Dr Sophie's Blog
Dr Sophie Henshaw is a work stress strategist, author and doctor of psychology with a particular interest in dysfunctional workplace relationships. For the latest articles, please refer to her latest blog site: www.freespiritedme.com
How to Stop An Anger Attack In Its Tracks
He’s raging again. Getting right in your face, making wild accusations, attacking, criticising and blaming everyone else except himself. Every time he loses it, and it happens a lot, it feels interminable, like being trapped in an endless cycle of being someone else’s punching bag. It’s exhausting, upsetting, infuriating and you don’t know how much you can take or what to do, you just want it to stop.
If this describes an experience you keep having, there’s an effective strategy you can apply to protect yourself and gain control. There are 5 simple steps to follow:
- Take care of yourself first
- Decide on the outcome you want
- Take perspective
- Slowing down = mastery
1. Take Care Of Yourself First
The most important step is to look after your own feelings first and practise self-compassion. Take some quiet time to reflect on how these angry outbursts impact you. Are you losing sleep, feeling tense, anxious, and losing your appetite or your joy in life over this? If so, it’s important that these outbursts stop as soon as possible. How it stops depends on the answer to these questions:
- How much do I like/love this person? If this person is a close friend, partner or family member, then you have a high emotional investment in the relationship, which makes it important to deal with the issue head-on.
- How important is the relationship? Even if you don’t like/love the person, the relationship may still be important, such as if you are dealing with a key player at work.
- What if you don’t like him and the relationship is unimportant? Then you are wasting your valuable time and energy on this relationship. This person hasn’t earned what you’re giving and it’s time for damage control.
2. Decide On The Outcome You Want
Take a look at the bigger picture. What outcome do you want? That could range from a more harmonious relationship with a loved one to gaining an important promotion at work, in which case you will need to confront the issue directly.
Alternatively, there may be nothing for you to gain by putting up with this situation, in which case it may be wiser to extricate yourself from the relationship as soon as you can. That can take courage, especially if you are stuck in a situation that you are afraid to leave, for example a job you no longer enjoy but hang onto for financial reasons and to avoid getting a new job (the fear of the unknown). If this seems insurmountable, get professional support to help you get what you want fast.
3. Take Perspective
Now it’s time to deal with the anger attack directly. The first thing to do is to step back and take perspective. You need to create a space between you and the attacker so as to enable you to not take it personally or react defensively. You must maintain your cool. First take some distance physically by stepping back one or two paces. Sneezing is a good cover, say: “excuse me”, cover your face with your hand and turn away, so that backing off is perceived as a polite, considerate gesture. Next, take some space internally. Imagine stepping far back into yourself, creating as much psychological space as you can from this person. I like to imagine stepping away into the base of my spine and being tucked into a safe, protective space inside. Visualising yourself in an internal “panic room” with an alarm bell and reinforced concrete walls may also help.
Now you are in a position to diffuse the anger attack. Validate the person’s feelings, which will slow him down and take the heat out of the anger. This will require you to listen and say absolutely nothing except a validation statement, such as: “you sound really angry about that” or “I can hear how pissed off you are about this situation”. You may need to do this a few times before he eventually cools off. When you’ve heard what he has to say, encourage him to consider what he needs to solve the problem. Ask: “what do you need right now?” This will force him to stop and think, which is incompatible with anger. Whatever the reply, consider it carefully even if you decide it’s not feasible to do what he wants. Remain polite, calm and objective. Just being taken seriously will help him cool off. At this point, if there’s still some anger being expressed, you can pull out of the interaction by saying: “look, I need some time to think about what you’ve said. Let me consider it carefully and I’ll get back to you about it this afternoon”.
5. Slowing Down = Mastery
The key to this approach is to slow everything down. If you can gain control of the pace of the interaction, you have achieved mastery. Achieving mastery means that you will be well equipped to deal with other angry outbursts, anywhere else and with anyone else in the future. Remember, an angry person is out of control, which gives you ample opportunity to take control if you step in and claim the power. Diffusing anger is not an easy skill to master and it takes practice. But congratulations are in order if you have been courageous enough to try this approach and succeeded.