BLAST: 5 Steps to Curb your Anger.
Are toxic people making you angry often? Here's 5 principles from Acceptance & Commitment Therapy to help you deal with it.
Today I had the misfortunate of meeting an annoying pr*ck.
What happened made me angry. Like really, really blisteringly angry.
I usually go for a long swim at my condominium pool around the mid-afternoon. That's the time when it's most empty, and I get the luxury of swimming without having to snake my way through kids playing with water guns or bumping into some floating toddler.
The pool is an odd-shaped pool. It's something like a gigantic hour-glass. When the pool is empty, I usually swim straight down the middle, from top-to-bottom of the hour-glass.
Inevitably, there might always be another avid swimmer wanting to swim at the same time. We would still both try to swim along the same path, but have the "common sense" to keep a distance from one another and give each other space.
Unfortunately, common sense is uncommon and I met someone who decided to claim the whole pool for himself.
Let me get this straight - I was there alone in the pool first.
Since there was nobody else in the pool, I was swimming my usual laps straight through the middle.
I noticed this man jump into the pool and so I adjusted my swimming line to the side. It's kinda the nice thing to do isn't it? To be considerate and give him his own space to swim so we won't bump into each other.
And then he started swimming diagonally.
I promise you this. I really tried to stay away from him as much as possible. I swam such a tight line as close to the sides as possible.
Yet, few laps in.. Bam! We whack straight into each other and I got a breaststroke kick right into my ribs.
For the record, I swim freestyle all the time.
This means my head is usually faced down and and not looking forward. This guy on the other hand was swimming breaststroke - this means that he had clear line of sight he was going to hit me.
After that the crash, we both stood up and faced each other.
I half-expected him to say sorry, but was instead greeted by a silent, defiant look. So I said:
Me: "Hey, could you try to swim by the side so we can give each other space?"
Him: "YOU are the one getting in my space."
Me: "What? Can't you see I was swimming first and that I already moved to the side for you?"
Him: "You open your EYES BIG BIG. You are not swimming along the lane."
Me: "Er. What lane? There's no lane."
Him: "You blind is it. Look at the ground, the lane is the drainage holes on the floor."
Me: *Looks at the ground. Barely sees any drainage holes (there are 3 small ones)".
Me again: "Sorry, but I don't think that's a thing..."
Him: "That's why we crash into each other. You are not following the RULES".
Me: "Look man, you made up your own rules."
Him: "Fish you (not actual words)."
Me: "What the."
At this point, I was pretty annoyed by this weird confrontation and also getting quite angry.
This guy wasn't going to give in and by nature I'm not so much of a confrontational guy. Especially when it comes to irrational idiotic people.
My protocol is usually to walk away from absurd situations. I already stated my rational points and he didn't budge. Anything else I said would probably lead to unnecessary raging or an anger outburst, to which I wouldn't feel good about.
So I got out of the pool and went straight home.
My wife who was home at that point saw me visibly distressed as I walked through our front door. She asked me what happened and I shared with her the story, all the while pent-up anger brewed in me.
Anger stewing around in your body is not a healthy thing. It can really consume your thoughts and emotions. Your mind rages while your face feels like it's boiling up. It fills you with thoughts like:
Why is it so unfair!
If I see this guy again, I would...
I wish I had just scolded him...
He ruined my day..
All this was happening inside of me in those moments. I knew I had to do something about the anger and not let it take charge of the rest of my day.
I told my wife to give me some time and I went into my study to practice this.
BLAST: 5 steps to curb your anger.
This practice is basically taken from principles in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT).
ACT is a therapy that teaches you how to handle your thoughts and emotions better. Subconsciously, and sometimes consciously, we tend to struggle with our thoughts and feelings like an internal fight for control.
We tell ourselves we won't feel better until these "unwanted" thoughts and feelings go away and leave us alone. Seldom they do, and this struggle tends to go on for a while.
ACT teaches us an alternative way, to not push or pull or struggle with them, but to accept your thoughts and emotions and let them gently sit with you.
Here's the 5 BLAST steps to help you with anger:
Become Aware of Angry Thoughts
Label the Story behind it.
Accept what you cannot control.
Surf your anger emotions.
Take Value-based action.
1) Become Aware of Angry Thoughts.
Thinking about the last time someone made you angry - how long were you carrying your anger before you realised it had overtaken your mind?
Often times, anger happens so quickly we go from zero to a hundred in matter of seconds. Even when the situation is over, we carry that anger with us, lost in a mess of raging thoughts.
The first step is to turn your attention inwards and listen to what's going on in your mind.
When I went into my quiet study, I started by focusing on the content of my thoughts. These were thoughts like
"That guy is such an a**hole"
"I wish I had just told him off"
"Why do people like that exist"
Just try tuning in to your thoughts and pay conscious attention on them. Don't try to get rid of them or anything. Just let them be.
While doing so, make sure to take a few easy gentle breaths and just let those thoughts come and go, much like how stormy clouds come and go in the sky.
You might find that after a minute or two of doing so, you'll start to reconnect with what's happening in the moment. That what's happened has already happened and it doesn't have to control your life.
