Gary* and myself had arranged his appointment by playing telephone tennis and left each other messages without ever speaking directly to each other. So I knew a little less than I normally would when he came to see me, and really only that he wanted help because of being “angry all the time”.
I asked Gary to tell me about his feelings of anger – what prompted them, and how he behaved when he had them. He told me that it didn’t take very much to trigger an incident, as he felt tired and angry all the time. He then told me about his latest outburst, which was what had finally prompted him to come and see me.
He’d been trying to reach his girlfriend on the phone so that they could meet up in town. She hadn’t answered, and he’d left a fairly terse message. When she didn’t call back, Gary told me “I rang her again and again, each time more angry that she hadn’t called me back, and each time leaving angrier and angrier messages.”
“When she listened to them” he said “she was so upset by the things I’d said she didn’t want to see or speak to me. And when her friend played them back I was ashamed – ashamed at how out of control I sounded, ashamed at what I’d said, ashamed that I couldn’t remember saying a lot of it”. Gary had been given an ultimatum – sort out being angry all the time or lose his relationship.
Anger itself isn’t a negative emotion – it can give us the motivation and the energy to put things right. But just like worrying, anger becomes a problem when it’s felt persistently or in the wrong situations. Like a lot of people who struggle to control their anger Gary had a very clear idea of right and wrong, and hated injustice. Also just like people who are angry all the time Gary had lost some of his sense of perspective, and had developed aggressive habits.
One of the most important things we did was to teach Gary how behaving differently can make us, and those around us, feel differently. He learned to drop his shoulders and stand in a more relaxed way; to ask questions instead of making demands; to talk slowly and not use words like “must” or “should”; and most importantly to take a step back, physically and mentally, and to use the techniques we taught him to feel calm.
Like all new skills these took practice, and at first Gary was frustrated about what he saw at first as slow progress. This changed when after a disagreement at work he realised how differently he had reacted – once he saw the improvement he had already made in feeling angry all the time it became more and more rapid.
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* Gary’s real identity has been protected, and he is happy to share his story.