How do I keep my anger in check?
March 13, 2011 11:19 AM   Subscribe

Often, when I disagree with, or I'm arguing with someone, they'll ask me "Why are you so angry?" I don't FEEL all that angry, but when I look back at it I certainly act like an ass, saying things I don't mean. I'm not sure what exactly to call this, so I'm falling short on searching for advice. Thanks!
posted by ejfox to Human Relations (26 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
 
Example(s)? What did you say / do, in what circumstance? What was the most immediately evident prompt for you to do / say it?
posted by jon1270 at 11:24 AM on March 13, 2011


Let me ask you this. When you observed your parent(s) argue with someone, what was the tone like?

Often styles of discussion are based in cultural/family history/patterns. I work with kids whose style of disagreeing in a discussion is very different than mine, I have to do some code switching when I talk to them.

The same is true of the manner in which my SO discusses things, it could easily be taken as "anger" when it isn't.

I would differentiate however between sounding angry and "acting like an ass", two different things in my book.
posted by tomswift at 11:29 AM on March 13, 2011


"when I look back at it I certainly act like an ass, saying things I don't mean."

Examples would help, but (shooting from the hip) I expect you do this because it's an effective argument style that means you win and you like to win. You don't feel angry because you're happy you're winning. You're not emotionally invested in the argument and you don't actually think the other person is a moron, you're just saying that to intimidate and belittle so you'll win. So why would you be angry?

There are buttloads of effective argument styles that rely a lot more on undermining, belittling, intimidating, or otherwise playing on the emotional states of others, rather than actually discussing facts. They are popular because they are successful. Hurting other people is a very good way to win a discussion. But not a very good way to win friends in the long run.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 11:39 AM on March 13, 2011 [9 favorites]


Thanks Eyebrows McGee you hit it right on the head, and sorry for the lack of detail.

Basically what you say is right, I generally just say whatever I can to win the argument, I asked my SO for examples and she reeled 'em off. I say things like "I'm done." "I'm sick of your bullshit" basically whatever to "win" the argument- this is how I feel in the moment and I find it hard to filter myself...

Examples would be if, for example, my SO forgot or misplaced something, I get the feeling that the amount of anger that she thinks I feel is not proportional with how much anger I really feel. Before I even think to check how I am acting or speaking, I've already said something I regret.

I'm not completely aware of it / don't completely understand it, so it's kind of hard for me verbalize what's going on, but I'm doing my best. If there's any other questions I can answer I'd be happy to try again. Thanks, everyone.
posted by ejfox at 11:44 AM on March 13, 2011


I know someone like you. And you just think you win the argument because the other gives up. It may be because the "other" person knows where this is heading and just chooses to cut it off. You do not win. They just decide it isn't worth the effort to resort to your tactics. You will have no friends at all if you don't realize that sometimes it is better to keep your mouth closed. You succeed by thinking for one second before you blast off at someone. You are the loser in that situation.
posted by JayRwv at 11:56 AM on March 13, 2011 [9 favorites]


GAAAAAH. If your girlfriend were asking about her bf saying "I'm done" or "I'm sick of your bullshit" in an everyday argument, everyone would be saying DTMFA. And tomswift is right, you probably learned this growing up, although some people are just obsessive-winners when it comes to arguing and this also sounds like a really effective way for you to avoid intimacy and opening yourself up emotionally (where you might get hurt). Shutting her down means she can't hurt you ... but it also means you can't get truly close and how long she's likely to stick around for that kind of treatment is an open question.

So what YOU need to do is learn how to argue/disagree respectfully. Counseling would probably help (individual and/or couples). You probably need to make certain phrases absolutely off limits -- "I need a break" is okay but "I'm done" is harsh and dismissive; "I'm sick of your bullshit" ... wtf is that about with someone you love? -- and agree to certain ground rules when arguing.

