Most people would say that Brian is an easy-going guy. But those who know him well will tell you that he is also a guy who can periodically and suddenly blow up over the slightest of reasons.
Anne’s friends will tell you that she can turn on you in an instant. One minute she seems like she is in a good mood, the next she is in a rage. It’s hard to see when it’s coming on.
You might be lucky to catch Kate in a good mood, but more often than not it seems her default negative mode is some shade of anger, from low-boil irritability to high-boil blow-up. If you ask her what’s wrong, her standard answer is that she's just pissed.
Sam always seems on edge and can quickly assume a controlling, critical demeanor. Not surprisingly, his wife is getting fed up with this attitude.
Rachel knows what she wants and does whatever she needs to get it. She yells and screams at her employees and is tyrannical, even with her own children.
Anger is never just anger and there are several sources for it. Here are the most common ones:
Brian’s easy-going manner is in part fueled by the fact that he holds a lot in. When his supervisor screws up his work schedule he is apt to “let it go.” Ditto when his girlfriend is 20 minutes late...again. But these letting go points build up over time, and then with the right combination of stress or alcohol, it all explodes, leaving those around him a bit shocked and rattled. He apologizes, of course, but then starts the pattern all over again.
This is Anne’s problem. Unlike Brian who sits on anger until it explodes, Anne doesn’t. But what Anne doesn’t do well is be able to tell when her anger is building.
Kate may be struggling with two problems. One is that she is likely in a chronic state of irritable depression. The irritable behavior is obvious, but it is her thoughts and outlook that are depressed: Everything is gray, why bother, life's a struggle.
The other problem that can add fuel to her irritability is her limited emotional range. Anger or irritability is what she feels when hurt, tired, sad, frustrated…whatever. It’s not simply that she doesn’t have the right label for what she is feeling, she also genuinely has trouble discerning more subtle feelings, making anger and irritability her go-to emotion.
Sam seems to have a lot in common with Kate, and he may share her limited emotional range and depression. But what is driving his behavior is a hypervigilance — basically, he is anxious, giving others that sense that he is always on edge — and his criticism and control reflect his way of coping with this underlying anxiety.
Oftentimes such folks grew up in chaotic families where being hyper-alert to what is going on was the only way of trying to stay safe. You see often in people struggling with post-traumatic-stress-disorder — firefighters, vets — where traumatic events, and often unresolved grief, have left them wired for the disaster that is just around the next corner.
Finally, we come to Rachel. Rachel may be anxious like Sam, but more likely she is simply a bully. She feels entitled, is into power and continues what she does because it pays off — she gets what she wants.
What to do?
If Brian wants to stop his explosions that leave those around him rattled, he obviously needs to stop his internalization. This usually involves him slowing things down, asking himself how he really feels about the messed-up work schedule and taking steps to use his feelings to information to solve the problem.
Which brings him to his second underlying problem: He avoids confrontation. Talking to his supervisor about the schedule is likely to stir up old little-kid feelings of getting blow-back: being dismissed and blamed, or anger in response. Which is why he needs to take the risk to do exactly that, to find that his boss doesn’t act like his parents did. To do this he may need to craft an email and sent it, rather than doing the face-to-face, to build up his confidence.
Finally, Brian is in general too much in his head; he is running his life on shoulds rather than wants and is likely being over-responsible and having a hard time saying no. This easily leads to martyr behavior, which in turn leads to building resentment.
Anne needs to learn to detect subtle feelings of anger and to do that she too needs to slow down. To help with this learning process she can do check-ins — asking herself every hour how she is feeling on a 10-point scale — so she can begin to notice angry feelings at lower levels. Once she gets up to a six or seven it gets difficult to rein it in.
While she, too, like Anne, can also benefit from doing check-ins, her challenge is to learn to discern her feelings. When she gets up to a four or five she needs to ask herself what else she might be feeling besides her irritability: hurt, tired, sad, hungry, etc. For a while, she may have a difficult time telling, but by asking the questions she is rewiring her brain to be more sensitive. When she does detect another emotion, she needs to act on it by telling the person that hurt her feelings she is hurt, take a nap if she is tired, eat something if hungry. This will help ground these emotions.
Sam needs to have better ways to handle his anxiety. Medication can help; he may need professional treatment for his PTSD. When he starts to snap at his wife, she can help him by trying to not taking it personally and instead ask him what he is worried about, and he can begin to ask himself the same, all ways of tapping into the underlying source of his behavior.
Rachel would never read this because in her mind she doesn’t have a problem, only the people around her do. The only thing that might motivate her to change her behavior is if she found that her tactics weren’t working — that, for example, she had too high a staff turnover and she is losing money. She then may modify her approach not because of compassion towards others, but again, in order to get what she wants.
So, are any of these folks like someone you know? Are you like one of these people? Ready to take a look at your behavior and makes some changes?