Sidharth was busy late into the wee hours on that wintry December night celebrating with his friends the success of his project meeting with the overseas client. It was a Board Presentation and he just could not believe when the usually self-centred Project Head let him lead the show. It went so well that the client-side project owner seemed highly pleased with the deliverables. No wonder the celebrations with his close friends that followed rolled on and on for hours; everyone was in high spirits.
The alarm had rung, but he was too deep in sleep to notice. As he woke up and glanced at the watch, he was aghast. It was quarter past nine in the morning and he had the review and follow up meeting with the team at ten. With just ten minutes to go, he was still on the road, now caught in the snarling Bengaluru traffic. He did what he could at that desperate hour – he honked, screamed and fretted. He was literally red with rage and as soon as the traffic flow picked up, he pressed the accelerator, exasperated at the punishing hold-up. He banged head on to the vehicle in front and caused the cascading of more than a dozen cars into the pile that resulted. Uncontrolled anger had taken control of his response to the traffic gridlock that would have looked quite normal on a typical day. Anger is indeed a beast that gets on top once you allow it to!
Rita, a Financial Analyst with a global Investment Bank had just returned from a rather stressful day in her BKC Office in Mumbai. As she was settling down for a cup of coffee, the cell phone rang and she knew the boss had something new for her. “Urgent, I need it on my table tomorrow, first thing in the morning,” the words reverberated in her years even before they were uttered, for it had become a routine by now. “Not today”, she had hoped, since daughter Naina had asked her to help out in preparing for the next day’s elocution contest at school. Just as Rita pretended to sound pleasant to the boss and put down the phone, it rang again. This time it was Abhijit who was least apologetic in announcing that he would be late since there was a dinner meeting with a client. “Some men do still think they are from Mars! Me, myself and mine”, Rita grudgingly told herself. When Naina playfully came in and pestered for the practice session of the speech to start, Rita responded with an abrupt and harsh comment, “ You do it yourself, I just have no time”. The child, taken aback by the unexpected burst from her mother, went away crying and shut the door of her study with a bang. Rita knew for sure that anger had spoiled yet another evening.
The above are not isolated instances, but hundreds of variants of these situations are played out every day – players may vary, context may be different and intensity of the distress would depend on the perceived indignation.
Whether at office or at home, while dealing with friends or customers or even with total strangers, anger is something that can turn our world upside down in a second. Yet most of us treat it as something beyond our control and do not care to understand and manage it.
Anger has been a subject of scholastic exploration for ages. Aristotle, the much celebrated Philosopher of Ancient Greece who lived in 4th Century, BC is quoted as having commented, “Anybody can become angry - that is easy, but to be angry with the right person, to the right degree, at the right time, for the right purpose and in the right way - that is not within everybody's power.”
More than two thousand years after Aristotle, anger management remains an enigma of human behaviour. True, our understanding of the causes and consequences of anger has grown significantly over the years. Research has yielded pathbreaking insights into the complex and interdisciplinary nature of our cognitive and behavioural processes.
Today we know that anger is a natural human emotion and all of us do get angry at someone or some situation. Anger management does not mean learning never to get angry because that just cannot happen. The competence to handle anger with objectivity and composure is what makes our social skills resilient.
Why do people get angry? We can seek to understand the rationale of anger with the help of the refreshingly simple concept of the ‘three circles’ emotional regulation system. The concept was proposed by Professor Paul Raymond Gilbert , a British clinical psychologist, who founded the branch of positive psychology called Compassion Focused Therapy (CFT).
The three circles in Gilbert’s model of emotional regulation depict the intrinsic motivational system, that can be termed in layman’s language as the ‘mindset’ states of human behaviour. The three states are ‘threat’ (seeking protection from actual or perceived risks), ‘drive’ ( pursuing achievement, results and benefits ) and ‘soothing’ (focused on giving and receiving care, affection and peace) mindsets. There is constant interface and overlap among the three states as we go through the rough and tough of daily experiences. We do crave for the comfort and confidence of the soothing system without which we are prone to self-denigration when faced with underachievement or unhelpful circumstances. Our ability to seamlessly migrate from one mindset to another as appropriate to the situation in order to create a win-win behavioural context is critical to success in life and at work.
Anger often results from high threat perception and our inability to tap soothing signals and relationships. When fear and anxiety are aroused, we tend to regress to aggressive posturing. Our brains are wired for sudden defensive reflexes against possible attacks on our physical well-being. The most basic of our emotions are still the same animal instincts that guided our ancestors wandering in the forests, mindful of the imminent threat of annihilation by predators or nature. Perceived distress can drive us to irrational and insensitive responses.
Like any other behavioural pattern, anger also gets reinforced to be an “unconscious competence” or a habitual response as a result of prolonged and consistent practice. That is why dealing with anger needs conscious and persistent efforts to break from the ‘status quo’. Deliberate effort to identify the triggers and a dogged determination to go through a regimen of conscious behaviour change are critical to getting on top of our anger-proneness.
In his brilliant book, “The Compassionate Mind”(2009), Prof. Gilbert says that compassion to self and others is the underlying factor for emotional well-being. Truly, if you are not at peace with your own self and unable to engage in reassuring dialogue with the inner you, how can you expect others to treat you with respect and dignity?
Practice of mindfulness is recommended by experts as an effective technique for anger management. It trains our mind for emotional regulation. Prof. Jon Kabat-Zinn is an expert on Stress Reduction and Mindfulness at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, who has done extensive research and practice into Yoga and Buddhist meditation techniques. He defines mindfulness as “paying attention, on purpose, on the present moment, in a non-judgmental manner.” Exploring mindfulness and taking a guided initiation to mindfulness meditation could be a personal strategy for managing anger proneness. Neurosciences do recognise the great power of focused and regulated breathing in calming our minds and enabling positive behaviours.
When we focus on the present, our minds stay on the current thoughts, emotions and body state to the exclusion of the past or future. Brooding over past experiences usually triggers negative feelings of loss, frustration, errors, missed opportunities and the like. All the thoughts of why things didn't work out as one would have liked may lead us to externalise the causes for our lapses and misses. This may provide temporary solace because it helps us to rationalise our own responses of the past. But the outcome of such rationalisation would be reinforcement of our behaviour pattern that in the first place caused the distress. As we justify to ourselves the past behaviour, we are indeed closing the opportunity to change to a more balanced and conducive mindset. Likewise, dreaming of the future might also rob us of the much-needed attention and effort to reset the present behaviour and values.
It is important that we remain open and dispassionately self-critical if we want to change our behaviours. The truth is if you continue to do what you have always been doing you will continue to get the results that you have always been getting. On the other hand, focusing on the present moment with intensity and resolve makes us objective and open to change.
The practice of STOP technique, also recommended by Prof. Zinn , can help us break free of habitual behaviour. ‘STOP’ stands for ‘Stop, Take a Step Back, Observe and Proceed Mindfully.’ If we stop ourselves before discharging our anger or deciding to bury it deep in our subconscious mind, we would have an opportunity to be in control of the situation. Impulsive response would prompt us to forcefully express anger or ruefully ‘swallow’ the indignation. Either of these responses would be abdicating control over the situation. Impulse control techniques like ‘STOP’ can turn an out-of-control situation into one that is productive, fulfilling, and supportive of sustainable interpersonal relationships. Stepping back from the stress or the heat of the moment and deliberately giving a pause to the train of thought that builds up stress would be a far more desirable response than choosing to react.
Both mindfulness meditation and STOP technique help us to break the habitual urge to react to situations and trains our minds to respond – with a rational and objective thought about our action and its consequences.
If upon looking back at a distress situation that just passed, we are able to genuinely congratulate ourselves for being in control of our responses, we can be reassured that anger no longer is a weakness. On the other hand, regulated anger can even be an effective tool for negotiating and working successfully with others.
This is just an initiation to anger management and those serious to pursue the techniques would do well to study more and seek support and guidance of professional experts.
*Ravi Kumar Pillai is a practising strategy consultant, trainer, coach, mentor and start up enthusiast based in Trivandrum. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
Facts and views expressed in the article are that of the author