Who hasn’t gotten a little steamed at someone recently? Maybe it’s the way someone always leaves the cabinet doors open. Or the gas tank empty. Or interrupts you in the staff meeting. Or cuts you off in traffic. And then jump on any social media platform and you’ll have plenty of opportunities to feel the anger rising . . . it’s understandable! But is that any way to live? There is a better way!
While doing research for The Kindness Challenge, I realized something important: when we are angry, most of us handle it wrong! Here are four ways to keep ourselves from losing our cool and then making things worse:
- In advance, realize: “venting” adds more fuel to the fire! Most of us have bought into the idea that letting a little steam out of the kettle now prevents it from exploding later, right? And taking a few minutes to vent to or about your spouse, child, boss, or that annoying social media post just feels quite satisfying when we have steam pouring out of our ears. The problem is, it turns out, it hurts instead of helps.
Neuroscientists such as Dr. Brad Bushman at Ohio State have discovered that actually expressing the anger we feel further activates an interconnected anger system in the brain and makes the kettle boil that much more. So while we can certainly express anger any time we want to, the question is whether we should if we want to keep our temper in check and preserve a relationship, a job, or our sanity.
- Instead of “letting off steam,” remove yourself from the heat. If we’re boiling and don’t want to be, the researchers suggest the equivalent of putting the lid on tight and removing the pot from the heat. When we decide to be calm (see below), it is the equivalent of smothering the anger and denying it oxygen to burn. And when we remove or distract ourselves from whatever is making us furious, we find our anger cooling off until, in many cases, we’re simply not angry anymore.
So when your co-worker expresses frustration that the boss made everyone work late last night, instead of chiming in with the “Yeah, and guess what else?!” additional grievances, calmly say “Yep, that was frustrating. So about these quarterly numbers…” And if the other person persists, excuse yourself, go back to your cube, and force yourself to think something more healthy. Like what else you were working on. Or that dream Caribbean vacation.
(One hint for husbands or boyfriends, though: given what we discovered in our research about how women are wired, if you have to remove yourself from an emotional conflict, be sure to reassure your wife or girlfriend that you two are okay and you’ll be able to talk about it later. That gives her the reassurance of your love that she needs to give you space without simmering and venting, herself.)
- Before you speak, pause. So how do you manage to respond “calmly” to your coworker (or spouse, or in laws…) when you’re just as mad as he or she is? Here’s the answer: force yourself to pause for a few seconds before you reply. Seriously. That allows your will to catch up with your roiling emotions, so you can decideto handle your words well. (If I reply to this now, it’s only going to make it worse. Best to ask if we can continue this conversation at 1:30.) More important, if you’re a person of faith, it also gives God a chance to touch your heart and steer your reply before you forge ahead with guns blazing, and cause casualties you’ll regret later.
So when you’re worried about your son’s progress in school and seven shades of upset that your husband didn’t agree to hire a tutor to help him, force yourself to pause and get your thoughts together before you speak. “Think before you speak” is one of the earliest lessons we teach our kids, and yet sometimes we forget it as adults. We need to relearn that skill, especially when it comes to those relationships that are most important to us.
- Apologize. Since we will not always do it right, despite all those strategies, we also need to practice apologies each and every time they are needed. “I’m sorry, honey. I know you care about Billy, and I shouldn’t have ever implied that you didn’t. Will you forgive me?” You don’t need to necessarily agree (“Maybe this weekend we could talk more specifically about why I think a tutor is so important, and how we can get the money to pay for it”) but you do need to apologize.
This is in part because our research with the happiest relationships found that we need to keep short accounts, be willing to make up, and always ask for forgiveness when we have wronged someone else—regardless of whether they have wronged us too. But also, because if we know we’re going to have to apologize if we let our temper run away with us, we’ll be far less likely to do it next time!
Tell yourself venting will make it worse. Remove yourself from the frustrating situation or focus on something else. Pause to let your ability to make a good choice catch up with you. And apologize if you don’t. Try those simple actions for just a few weeks and you’ll find yourself handling difficult emotions in a way that makes a big difference in your relationships.
Shaunti and Jeff Feldhahn are Harvard-trained social researchers and best-selling authors. Their books, including For Women Only, For Men Only, and The Kindness Challenge , have sold more 3 million copies around the world. Check out their new online courses at SurprisingHope.com. The Feldhahns live in Atlanta with their two kids and two cats who think they are dogs.
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