I was an instructor at the Learning Annex in NY City for many years. Classes ended at 9 pm and the ride home was a long one. One evening, after teaching an anger management course for three hours, I pulled into my driveway around 11 pm, exhausted and anxious to crawl into bed. I pulled my car into the garage and from there entered directly into the great room at the back of the house.
Suddenly, an ominous figure jumped out from behind the sideboard with arms extended over his head making a loud terrifying sound. Instinctively, I let out a blood-curdling scream while simultaneously swinging with a right jab to his shoulder. My poor husband screeched in pain. “Why’d you hit me?” he asked. “I was just playing around.” Really, I thought to myself? You jump out at me in the dark and scare the bejeezus out of me and you expect what – that I would throw my arms around you and say “Hi honey, how was your day?”
Intellectually I know that Mac was only playing. His silly playful side is one of the things I most love about him. But in the dark of night, one does not anticipate being greeted by their spouse in such an unorthodox manner. The initial fear (one of the root causes of anger) that surfaced in me elicited the basic fight or flight response. Had I been in a wide-opened area, my natural impulse would have been to run as fast as I could to get away from my perceived attacker. However, in this circumstance my only option was to protect myself through the use of physical force.
When I was dating my abuser, his violence was generally predictable. It was preceded by his growing anxiety, aggressive body posture, and increasingly demeaning vocabulary. In most instances, I was able to remove myself from him before he became physically abusive. On these occasions, my first choice was to get as far away as quickly as possible.
Humans are created with an innate need to self-preserve. When a real or perceived threat occurs our natural response is to protect ourselves from potential harm. Whether verbal, physical or psychological our reaction is very often instinctive. We do not consciously take the time to rationally assess the situation, explore all possible solutions, and make a determination as to which one will be the optimum choice. Very often we have a knee-jerk response to fear and lash out with aggression.
Have you ever been verbally attacked by a family member, friend or coworker and lashed out with a defensive retort? “If you don’t get all of your reports completed on time, I’m going to have to let you go”, your boss warns you sternly. Fear of being without employment compels you to shout back, “Your demands are insane! It’s impossible for anyone to get all of their work done on time. No one here even likes you!” The rationale is that if I am more threatening than my opponent, they will back down and leave me alone. In that moment, I feel safe and at ease. However, aggressive behavior, whether in the form of an attack or a response to one, is always rooted in fear and the outcome is rarely advantageous.
Rather than react to a situation, I recommend to my clients that they practice the SWaT Strategy*: Stop, Walk, and Talk. With the exception of a life or death situation, at the first sign that you are becoming agitated or upset, Stop what you are doing. Secondly, Walk away. Put some space between you and the other party. Thirdly, Talk yourself calm. Your internal dialogue, what you say to yourself, will either calm you down or cause your anger to escalate. Once calm, judiciously choose the best course of action – one that will benefit you as well as the other party and one that causes the least amount of distress to all concerned.
We all know those individuals or circumstances that trigger our anger. Whenever possible, avoid them. If that’s not feasible, plan ahead how you are going to respond to them. And if you’re caught off-guard as I was, utilize SWaT (not literally beating someone up as I did to my poor husband): Stop, Walk, and Talk. Lucky for me, Mac’s pretty easygoing and forgave me. Happily, we’re still together. But had I been married to Joe Frasier – he would have been proud of me!
*From The Secret Side of Anger
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