3Thu

Anger specialists (3): What are the aversive strategies I use?

This is post is the last post on this series of “Anger Specialists: Why do I continue to be angry.” In the next paragraphs I’ll describe how anger affects interpersonal relationships and how aversive strategies destroy what people crave the most: intimate relationships with others. 

Some people have said that anger makes them feel like “a bull that only sees red,” which makes total sense, since anger comes with an adrenaline rush that fires one up and unfortunately masks the internal struggle that occurs when one is faced with a problematic situation. This physiological reaction comes associated with specific beliefs or stories about the causes of one’s anger; for the most part, people struggling with problematic angry behaviors believe that their “anger is a direct result of the other person’s behavior.” In the voice of an angry person, they usually ask others to modify their behavior as a way to deal with their own difficulties. They may say, “Stop doing the things that upset me,” “Don’t make me upset.” As S. Stosny (2009) described on his post Living with an angry partner,” “Angry people see themselves as merely reacting to an unfair world;” they often feel offended when other’s demonstrate what they perceive to be general insensitivity to their “needs.” Instead of speaking from a place of struggle or discomfort, an angry person quickly speaks from a place of anger, which in turn leads to verbalizing painful words to those around them, and which hurts their relationships in the end.  

Anger, in the context of relationships, could be driving you to solve conflict or get what you want by using some aversive strategies, such as threats, calling names, denigrating others, or guilt-tripping them. All of these are effective methods in the short-term; they inflict pain and fear in others to the degree that others may pull back or give up. Some people struggling with anger even hold the belief that “I need to make sure that whoever upsets me faces the painful consequences of their behaviors so they don’t do it again.” Unfortunately, in the long run, aversive strategies completely damage your relationships. It’s just a matter of time. Most common aversive strategies include the following: 

Discounting: This strategy involves believing your partner’s needs, desires, and wants are not important as yours, either because your partner is not intelligent or good enough, or simply because that’s not how you see them. The bottom line is that people who discount others’ needs tend to think that whatever their own desires, concerns, or wants are they are valid and make sense, while others, who may not feel the same way, have needs that are not of great value or significance. An example of this strategy will look like:

– How can you tell me you’re stressed about changing jobs? Everyone does that, everyone on earth has to do it; I did it myself. You actually should be happy that you have an opportunity to do it and not have to go through what others do who are stuck at their jobs. You really should stop saying you’re stressed about it, come on!

Threatening: This particular aversive strategy could take the form of threatening with leaving, abandoning, or withdrawing from the relationship or whatever was offered to the other person. A person using this aversive method could easily say, “I tried to give you what you want but nothing is sufficient; if you want to take an expensive trip, I want to see how much it costs and what you intend to bring into the budget to cover it; otherwise I may have to use the same rationale and buy myself a nice jacket.”

Making your partner’s needs his or her own fault: On the one hand, this aversive strategy looks like blaming others’ behaviors as the source of your anger, but it could also show up as suggesting that the other person’s needs or desires are their fault. For instance, an angry person would say, “If you didn’t ask me to go with you to your boring professional gathering as a couple, we wouldn’t be having this argument.” 

You may or may not even be aware of how you’re using these strategies; it may be that friends or significant others have pointed them out to you here and there, or in fact, they reinforced the use of these aversive strategies because they do not realize how these strategies are significantly affecting your relationships. Nevertheless if you continue to find yourself with an ongoing degree of disappointment in regard to your relationships and if you are often angry, it’s time to pay close attention to how your angry behavior is affecting your relationship. It’s natural to not want to look within; most of us would rather focus on the other person’s behaviors as the source of our anger. However, “externalizing” responses or looking at others’ behaviors as the problem will take you only so far in your relationships; angry behaviors only lead to lack of intimacy. The emptiness and loneliness that come with lack of intimacy won’t change unless you do something about it; in fact, feelings of emptiness and loneliness will only grow faster and larger with time.

This information can make a difference, of course, only if you’re willing to face your anger issues from a place of courage. Courage in this context means, as R. Archer (2013) eloquently stated ” …. . . not the absence of fear, after all. It is being able to look straight at your darkest demons–straight in the eye–and refusing to back down.” If you’re dealing with anger issues, empty relationships, and wanting to change them, this is the time to do it; you won’t regret it. It won’t be easy, but it is not impossible.

Here are specific behaviors you could start implementing now:

1. Make a promise to yourself to stay calm for 24-hours.  
Staying calm for 24-hours translates into “no yelling; no lecturing; no raging; no calling people names; no making threats to others. It means constantly checking in on your breathing and body temperature so you can learn to self-regulate yourself. Diaphragmatic breathing is one of the most accessible and effective soothing exercises you can implement wherever you are.

2. Remove yourself from the situation and explain to people why you are doing it. 
Leaving a situation abruptly or screaming at others are angry behaviors that are not sustainable in a long-term relationship. Telling people “I’m realizing that I’m not ready to have this conversation right now because I’m feeling very upset to the point that I need to remove myself before I regret my words” is a more effective response when dealing with others.