A method I find effective is to sit together mostly facing each other (you can be on the couch but turned towards each other) while holding hands, which prevents a lot of angry body language and keeps you grounded in each other, and then to do a system called feedback. She says, "When you do X, I feel Y and Z, and it really upsets me." And then you repeat that back to her: "So what you're saying is what when I do X, you get all Y(prime) and Z(ish) and that I upset you." And she says, "No, I feel Y and Z and I FEEL upset, not that you upset me." And you repeat it again until you accurately reflect back to her what she said. And then you get to respond and she repeats to you until she accurately reflects your response. It's amazing how often we filter what our partner says through our own preconceptions even when we know that we're about to have to repeat it back! It gives both people a chance to speak, feel heard, and make sure they're being understood.

But there are lots of systems out there and you may find one that works better for you. That's just one that works for argumentative me and my argumentative husband. (Either of us can shout, "FEEDBACK!" and that means the argument has to stop being argument-style and we have to go do feedback even if we have no desire to do so.)

But yeah, the fact that someone can't disagree with you without you announcing that you're "done" with them or you're "sick of their bullshit" means you probably need to do some internal work on why disagreement sends you into SUCH a defensive pose that you're saying things that are literally intended to destroy a relationship -- why would you rather destroy a relationship than face a disagreement? (Two typical extremes: Families where disagreement was met with verbal or physical abuse, or families where disagreements were so completely subverted that they were never allowed to surface and break the false appearance of harmony. In either case, disagreement is SO threatening to one's emotional (and perhaps physical) wellbeing that it does, in fact, seem easier to destroy the relationship.)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 11:56 AM on March 13, 2011 [12 favorites]


When you know for sure you're angry, remove yourself to another room and concentrate on the physical sensations. Do your fists clench? Does your heart race? Whatever the sensations are, fully feel them. This helps you figure out whether or not you're angry in future situations. "Oh, my muscles are tightening, I must be getting angry."

When you find yourself disagreeing with someone, train yourself to count to 10 before you say anything at all, check in to see if you are actually angry, and if not, preface with "I'm not angry but... "

"....I'm frustrated that you lost your keys and now we're going to be late."

This is going to take practice. Let your SO know that you are practicing, and encourage your SO to tell you "that hurt my feelings" as soon as you say something. If, like JayRwv said, your conversational partners are just deciding it's not worth the trouble to argue, you need to encourage them to speak up so the resentment doesn't linger. Otherwise it's a pretty Pyrrhic victory for you.

Also, I hope you are apologizing after you do say these things.
posted by desjardins at 12:05 PM on March 13, 2011


Families where disagreement was met with verbal or physical abuse, or families where disagreements were so completely subverted that they were never allowed to surface and break the false appearance of harmony.

Speaking as someone from a family who experienced both of these typical extremes, I can tell you that even in such an environment it IS possible to learn how to argue/disagree respectfully. It takes a lot of work but it is so, so worth it and my relationships are that much better for it. One tactic to counter the "I'm done" feeling: tell your SO (or co-worker, or whoever) you need to take a walk and actually go do it. You'll find you're in a much clearer state of mind then if you stay and try to stuff your anger.
posted by Wuggie Norple at 12:09 PM on March 13, 2011


"I'm done." "I'm sick of your bullshit"

This sounds really mean and nasty to me, and I can be aggressive in arguments--this sounds especially awful when the person has made a mistake (and she hasn't, for example, just cheated on you or intentionally broken your favorite CD).

You said this happens sometimes when you argue with "someone." Is this someone always your SO? Is this happening with any frequency? If that's the case, I'd suggest you get into counseling or therapy immediately. I don't think it matters how angry you are feeling when you are expressing this kind of hatefulness to a person I imagine you love very much. Please get help.
posted by bluedaisy at 12:15 PM on March 13, 2011


How to Win Friends and Influence People isn't as smarmy and self-serving as it sounds. It's really about being generous and thoughtful as a person and, among other things, never trying to "win" an argument. Plenty of good tips in there for you. The most basic thing you can do is assume other people are doing the best that they can, that they are acting rationally, and that they deserve the understanding and consideration you'd want if you were in their position without any one-upmanship or presumption that you really know what's happening from their point of view.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 12:21 PM on March 13, 2011 [2 favorites]


Thanks all, I appreciate your help. To answer a few questions, yes- I am absolutely apologizing as soon as I "cool down" usually 20 minutes after the fight.

