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Anger Management


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“Peace is not
the absence of conflict,
but the ability to cope with it”

Dorothy Thompson



To: James A. Baker
From: Satisfied Client of Anger Busting™

*This document has not been edited or changed in any way. It is as received by me. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I did. Jim Baker

My Adventures With Anger Management

“You know, I haven’t taken the medicine or used the eye drops you prescribed. I’m too busy! Listen, what I want to know is, why can’t I see better? Look, I’m starting to get pissed off—you aren’t doing anything to help me!”

I smile and calmly explain for the twenty-third time what the problem is, why the medicine is necessary, and why she isn’t seeing better. “It’s medicine, Mrs. Smith—it’s supposed to help you. Why do you think they charge so much money for it? If you don’t take it, you won’t get better!”

After another thirty minutes back and forth, my 10:00 grudgingly agrees to “think about” whether she’ll take the medicine and drops. “I never heard of a doctor who doesn’t make you better!”

I smile and she leaves. My technician hears me sigh and roll my eyes. It’s 12:00 and the rest of my morning’s going to be angry. Well, tough. I look forward to the day ending, fifteen angry people, ten phone calls, and twenty dictated letters from now.

Seven hours later I’m on the road. Someone cuts me off--@%#&! Idiot! But, aside from screaming inside my car, I just keep motoring on. Someday, he’ll get in an accident, hopefully fatal. Improve the gene pool a bit! A grimace and a laugh and I continue on my way.

I get home. I’ve got a long day of smiling at people when I just want to scream at them, morons on the road, stuff piled up at home and at work. I’m tense, seething, and every nerve in my body seems to be firing at once.

And then, someone at home says something. Anything would be the wrong thing.

And I explode: screaming, profanity, cutting remarks, sarcasm, and maybe something kicked or punched to punctuate my scintillating monologue. And I notice my family looking at me like I’m a raving maniac. Why?

And later, my wife tells me I overreacted. And I don’t agree. I mean—yeah, I guess asking me to find my travel receipts wasn’t necessarily a felony. But overreacting? To the day I had?

You had to be there to get it!

* * *

One evening I took out a 3/8” ballistic glass panel at my wife’s business. The panel was part of her office door, which some moron locked (the moron was me, in fact)—my car keys were inside, I was late to pick up my daughter, and I’d had a less-than-perfect day at the office. When I found out that the key was not instantly available (my wife was driving in with it), the correct thing seemed to be to break in the door. Since I wasn’t thinking logically, I let my ANGER made the decisions for me: my 230 pounds hit the door like a hammer. The rest is history.

Oddly enough, my wife didn’t see the logic behind my taking out her door; nor did the many people who come and go at the Tennis Center. I think that “Neanderthal” was probably the most complimentary term applied to me for a few weeks. I don’t need to review the scene at home—any reader who’s ever been outside in minus 40 degree weather can imagine the situation.

Clearly I was in trouble: very big trouble. And I couldn’t really explain, even to myself, why it made sense for me to smash in the door. I certainly wasn’t in fear for my life or rescuing someone else. I actually felt ashamed and bewildered about why things had happened the way they did. In my business, “bewildered” is not a thing I usually let myself feel. Usually, my mind has something to do with my behavior; in this case as in many cases in the past, my mind was somewhere else as events unfolded around me.

You had to be there to get it.

* * *

Desperate situations call for extreme remedies. I found myself typing “anger management training” on my browser screen and up popped a long list of links. The first on the list was “angermanagementseminar.com.” I read the short blurb—it sounded good, to the point, no touchy-feely BS. I clicked on it and started reading the home page, taking things in as rapidly as anyone terrified of losing his family can do.

Literally, my life was on the line here. I clicked on the “contact us” link after putting in my e-mail address, and e-mailed my query. “I have a problem. What do I do now?” I figured I’d look at some other sites, but decided to check my in-box. There was an e-mail from James Baker, and a life-changing dialogue began.

First, the questions: no drugs, no alcohol, no physical abuse of persons (objects were broken at times), no associated psychiatric diagnoses. I seemed to be a perpetually angry man with a major problem with self-control (well, at home with the people who matter the most, not in the office) and a very bad temper.

Second, the beginnings of a solution emerged. No profanity was allowed. That one surprised me—why profanity was one of my real talents! The answer was staring at me from the computer screen. My hearers don’t necessarily have a problem with profanity—I have a problem with self-control. Profanity is a fuel which gets my anger going, like an accelerant poured on a flame. Then, other directives came thick and fast: no sarcasm, no criticism, no arguing, no “free” advice, no yelling at motorists, no hostile touching, no rapid-fire corrections of other members of my family. What about my mission as a role model and educator of my children? Didn’t they need to hear from me on a second by second basis how to improve (or at least yell at motorists more effectively) and become like me?

For a moment, it all seemed overwhelming. And then I began to get it: confrontations get my anger started. My problem was rooted in a lack of any braking mechanism—I accelerated and kindled my rage until I crashed and did something so rotten that it stopped me short, or everyone around me just ran away. Either way, the outcome was inevitably going to be bad for me and everyone around me.

What would I do with a brand new sports car with no brakes? Leave it in the garage, of course. I could see that my anger had a similar dynamic, and a similar remedy applied.

In a way, this stuff made sense.

* * *

The next item of business was to take the on-line course, which I did. I won’t go over that in detail. Take it, if you haven’t done so already. It is $45.00 well spent. I found it practical and oriented toward a solution to the problem of dealing with anger. I freely admit that I have deeper problems which will need a great deal of work in the years to come; getting the anger out of the way is critical to buying me the time to solve those problems.

