How to Stop Your Anger from Hijacking Your Mouth
Five tips to stop saying stupid and hurtful things when you're stressed.
Posted Sep 26, 2020
When your frustration and rage hijack your brain, you only see people as irritating and wasting your time. They say thoughtless and stupid things. You roll your eyes, sneer, and respond with deep disdain. Harvard Medical School assistant professor Carol Kauffman calls this having a contempt attack.1 Like a panic attack, it arises suddenly and takes over completely.
In the transcript, How Not to Be Stupid, author and chess master Adam Robinson said that stupidity is not the opposite of intelligence; it is the cost of intelligence operating in a complex environment.2
Stress limits cognitive functioning as well as overproducing the toxic hormone, cortisol, causing depression, irritability, and weight gain, among other distressing conditions.3 Your ability to think straight is compromised, which further frustrates you. Your patience is tapped out. You can barely keep from screaming. The reaction is often to lace your statements with contempt. Examples include:
- I don’t know what you are talking about. Give me an example (and then I’ll prove you wrong or shoot down your example as insignificant).
- Last week you said this. Now you say this. Do you remember what you said?
- You haven’t done your share (according to my rules).
- You don’t honestly believe that, do you?
- I don’t need the preamble. Just tell me what you want.
No one likes to feel belittled or wrong. They may get defensive or just shut down. You could even damage a relationship with multiple attacks.
Creating Psychological Safety
When you speak with contempt, people don’t feel safe with you. They fear being shamed, hurt, or embarrassed by your reactions. You need to create and maintain psychological safety in your conversations even if you are hoping to change someone’s behavior.
Your emotions are powerful. You must be aware when your body is tightening up and your anger is seeping out. If you recognize your irritation or disdain, you might be able to regain control before you speak.
Can you choose to be kind? Remind yourself of who this person is and what they most want from you right now. If you find yourself looking down on them, can you remember what actions they took that supported you in the past? If you can’t think of anything in the moment, then take a deep breath and speak slowly.
Here are five guidelines for managing your mouth when you speak:
- Remember how much you care for someone before letting words leave your lips. Seek to understand the intention of their behavior before you judge them as bad or insensitive.
- Make sure your words are congruent with your gestures. Your facial expressions and posture have more of an effect than the careful words you choose.
- After you speak, listen with an open mind and heart. When you close yourself off from others, you disconnect from them. Remember that everyone speaks and acts based on their unique life experiences which differ from yours.
- When your body tightens up, pause and breathe to release the tension. Relax before you share how their words or actions made you feel.
- Temper your honesty with tact. If you need to share how their behavior felt hurtful, tell your truth with care. Be kind, not cruel.
Manage Your Energy
Your ability to be thoughtful and manage your reactions is hurt by sleep deprivation, poor nutrition, noise pollution, excessive conflict, lack of money, and a shortage of friends. If you don’t take care of yourself, you will have a difficult time being careful with others.
Take mental breaks—five minutes or more—throughout the day. Let go of your thoughts. Relax your body. Detach from the world as best as you can. Maybe you can do a few quick exercises, read a few pages of fiction or poetry, or be with the trees, plants, or flowers nearby. Ride the wave of relief and lightness as long as you can before going back to your work and responsibilities.
Also, be careful of taking on other people’s emotions in these trying times. If you embody other people’s difficult emotions, you will live with their suffering. If instead, you notice how they feel, and with compassionate curiosity, hold the space for them to safely express themselves, you can better help them find solutions to their dilemmas.
Take care with your conversations. We humans are social animals—we survive through healthy relationships. Regulate your emotions so others feel cared for as you manage what comes out of your mouth.
1 Carol Kauffman, Without Compassion, Resilient Leaders Will Fall Short, Harvard Business Review, August 21, 2020.
2 Adam Robinson, Winning at the Great Game, podcast with The Knowledge Project (Part 1) Dec 11, 2018.
Michael Lam, MD, MPH; Carrie Lam, MD; Jeremy Lam, MD. Signs and Symptoms: Irritability and Adrenal Fatigue, posted on Dr. Lam Coaching, 2016.