To all the comments on how awful the things I say are: Yes. A million times yes. And I feel awful about it, truly. I realize how lucky I am to have such an understanding SO.

Is this someone always your SO? I usually reserve the worst things I say for the people who I loved the most, best friends, family. Not on purpose, these are just the people who seem to dig it out of me quickest.

I don't think that counseling is financially attainable at this moment, but I will keep it in mind for the future. Obviously that's what I'd prefer to do over asking metafilter, but I'm just trying to take steps. I really appreciate all of the advice everyone has given here, and I take it to heart.
posted by ejfox at 12:23 PM on March 13, 2011


I realize how lucky I am to have such an understanding SO.

I'm guessing her tolerance has more to do with not knowing how to stop this behavior than it does with being understanding. "I'm sick of your bullshit" is verbal abuse, full stop.

these are just the people who seem to dig it out of me quickest

Hold it right there. Nobody digs this behavior out of you. This is something you do, all on your own. The responsibilty is 100% yours. Describing the dynamic in language that suggests other people are in control is just another way of blaming your own bad behavior on someone else.
posted by jon1270 at 12:29 PM on March 13, 2011 [17 favorites]


I usually reserve the worst things I say for the people who I loved the most, best friends, family.

Someone who did this told me it was because he was afraid of being hurt & rejected by people he loved, so he hurt & rejected them first. It's completely irrational, obviously, but it's worth thinking about. Fear often masks itself as anger.
posted by desjardins at 12:32 PM on March 13, 2011


Let go of the idea that the other person had a choice in how they behaved. Can you really really know that your SO could have chosen to not forget or misplace that thing? In situations in which your SO disagrees with you, given his or her upbringing, conditioning, and biology, could he or she really believe any other way? See your SO or others the way you would see the weather, a tree or a puppy. He or she just does what he or she does. That doesn't mean you shouldn't present new information, but what that person does with that information is not your business. You don't get to dictate what they should say, do or believe. In fact, it is impossible to do so.
posted by Wordwoman at 12:40 PM on March 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


I'm guessing her tolerance has more to do with not knowing how to stop this behavior than it does with being understanding. "I'm sick of your bullshit" is verbal abuse, full stop.
This hit me really hard. Thank you.

Hold it right there. Nobody digs this behavior out of you. This is something you do, all on your own. The responsibilty is 100% yours. Describing the dynamic in language that suggests other people are in control is just another way of blaming your own bad behavior on someone else.
I didn't mean to imply that anyone is at fault but myself- I had tried to make that clear in my original post. That's why I'm trying to improve. Thanks everyone.
posted by ejfox at 12:53 PM on March 13, 2011


I realize you're trying to improve. Please understand that I've been in your SO's position, and a long-term effect of that experience is that I now have very little tolerance left for this sort of thing; it's all been used up, and even many years later I seem to be stuck with a PTSD-ish hair trigger. But I don't mean to kick you when you're down, especially since you're trying to address the problem.

What I do mean is that I think it's dangerously tempting to minimize the problem. It's tempting to you, because you don't like the way it feels to acknowledge this weakness, or to admit that you're in the habit of crapping on people who love you. It's tempting for your SO because confronting you about the problem is likely to trigger more abuse, and because acknowledging that she's living with such abuse is probably almost as uncomfortable for her as admitting this problem is for you.

A distinguishing characteristic of abuse is that it undermines someone's sense of emotional or physical safety. In order to re-establish a sense of safety, the target of the abuse becomes willing to do or say almost anything, even if they don't want to do it, even if it's not true, and even if it undermines their personal integrity. That habitual sacrifice of integrity in the interest of re-establishing a sense of safety is what shrinks abuse victims down into the weakened creatures you think of when you think of abuse victims.

