If you’ve ever responded impulsively to a person or situation that triggered your anger, you’re familiar with the feeling of regret or guilt that followed your outburst. Once spoken, words cannot be taken back. Damage is done as soon as the words leave your lips. At best, the other person may forgive you, although they might not be able to forget for quite some time. At worst, you have hurt or offended the other person so deeply that a relationship is lost. The way to avoid experiences like this is to engage the thought process before engaging the vocal cords.
Think of a time when you said something in anger that you wish you hadn’t said. Let’s play the scenario back. This time, go back to an earlier point – a point just prior to where you became angry. Revisit the scene, recalling where you were, who was there, and what you and others were doing and saying. This should be a relatively calm scene – the “calm before the storm.” If it isn’t, you haven’t gone back far enough. Go back further, to a point where you can remember a sense of relative peace. Now, roll the tape forward, frame by frame. At what point did you begin to feel the slightest sense of fear, frustration, hurt, rejection, sadness, tension, or similar feelings? These are the feelings that most commonly lie underneath anger. If you had taken the time, at that moment, to think about how you were feeling, what thoughts would have run through your mind? Next, if you had taken a moment to identify the specific issue that triggered your feelings, what would that have been – for example, if you had asked yourself, “What specifically am I frustrated about?” or “What specifically did he or she do that felt like a rejection to me?” What’s important here is to focus only on the other person’s behavior, without ascribing any motive to why the person behaved that way. You’re not inside the other person’s head. Judgments about the other person’s behavior may or may not be valid, and will only serve to intensify whatever you are feeling.
Once you had identified a specific issue or behavior, you would have been in a position to determine whether your perception of the event or situation was real or distorted – that is, whether your feelings were based on what really happened or whether they were based on thoughts about the situation that arose in your own mind. If you concluded that your feelings were based on a true perception of the event or situation, then would have been the time to think about how you wanted to address how you felt, not with an emotional barrage but with a statement that captured all that needed to be said, for example, “I felt hurt when you spent the evening talking with Jennifer. The next time we go to a party together, I’d like you to pay more attention to me” or “I felt disrespected when you didn’t call to tell me you were running late. In the future, I’d like you to call me to let me know you’ll be late.”
In the scenario that you recalled above notice the thought process that you would have gone through before you said the regretful thing you said. Thinking before speaking clarifies the issue and helps you to decide what it is you really want the other person to hear – the feelings that got triggered for you when they spoke or behaved in a certain way. When you think before speaking, you’re likely to get more of what you need or want in the future.
Mary Ellen Halloran has a Master's degree in Counseling Psychology from the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco, CA and had a private psychotherapy practice in San Francisco before relocating back to the East Coast in 2007. In her practice she worked with many anger management clients, and in 2007 published a book entitled, "Anger: Let the Tiger Out, But Keep It on a Leash." In 2008 she opened Transitions Life Coaching where she offers anger management coaching by phone and in person. She is a Diplomate Member of the American Association of Anger Management Providers.