7. Denying the Validity of His Anger: “You have no right to be angry at me after all I’ve done for you.” Anger is not a matter of “right” under the Constitution, it is an emotion. That is why this argument is absurd. Also, when you deny anger, you are, by extension, invalidating him. He takes it personally. Now he is really hurt. The occasion for his anger, “You spilled my drink,” may seem unjustified. But, we must remember that these surface issue conceal a bellyful of unresolved rage from the past. We do not quibble with him about the “seriousness” of the precipitating factor.
8. Using Light-Hearted Humor: “Gee, you look funny when your face gets all red like that.” This is answer does not turneth away wrath. This is ridicule, and it suggests that you are not taking him or his anger as seriously. To him, his anger is painful and needs to be taken serious. We cannot extinguish his fire by pouring kerosene on it. There are times when it is appropriate to lighten up. This is not one of them.
We make up these well intentioned responses because we have never learned how to solve such scary emotional problems. It is not our fault that we do. However, now that we realize that there is a chronic emotional hemorrhage in our life, it is as appropriate for us to get this information on Emotional First Aid for these emergencies, just as it is to get training in Medical First Aid.
Couple arguing image available from Shutterstock.