3. Stop trying to control other’s responses.
In the past when you relied on any of the traditional angry strategies mentioned above, it’s quite likely that people may have stopped doing something upsetting to you because of your angry reaction. Once again, angry behaviors work, they get you want you want, but only temporarily. If you want to keep the relationship long-term, your angry behaviors need to stop. The alternative to angry behaviors is to fully accept that people at times will do things that are upsetting to you and there is nothing you can do about it. But there is a lot you can do about your response to these triggering situations. It’s not about what they do to you, it’s about you learning to make a skillful choice when responding to what irritates or upsets you.

4. Stop using aversive strategies such as calling names, denigrating, discounting, and/or threatening.
Name calling, denigrating, discounting, or threatening others makes you not only an angry person but also a person that relies on hostility and verbal aggression. In Potter-Effron’s (1994) words “the traditional angry communication style is rude and crude bully stuff.” Learning to ask for what you need, rather than demand what you need, is a very important skill. It’s not enough to use the words “please” and “thank you;” for instance, saying “please listen to what I have to say without interrupting or I’ll kick you out of the apartment” is not a request, it’s still a demand. Learning to ask for what you need also means learning to accept “no” as a response. You usually may operate under the rule of “I want it, and I want it right now, and you should give it to me.” Learning to accept the other’s person response without punishing them or withdrawing from them, but rather with a lot of respect, is the only way to build intimate and long-lasting relationships. 

5. Stop blaming others for your anger & learn to be accountable for your behaviors.
Focusing on what others have done to you and making them the source of your anger is called “an externalizing response.” Externalizing responses are a distraction from your struggle to looking within you and see how you are the owner of your mouth and everything that comes out of it, nobody else. 

6. Stop withdrawal behaviors.
Not saying anything and removing yourself from the situation by watching TV for hours on end, eating in silence, taking long silent walks, or hiding behind the newspaper or other books, will only make things worse. As. J. Gottman (1999)
pointed out, there are four lethal weapons to a relationship: criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling. Withdrawal is the same as stonewalling. Turning away from a fight is necessary at times, but turning away from a fight as a regular response is turning away from the possibility of creating a long-lasting relationship primarily because the parties involved are not learning how to deal with their differences.

7. Practice patience over and over.
Anger gets activated really quickly in real-life situations, and you need to be prepared for it. Because the anger switch goes on at an incredible speed, there are simple things you can do in the heat of the moment: breathe, breathe again, and do nothing. . . .Wait until the anger waves goes down. . . Hard to believe, right? The anger wave will go down if you learn to sit with your desire to scream, yell, prove you’re right and that others are wrong and not act on these desires. It may initially feel like you don’t have any choice when the anger switch goes on, but you actually do have a choice. You can easily do what your angry mind is telling you to in the moment, or you can make a choice about taking a step that feels counterintuitive: Breathe, breathe again, do nothing, say nothing, and wait until the anger wave goes down. Surfing the anger wave may feel like riding a wild horse. It’s intense, there is physical contraction, and the mind is like a gun machine shooting a hundred of words towards your target. Breathe, breathe again, do nothing, say nothing, and wait again until the anger wave goes down.

8. Choose who will run your life for the next 24-hours: you or the anger tiger?
Before going further with this particular recommendation, take a moment to think about the times in which you visualized your interpersonal personal values in life. Who did you want to be in the context of your relationships? Did you see yourself as a caring, compassionate, and forgiving person? Or maybe you saw an image of yourself celebrating your birthday with your best friends, in the midst of a wonderful marriage, and maybe with children running around. Take a couple of moments again to think about the person you want to be when dealing with others. The fact is that relationships are complicated and can surely be the source of struggle at times, but at the same time, they can be the source of fulfillment and meaning in life. Every time you engage in an angry behavior, and let’s emphasize, every time YOU engage in angry behavior, regardless of what happened in your environment, the anger tiger is in charge of that moment and if this happens often, the anger tiger is in charge of your life. Do you really enjoy being an angry person? If the answer is yes, there is nothing to do about it, it’s what it is. But if the answer is no, keep in the back of your mind the person you want to be when dealing with others. What are your interpersonal values? Are these values being honored when you’re acting in response to getting triggered by others’ behaviors? 

I can assure you that all the above recommendations will help you to create fulfilling, long-lasting, and meaningful relationships in life. I wish it were easier, but it takes constant work and commitment at the end.

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Written by:
Patricia E. Zurita Ona, Psy.D. is a psychologist at the East Bay Behavior Therapy Center. Dr. Zurita Ona can be contacted at ebbehaviortherapycenter@gmail.com.
Based on:
Potter-Efron, R. (1994). Angry all the time. An emergency guide to anger control. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications.
Eifert, G., Forsyth, J, & McKay, M. (2006). ACT on life not on anger. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications.
McKay, M., Rogers, P., & McKay, J. (2003). When anger hurts. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications.