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Friday, May 21, 2010

Thinking While Angry

I have taught myself to creatively problem solve while angry. It was a very strange skill to learn, not a skill which I'd recommend to others. Better to not to get to this level in your ability to have to manage anger in the first place!

Twenty years ago, I had a relationship going with a person who was quite skilled in being manipulative. When I entered into the relationship, I observed that he also possessed ethics on when and where to apply his considerable skills in argumentation and debate. Ten years into the relationship, he eventually used his superior memory recall and debate skills to fight with me - something which I did not anticipate would ever happen. I had to firmly establish my boundaries and keep them in place as he decided that all things we had established and agreed upon previously were renegotiable. It was a trying time, but I managed it.

He came to expect me to do so. Had I not groomed the ability to creatively problem solve possible options of what to do next in spite of being angry, our relationship would have ended immediately. As it became clear later that staying in the relationship had become a toss-up whether it was good or bad for me personally, I was relieved when the relationship fell apart for practical reasons. I'm sure that the demands for training the skill to be able to problem solve while angry mitigated unpleasant reactions and effects; but perhaps it also prolonged the inevitable conflicts that later ended the relationship.

A more common situation where this skill would be useful to model would be during the parenting of teens - who again, would come to believe that everything should be renegotiated.

There were some prerequisite skills to make this ability possible. These were the ability to stop, pause or interrupt one's own habitual reaction. This can be best practiced when one is not in the throes of an intense emotion. It requires quite a bit of practice concerning the ability to surrender one's goal. There is a short window of time, (a quarter-second,) available to veto an action. You are already preparing to act as soon as you think of doing so, long before you realize you "want" to do something. It's quite telling when people around you believe you have first gotten angry - usually this is quite a bit further back before you realize it yourself.

Because of this lack of awareness, it's very difficult to veto a reaction that has already begun. This skill implies sophisticated exploration of expectations. Also useful during the learning process are pointedly specific observations of how a specific person's anger routinely works.

I learned this skill through the study of Alexander Technique. I'm not sure there is any other forum to learn such a thing, but I imagine anger management class would have these elements. Most commonly, this skill is usually described negatively as "poor impulse control." As far as I know, there is not any place suggested where "good impulse control" is taught - other than very early in life by parental guidance.

There is recently a field of study that seems to teach this skill specifically, but it's tailored toward adults. It's in the negotiation field, ( "Appreciative Inquiry,") the field of mediation or arbitration. Also, at there are free e-books on communication tools that seem quite useful. Some interesting books on this are classics in negotiation by Ury and Fisher. It's a series that started with "Getting to Yes." "Getting Past No, dealing with difficult people" More recently Fisher wrote a book with a guy named Shapiro dealing with how to manage emotions during negotiation called "Beyond Reason, using emotions as you negotiate."

Most of these contain stories and philosophy, but some of them provide practice suggestions. It's those offerings of practice that are most effective.

In an ongoing relationship, it is a good thing to make the general agreement that only one person in an argument is allowed to be "out of control." Obviously, it's best for the longevity of the relationship if safe expression of anger can happen as this role is rotated. It has been documented that women in particular suffer quite a bit in their health more than men if they do not speak up and make their "not very nice" concerns known.

I did hear about a study where four year olds were told that if they waited to eat something yummy, they could have twice as much of it when the grownups returned. Or they could eat the smaller portion that was in front of them now. The study afterwards followed the kids as they grew up who managed to wait compared to those who did not. It was found the ability to wait possibly resulted in a significant difference in general achievement.

My own mother was also a great model for how to deal with anger. She and my sister used to fight when I was a kid. By the time I became a teen, she had learned a few things about anger. She told me that people do not bother to get angry if they are not concerned about the relationship. She also modeled "cleaner" ways to fight. She never brought up "the kitchen sink" i.e: unrelated issues. She never tried to wound intentionally, retaliate or say things she might regret later. She would never accused me of being stupid and managed to resist telling me to do what she did not want me to do. But she would yell when she was upset, "I thought you're smart enough to think ahead about how your actions affect others."  Her words were quite carefully selected. This instead of the classic name-calling angry routine of: "You thoughtless, selfish, cruel complainer. Why should what you want come first?"

She also made it quite clear to me that people who are out of control while angry say things they don't mean. She said this is mostly because people get scared - fear is a big component of anger. She gave me ways to calm myself down when I got angry and left me the time and place to do so. Then she modeled the ability to talk out the concerns that made us want to get angry with each other, once we were calmed down enough to figure out what we really thought and wanted.

So it was this fortunate, firm foundation, along with learning Alexander Technique, that led me to be able to manage to learn later to creatively problem solve and actually think while angry. I believe it's a rare thing. It should be more common.

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