Dear Dr. Norquist:
Anger is something that I feel often. I’m not happy with this aspect of who I am, but I have come to recognize it. It has been brought to my attention more than once in my 30 years! I recognize it, but I can’t seem to stop it. What can I do to be a less angry person?
Dr. Norquist responds:
Kudos for recognizing and taking responsibility for behaviors that you’d like to change. Half of the battle is already won!
I’d suggest that you start by bringing awareness to the physical sensations that precede your anger, such as a racing heart, a pounding head, or a tightening of your jaw, neck and arm muscles. Get to know your own physiological patterns. Become very aware of whenever you feel these physiological sensations as this will begin to empower you to make changes.
The moment that you notice the familiar physiological pattern, stop, take a deep breath and notice. Try to notice with a non-judgmental attitude. Just notice. Notice what thoughts, feelings, perceptions and impulses are in play in that moment. This is the body and mind behavioral pattern that you are going to change.
Becoming intimately aware of how you enact your habitual anger response is essential. How are you perceiving the situation? What assumptions are you making? What impulses towards action do you feel in your body, and in what muscles do you feel these impulses? Importantly, what are the triggers for your anger? Some possibilities include: feeling provoked or attacked; feeling slighted; feeling disappointed or let down (by yourself or others); feeling humiliated; feeling boxed in, or controlled; or feeling vulnerable.
Once you have familiarized yourself with your triggers, try to uncover the underlying assumptions or misunderstandings that fuel your anger. Are you seeing the whole picture? How does it look and feel from the perspective of any others who are involved? Try to don the perspective of an impartial, but compassionate witness.
We all have a network of subconscious beliefs and assumptions set down early in childhood when we first tried to make sense of the world we were experiencing. These assumptions fed our habitual perceptions of the world around us.
For example, if a child feels neglected, or not important to her parents, she can decide that she is not worthy and that she is angry about this slight. This belief in her unworthiness will guide her perceptions and reactions to events in her life, giving her a tendency to perceive in a manner that leaves her feeling angry.
What’s important here is to get to know your own perceptual habits. Once you uncover them, notice how and when you enact them. In doing this, you will be empowered to consciously develop and apply new beliefs. Try it and see what other questions arise. I’m excited to hear about your results!
(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. 2009 Chaitanya Counseling Services