As a psychologist, I hear from my clients about how they find themselves lashing out at people around them because their nerves are so fried. Feeling scared, irritable or sad is uncomfortable. Verbally and physically acting out might bring temporary relief, but ultimately it harms our relationships and the people we care about and makes us feel even worse.
While it’s hard to stop our pain from morphing into anger, we can change how we respond to our emotions. Here are five strategies I share with my clients:
1. To act kindly, start with self-compassion
Good people feel bad about hurting dear ones when they explode, leading to feeling ashamed. And shame, in turn, leads to putting our heads in the sand to avoid dealing with reality. So you first need to accept that all humans are fallible. That will help in tackling the denial.
List the specific consequences of angry behaviors on people in your life. If you’re unsure how your actions affect others, ask them. Then check in with yourself. How do you feel after losing your temper? Are you achieving your goals by acting this way? Are these angry behaviors consistent with who you want to be as a partner, friend, parent, boss, coworker, neighbor or relative?
The answers will give you a sense of how much damage you’ve been causing both to others and to yourself. It’s important that you keep this in mind as you embark on behavior change.
2. Identify triggers and deal with underlying emotions
Take an inventory of typical situations in which you blow up. Are you most vulnerable at the end of the day — when you get home hungry and exhausted? Is your Achilles’ heel the hurt that comes with rejection? Maybe your spouse’s more-permissive parenting stokes your worry about children into enraged criticism.
It’s helpful to recognize your triggers so you can avoid or modify these contexts. For example, put off discussing difficult topics at home if you tend to feel trapped and explode there. Instead, have tough conversations with your partner during a walk. Or ask your roommates to give you some space when you’re feeling down if their intrusions tend to set you off.
3. Heed early physical signs of anger
This is the crux of how to stop lashing out in the moment. Focus on what’s going on in your body as you catch the beginning of your anger wave. Each anger episode starts with a fight-or-flight reaction. Do you have tightness in your chest or stomach? Feel flushed? Have clenched teeth or wrists? Dry mouth? Pounding heart? Figure out which sensation tends to show up first.
If you’re unable to stay with the wave without lashing out, try the next two strategies first.
4. Practice alternative behaviors
Rather than yelling, cursing or physically raging, consider leaving the situation. You’ll need to do it at the first sign of anger and should have a plan for how you’ll excuse yourself and where you’ll go. Give friends and relatives a heads-up that you’re working on your aggressive behaviors and that you might leave a situation somewhat abruptly. Saying you need to go to the bathroom or make a phone call is always a graceful way to remove yourself quickly.
Eventually, you will be able to engage in these calming strategies, even while staying in the anger-provoking situation.
5. Act opposite from your urges
What to do if someone lashes out at you
You might be left asking what to do when you find yourself on the receiving end of someone’s ire. When someone snaps at you, and you suspect they’re hurting underneath, calmly ask them what is going on. If that just escalates their angry behavior, disengage and don’t reengage before they’re ready to talk without lashing out.
If you get frustrated and angry in response to their anger and feel an urge to respond in kind, use the above strategies to stop yourself. No discussion has ever been productive while people are flying off the handle.