Dear Dr. Norquist:
I am ashamed to admit this but I feel I need help. I have a problem with controlling my anger. I have lost control of my temper several times over the past year or so, and lashed out at my wife. Once (last week), I was so angry that I pushed her into the wall. She wasn’t hurt (physically at least) but I’m still shocked that I let myself get so out of control that I would do such a thing. I saw my father hit my mother when I was a child and I swore I would never be like him. I’m so ashamed and down on myself and scared. My wife is dumbfounded and also in shock. It’s not who I’ve ever been. I’ve never hit anyone. And I don’t know why I got so angry. My wife was pre-occupied and not listening to me, and I couldn’t control my anger. We’ve been married for two years now, and it (from my point of view) has been great. I’m not sure how she feels now. She doesn’t know if she can trust me anymore. I don’t even trust myself right now. What should I do? I can’t let this happen again.
Dr. Norquist responds:
The fact that you are openly acknowledging this problem and reaching out for advice is a very positive sign. Losing control and physically expressing your anger is a serious problem, and one that can benefit from professional help. I can make several suggestions that may be helpful to you as you set about the task of permanently altering the way you respond to anger.
Before losing control, you probably had some physical symptoms or sensations warning you of the impending anger. It’s important that you identify exactly what these sensations are for you, so that you can consciously forewarn yourself before the impulse to hit or shove arises. Typical sensations of impending anger include a racing heartbeat, muscle tension (especially in the arms, hands and jaw), tightness in the throat, and/or a pounding sensation in the head.
Identifying your unique physiological response to anger gives you the opportunity to consciously choose to give yourself a time-out of sorts. Choosing to stop and take several slow deep breaths when you feel the physiological precursors to anger allows you the moment you need to choose to not respond impulsively. If after a few moments of conscious deep breathing, you are still not trusting your impulses, then it would be wise for you to physically back away from the situation. Let your wife know in these instances that you need a little space to think things through and to regain your composure, and then take a walk or go for a run. Be sure to let her know that you do want to continue the conversation when you are feeling more in control.
All of us have certain specific triggers that tend to result in an angry response. It’s important that you identity exactly what these triggers are for you – again, so that you can be forewarned and prepared, and choose a different response. One trigger for you may be the experience of not being seen or heard or acknowledged by someone who is important to you. Common triggers include feeling belittled, used, discounted, disempowered, helpless, or scared. Stress, lack of sleep, and excessive workload leave us more vulnerable to losing control. Sometimes the anger is diverted from somewhere or someone else, or is the expression of earlier hurts and resentments that were not expressed. In your case, having grown up with a father who hit his wife is a significant factor, the ramifications of which need to be understood.
Another technique that is quite disarming of anger is to change your perception of the situation. Put yourself in the others’ shoes and see how the situation feels and looks from their shoes. This broadened perspective often dissipates the anger. Anger is generally accompanied by a self-focused and self-righteous impulse to protect oneself. This state of mind that cannot be sustained once you see how it looks from the other’s perspective.
I hope these ideas will be helpful to you. Over time, with conscious effort on your part, you will be able to change this behavior. This will allow you to regain the trust of your wife, and most importantly, your own self-confidence and ability to trust yourself.
(Dr. Sallie Norquist is a licensed psychologist (NJ #2371) in private practice and is director of Chaitanya Counseling Services, a center for upliftment and enlivenment, in Hoboken.)Dr. Norquist and the staff of Chaitanya invite you to write them at Chaitanya Counseling Services, 51 Newark St., Suite 202, Hoboken, NJ 07030 or www.chaitanya.com or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org, or by fax at (201) 656-4700. Questions can address various topics, including relationships, life’s stresses, difficulties, mysteries and dilemmas, as well as questions related to managing stress or alternative ways of understanding health-related concerns. 2013 Chaitanya Counseling Services