I don't mean to condemn you or paint you as a monster. In fact, painting you as monster would effectively let you off the hook, which I also don't want to do. Just don't let yourself off the hook, either. You're a human with a problem. You have work to do.
posted by jon1270 at 1:36 PM on March 13, 2011 [18 favorites]


Poor impulse control
Defensiveness
Manipulation
Verbal abusiveness

If this happens in response to total accidents on your girlfriend's part, it is veering dangerously close to abuse. Unless she forgot your baby on the roof of your car because she's high on crack, there is no reason or excuse for intimidating her, threatening her (angry behavior is frightening!), or trying to "win".

You need to identify the words, arguments, and situations that trigger this behavior as well as the signs that it's about to happen, and you need to walk away until you're calm. Some common signs that you're about to flip out include increased heart rate, increased respiration, and other signs of physiological arousal (not the sexual kind, the general kind). Some common stressful situations are when you're driving, when you're late, when you're hungry/tired/ill, when you're around people you want to impress.

Here's what you're doing now:

Girlfriend forgot something-->intimidate her, upset her, say something rude, yell (?)


You need to learn to do this:

Girlfriend forgot something-->DO NOT TALK. Walk away.


It is primarily your responsibility to identify this behavior and take steps to mitigate the effects. You might be triggered by other situations that you can't predict. Consider asking your girlfriend for a signal or sign that she can give that will indicate to you that you're crossing a line and that you need to immediately back off and leave the situation. That should trigger the same response:

Girlfriend says "overboard" --> DO NOT TALK. Walk away.



If impulse control is something you generally struggle with in multiple arenas of life, that might mean talking to a mental health professional about a potential underlying psychiatric condition.
posted by the young rope-rider at 4:38 PM on March 13, 2011 [2 favorites]


And consider that, just like some people can't just drink one beer, you might not be able to have "friendly" arguments with close friends or express yourself openly and freely when you're angry. You might need to take arguments or disagreements to well-considered emails.

For example, I absolutely cannot trust myself to behave decently when I feel lied to or manipulated. The normal part of my brain that insists that I behave, understands long-term consequences, and has empathy for others turns off and I become an impulsive, amoral, manipulative asshole. I absolutely need to leave the situation immediately. If something needs to be addressed or discussed, it needs to be done by email that I sit on overnight, at least.

Until I figured that out, I did and said a lot of shitty things that I regret mightily. It was a hard lesson to learn, but now that I have a plan, and I know my limits, I feel much more confident and much more in control of my own behavior.
posted by the young rope-rider at 4:47 PM on March 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


I read a book about how to argue effectively. The biggest thing that stuck in my head is to focus on figuring out a solution, instead of trying to win. It doesn't help if you win an argument if the problem is still there and comes up again and again. Besides if you try to score points, the other person is probably going to feel defensive and not want to do anything to fix the situation. Either just to tick you off or to not give you ammo to try to prove how right you are.

Take a moment in the heat of an argument and ask yourself "Is this a personal attack?". "Does it do anything to fix what's upsetting me?". It's really hard at first but it pays off in the long run. It's helped me get along much better with my sister after too many years of bad childhood patterns of fighting. It's really helped.

About the worse with people you're close to is that they'll put up with it more than an acquaintance or stranger. If you told someone at a basketball game "I'm sick of your bullshit", there would be a chance of it turning physical. People who are close to you are going to cut you more slack if you're nice most of the time. Work really hard to change this. If I was your S.O., I'd be thinking of breaking up a little more each time you acted this way. There are consequences. It just takes a while for them to show up. Good for you though for working on finding a way to change. Good luck!
posted by stray thoughts at 6:22 PM on March 13, 2011


I have a friend who uses the "I'm done" a lot when we have an argument, and says things like "I don't want to be your friend anymore" and "I'll never ask you for anything again." It strikes me as very childish. Plus, friends have arguments, and I don't get why she would want to throw away an entire friendshop over something minor. She always comes around, but between you and me (and Mefi), I've had about enough of the childishness.
posted by IndigoRain at 6:58 PM on March 13, 2011


What I don't understand is your example of your SO forgetting or misplacing something. Why should this lead to an argument? People forget things, people lose things, that's the way life works. What's there to argue about? The thing is, reading between the lines here, what you're doing in this situation isn't arguing (because that implies a disagreement that you're trying to resolve), but rather berating her for something she's done. Venting your frustration on her, belittling her, making her feel worse than she already does.

