A few years back, my principal and I had an argument about some testing that needed to get done. From my classroom, a remodeled closet above the gym, I could hear her heels coming towards my class… I started sweating and my heart was pounding; she was not even there yet, and I was already getting angry again! My mind was quickly building a catalog of all the situations where there had been tension between us, which made me even angrier. The conversation did NOT start with “I hear what you are saying…” and there were some passive aggressive remarks made… by me. Fortunately, we were able to work through the issue and made a plan to solve the problem. When she left, I felt so relieved.
Anger is a basic human emotion that can provide great energy to solve problems and, at the same time, have disastrous consequences in our life if we don’t manage it constructively. In my story with the principal, I had a very strong physiological reaction (sweating, rapid heartbeat) just from hearing she was approaching, and my word choices were not the best. When we are angry, we tend to react instead of respond to the situation. Although my former principal and I were able to solve the situation, I am not proud of the way I handled myself at the beginning of the conversation. In retrospect, I should have tried to cool off before engaging again in the conversation by taking some deep breaths and stopping all the negative thoughts I was creating about my principal! Cullen and Brito Pons (2016) perfectly described what happened to me that day:
“In this state, we exaggerate all the negative qualities of the other person and become blind to positive attributes, which in turn feed the aversion. The complexity and nuance of the other is reduced to a monolithic negative cartoon called “the enemy”.
Triggers, Reactions and Negative Thoughts
Remember when we discussed how emotions drive us to take action? With anger, our reaction is generally what creates trouble… not the emotion itself. When we feel angry, it’s because our brain is trying to tell us “something needs to change”. And yes, your mouth can very quickly come up with clever remarks! But, generally, these first words don’t make things better… The goal is not to eliminate anger, but to manage it and create value through it.
Emotions are triggered by certain events; feeling misunderstood, not getting what you want, or experiencing injustice, can all trigger anger. A first step to manage anger constructively is to know what your “hot buttons” are before they are pushed!
Try this, make a list of the things that trigger your anger, and have students do the same. When we experience a strong emotion such as anger, we may feel as if we are out of control… in those situations, we may be unable to think clearly and our behavior tends to be reactive and not responsive. Being able to realize that we have choices when it comes to our behavior, even when we’re upset, is an important lesson and something we need to practice before we are angry. Who can contemplate choices when your mouth is like a volcano?
Once anger rises past a certain point, we need to find a way to express it in a way that feels good, but that it is appropriate or that causes the least damage. A second tool is to explore the ways in which you and your students generally react when angry. Do you tend to make passive aggressive comments? Do you interrupt others? Or maybe you become silent and without energy? Try this, make a second list of your usual reactions and have your students do the same. Did anybody write, “take a few breaths” or “leave the situation”? You are off to a great start! If nobody did, don’t worry. Let’s now look at ways in which you could respond, instead of reacting. These are some strategies that will help you “buy time” to regroup and refocus before lashing back impulsively. Choose one that works for you or come up with your own. Try it the next time you’re mildly upset with someone or something.
- Describe your anger in words. In Dr. Siegel’s words, “Name it to tame it”.
- Take a cooling-off break.
- Pause and slowly count to ten.
- Take a few deep breaths.
- Postpone the conversation.
In the situation with my former principal, my anger caused me to come up with many negative thoughts about her. When I was waiting for her to get to my classroom, I remembered all the other times when we had conflicts in the past and she was wrong. She became a monster in my head! This is because in the heat of anger, we only see and believe what confirms our anger. We distort reality, which helps perpetuate the feeling and makes it harder for the mind to see other perspectives. Our thoughts affect our emotions, sometimes increasing their intensity. These are some processes that might make us more upset. Question their validity!
- Labeling: “She is a dictator”. We may inflame our emotions by using a label to describe someone. After having that thought, there is nowhere to go.
- Mental filtering: “She is doing this to hurt me. Other people could finish the testing.” We may focus only on the information that agrees with our perspective, instead of thinking of alternatives. For example, asking who could help me solve this problem.
- Generalization: “She is always so rude”, “She never listens to what I need”. Words like “always” or “never” ignore all the exceptions and focus on the negative point you’re trying to prove.
- All-or-nothing: “If she makes me finish that testing, I am quitting”. This is interpreting reality as black or white. Is quitting necessary? Come on… you love your job!
- Mind reading: “She thinks I am a slacker”. When we are angry, we may find ourselves making assumptions about what others think about us.
As you can see, these cognitive distortions will continue feeding our anger and make the situation worse. The good news is that we can use our thoughts to guide our emotions to safe places! In order to counterbalance this unproductive line of thinking, try this:
- Notice the thoughts. Are you labeling the other person? Are you making assumptions about what they believe?
- Question your thoughts. Where is the evidence that proves these thoughts are true? Think about times when your statements don’t hold true. Refuting your negative thinking will open up the door to positive thinking.
- Think about positive outcomes. How can this problem be solved? How could I contribute?
Anger is a reaction to a real or perceived threat. It is a common emotion that can have disastrous consequences if we don’t know how to manage it constructively. Paying attention to our hot buttons, reflecting on the ways we react when angry and questioning our negative thoughts are powerful ways to build awareness and open the door to better decisions when we find ourselves in the heat of the moment. Do you talk with your students about anger? How do you help them manage it constructively? Please share in the comments below!
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