2) Label the story behind it.
Our stories are beliefs about ourselves and of others. We unconsciously carry many of such stories with us. They become like rules we use to make sense of our world and our daily life.
Much like how the diagonal-swimming douchebag had his own rules about an imaginary "swimming lane", our own rules are often invisible to others too.
Yet we still expect the world to run according to them, and we unknowingly get upset when these stories or rules gets disproven by our own actions or by those of others.
In this case, I was upset because my story that "People should be considerate" was being entirely torn apart. I often try to be considerate to others, and reciprocally, I believed that others should be considerate to me too.
Again, this story is much like a mental rule that I had developed along the course of my own experience. You might have your own rules that are entirely different from mine.
In the context of anger, another common story people carry is the story that "I need to be respected".
For some people, this story might develop out of a difficult tough experience, for example, being belittled or ignored when they were younger. It really is born out of a need to over-compensate for their past. For others, this story might develop out of personal success and the belief that they are entitled to differential respect.
Whatever your story is that has led to this anger, give it a name. Label it.
Then become aware, including in future situations, about how your anger has been triggered because of this story. Yet, know this, just like others might not obey your stories, you don't have to either.
You always have the choice to do what you want to do at each present moment.
3) Accept what you cannot control.
You can see from the above I tried to rationalise with this ignoramous. At least, I believe I was being quite rational. Yet, my attempts fell on defiant ears. He's still going to think whatever he wants to think.
And that my friend, is the truth of the world.
We cannot control other people. No matter what we say or do, whether they want to change or adapt to you is entirely up to them.
I know several people who think of themselves as "societal vigilantes". They purposely go all out to catch what they believe to be inconsiderate behaviour.
For example, a person I know hates the idea that people try to "chope" hawker-center tables by leaving a tissue paper there while they go and order their food.
(For those of you that are confused by this, it's an unspoken singaporean "norm").
This friend of mine would sneakily just take and keep those tissue papers, so when those poor buggers come back, they might find their "reserved" table taken by others.
Yet, does this really change anything? Most likely not, it will probably just lead to more anger.
The idea is this. If your attempts to control others is what's making you angry, then it's time to really realise the futility of it.
Let it go.
In that case, what can you really control? Well, that's simple, the only thing you can really control is yourself and what you choose to do each moment.
4) Surf your angry emotions.
Being bottled up with anger is a tough feeling. Often times, we look outward for an avenue to get rid of our anger.
What do you do when you get angry? Do you shout or scream? Do you take it out on others? Do you throw stuff around or rip things up?
Do you take it out on yourself?
Unless you're a professional boxer about to enter a championship ring, it's more likely that you try to get rid of your anger quickly.
We want to return back to that "baseline" as quick as we can, to regain that sense of calmness we had before someone or something had to ruin it.
Yet, think about it, it's actually through this rush to get rid of it that we actually get even more caught up with it. It leads us to struggle with anger in itself, and believe everything won't be good until we wrestle it away.
Again, if that hasn't been working well for you, then it's time to change tact.
Like all other emotions, anger comes and goes. There's this concept in ACT which teaches us how to "surf our emotions".
Try and picture this. Anger can sometimes seem like a big roaring ocean wave that's coming your way.
When we struggle with anger, it's the same as us trying to punch that big wave. It's going to have little effect and this wave is going to hit back with a lot more force.
On the other hand, you can try to swim away from that wave. Yet, anger is so much faster than you are. Haven't you tried so many times already to keep anger at bay? It'll still catch up with you no matter how hard you try and swim, and in the end, you'll still get caught and tossed about in the undercurrent.
Both ways are unsustainable ways of dealing with anger. They only lead you to get even more caught up with it.
Instead, try simply surfing the anger wave. Just let that wave come and rise up in you. It will pick you up to its crest, but soon you'll find yourself slowly floating down again.
In practice, this involves making space for your anger. Try closing your eyes, feel where that anger is in your body. Get a sense of what this angry sensation feels like and just let it sit there.
Feel it, and again, let it be.
Slowly, if you give it enough gentle attention, you will find that the emotion goes away on it's own.
5) Take Value-based action.
Lastly, as I practiced all the above, I could feel my anger slowly subside on its own. Note that in all the above practices, I didn't do anything to actively chase away the anger.
Really, it's all about becoming more aware of your thoughts, your mental stories and rules, realising that you cannot control others, as well as giving yourself space to really feel and pay attention to that anger.
It's the opposite of struggle. What it is, is acceptance.
As a final point, I want you to think about why you're reading this and why you're hoping to handle your anger better.
Has anger been taking away your precious time? Has anger gotten you in trouble before? Has anger gotten in the way of your relationships?
For me, continuing to be angry about the situation I faced with that swimming peanut-face is just going to take more time away from my day - time that I could be enjoying with my wife today.
I love my wife and it really matters to be that we spend quality time with each other and be happy. It's important to love her and make sure she feels loved too.
That is one of my values, and values are qualities of our life that matters most to us.
Likewise, what are your values? Do you want to let anger take you away from what matters most to you?
Why not learn to curb your anger and make the choice to focus on what really matters most to you instead?