I think you need to back WAY up here and think about how you interact with your SO in lots of situations. Even when you're frustrated and pissed off, you NEVER react to that by trying to hurt someone you're supposed to love. Your emotions are YOUR problem and you need to find a way to manage them that doesn't involve attacking her.

Are you at the point yet where she's afraid to tell you things for fear of how you'll react? Because that's where this is going, if it isn't there yet. This will kill your relationship, I guarantee you, if you don't find a different way of handling your emotions.
posted by WorkingMyWayHome at 7:54 PM on March 13, 2011 [6 favorites]


I don't think that counseling is financially attainable at this moment, but I will keep it in mind for the future. Obviously that's what I'd prefer to do over asking metafilter, but I'm just trying to take steps.

I hear you about the lack of access to affordable mental health care in the U.S. If I didn't have insurance to pay for counseling, my own short fuse could well have cost me my job at certain points in my life. (Group therapy was particularly effective, leading as it did to personal epiphanies prompted by other people calling me on my shit.)

There is a nonprofit called Needymeds whose mission is to direct people to low- or no-cost sources of medication and health care. The site has a searchable database of free/low-cost/sliding-scale clinics nationwide, and many of these clinics offer mental health services. (Based on your profile, would one of the locations in this network be of help?)

Good luck. It will take a lot of work to change, but it's not impossible.
posted by virago at 9:16 PM on March 13, 2011


For perspective I once dated a guy who acted like you in arguments. After our second argument I said "good day sir!" and walked away. Because, really, who needs someone in their life who flips out every time you misplace the remote.

90% of people are going to react this way to you sooner or later. I am by nature a very laid back person who is slow to take offense and I had a good relationship with this man for many years before we started dating. Despite that I felt a strong urge to kick him in the nuts on my way out the door. I have no desire to ever see him again. Getting irrationally angry at people fundamentally changes how they look at you. You either frighten them or they think you're crazy, neither of which should be OK with you.
posted by fshgrl at 11:37 PM on March 13, 2011


Examples would be if, for example, my SO forgot or misplaced something, I get the feeling that the amount of anger that she thinks I feel is not proportional with how much anger I really feel. Before I even think to check how I am acting or speaking, I've already said something I regret.

...

I am absolutely apologizing as soon as I "cool down" usually 20 minutes after the fight.

...

I usually reserve the worst things I say for the people who I loved the most, best friends, family. Not on purpose, these are just the people who seem to dig it out of me quickest.


This doesn't sound like you are "disagreeing" or "arguing", this sounds like you are pissed off about something and you take it out on people who will put up with your behavior. It's easy for you to apologize afterwords because by then you've already blown off your steam at the expense of whoever you are venting at. You need to figure out a way to deal with your anger without involving other people.
posted by burnmp3s at 8:32 AM on March 14, 2011


One thing I can almost guarantee is that your SO is afraid of you. Afraid of your outbursts. Afraid of the contempt that stands shoulder to shoulder with the anger. Afraid to bring up the most mundane day to day things that she may ordinarily want to share with a partner, but doesn't for fear of your reaction.

Agree with others who suggest to STFU and walk away when you are tempted to respond to her in any argumentative way for now so you can process your thought. IANAT, but I'm sure you think by talking first (and thinking later). Do the reverse.
posted by teg4rvn at 11:01 AM on March 14, 2011


I just noticed from one of your previous questions that you're a senior in high school, so probably 17-19 years old. Of course, you're still responsible for your actions, but I'd like to commend you for taking action at such a young age. There are a lot of people in their 30s and 40s who haven't figured this shit out.
posted by desjardins at 1:53 PM on March 14, 2011 [2 favorites]


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