An early indication that this anger management stuff was working came 48 hours after my initial query. I’ll quote my e-mail written at the time:

“ Now, part 2--incident 3 days ago. I was at the computer working on a lesson, when I heard a tremendous crash which I knew meant that something or someone went down the stairs. From the wailing, I knew it was my 23 month old. Ordinarily, I'd have let out a loud "F---!" and blasted out a blue streak of profanity as I tore upstairs. I decided to try something different--pretend to be a doctor at home. So I went up quietly, did a quick assessment of the little guy (who went down in a tent, the result of a game gone wrong)--scared, but not seriously hurt.

“Upstairs my 12 year old son is pounding his eight year old brother who he blames for the accident. The boy is sobbing uncontrollably. I raise my voice in a tone I've heard police and firemen use on scene, and said, "The baby is NOT hurt. The baby is all right."

“At that point, I discovered something interesting--everyone is looking at me for guidance. My wife goes down to the baby, and I separate the boys. I calm the eight year old down by holding him, speaking in a level tone of voice, reiterating that his brother is fine. I had him squeeze my two fingers for thirty seconds as hard as he could with each hand and then relax, and repeat several times, an old relaxation technique I use with patients. After about a minute, he was coherent and I set the game up again in a safer location. Obviously, my 12 year old son has learned to use me as a role model.

”But, I discovered that rage doesn't address my scared and powerless feelings--actually, being the calmest guy in the room also made me the most powerful guy in the room. Interesting discovery (as a doctor in the office, I always pretend to be calm) at age 48.”

The take-home message for me was to behave differently than I would have in the past, to act like the person I hope to be immediately. Phrased differently, if I act the way I once did, I will get the same results I did in the past. That is not the same as becoming a different person—modifying my self will take a great deal of time and effort. Modifying my behavior allows me to get the help and support of the most important allies I have: my family.

* * *

I relearned some interesting things. I was reminded that Walter Cannon, the eminent American physiologist, did important work on the activity of the autonomic nervous system (the “fight or flight” model of behavior) and its control by the Amygdala. The amygdala is a structure at the base of the brain which takes over in emergencies and drives you forward into a crisis or backwards out of one; the conscious mind is cut out of the loop for a few seconds. That’s just long enough to take out a glass door panel! This made perfect sense to me—I aced physiology in grad school and med school.

Now some of the other recommendations from the course began to make sense. Banned behaviors, no profanity, avoiding angry confrontations, relaxation techniques—all were oriented toward defeating the tendency of the amygdala to step in and take over any tense situation. It seemed to make sense that I had a Schwarzenegger amygdala in a Dustin Hoffman body.

I was also focused on practically assessing how other people were communicating with me (as children, parents, or adults), and I with them. I learned to recognize signs of anger in myself and others in order to arrest anger in myself and deflect it in others. I noted the four different styles of expressing anger (I show all three of the “bad” styles in different environments) including “assertiveness,” which is appropriate expression of disagreement. I also learned about the Jo-Hari window as a way of assessing how I came across to other people. Finally, I learned about the importance of body language, tone of voice, and speech content in communicating with other people (the 60-30-10 model); it still surprises me how little my words matter as compared with my expression and voice.

If all of this reads like Sanskrit to you, take the course. There is an intellectual foundation beyond “Don’t do bad things!”

Ultimately, I learned two extremely valuable techniques from the on-line course. I call them my Ninja Anger Avoidance techniques. The first one is, “silence”. Don’t come back when someone says something provocative a reply in a microsecond. That’s your amygdala’s response timeline. Instead, sip on that nice hot cup of “Shut the heck up!” you’ve been brewing. I add a benign smile and a chuckle for flavor. It tastes better than a fight. The second effective technique is “agreement”. “Huh, you know I think you’re right about that!” Again, use the benign tone of voice and the smile. It takes minutes of training to perfect these trouble avoidance maneuvers; the results can last a lifetime.

There are other things I’ve learned about myself which I will struggle with for a long time to come. I don’t compliment people and don’t believe compliments when they come my way. I rarely forgive a wrong done to me and never forget it. I often replay angry moments in my mind to figure out how I could have been even better at being angry. I still seethe about things that happened decades ago, which affects me even now. I use sarcasm and cutting humor to express anger in disguise. I carry resentment around with me all the time—thus, things that happened last week or last year influence how I will react to something that happens two seconds from now. Until it plays out, I don’t see the connection and the people around me don’t either. Only my amygdala knows for sure!

The model I use day to day is that of the battery. I can store anger efficiently like a new battery takes electrical charge easily. I can carry that charge for unlimited times, and release it full-force in a fraction of the time it takes me to think, “What’s going on here?” My goal each day is to begin with a discharged battery and try to remove any anger that I feel before it accumulates in my battery. Sometimes the discharging mechanism goes on “overload” and I need to get up and leave for a while.

I never used to walk away from a dispute or an argument. I was at my best giving it to the other person right in the face! The interesting realization I’ve made through the course is that anger is an addiction. My body craves the energy, the chemicals flowing in my blood and extracellular fluid, the nerves firing like machine guns. Like most addictions, the anger is not under my control but it does influence my behavior: thus, I am out of control when I am angry. So, while I’ve missed out on most of my genetically-determined addictions, anger remains part of my inheritance.

I wait for what tomorrow brings with both worry and anticipation. I hope to do better than I did today. To those who’ve never smashed in a door and don’t understand the problem with uncontrolled rage, I’d say,

“You have to be there to get it.”

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