Should you slap people when they make you mad?
Granted, it happens sometimes. Sometimes it even happens on a stage on live television with millions of people watching.
But it’s definitely not an appropriate or acceptable (or legal) way to handle your emotions. And yelling and cursing just dial up the anxiety in the room, so that’s not an option either.
So how do you deal with those impulses? The impulse to react instantly and dramatically to that which assaults your ego or offends you on some deep level?
Before I answer, let me say that I’m a work in progress in this area. I’ve learned a lot — mostly the hard way — about mindfulness and emotional regulation. And I still haven’t arrived at a place of mastery.
I’m a stuffer. I tend to collect my feelings and just stuff them down until they leak or explode out later. And after talking to a lot of people about this, I don’t think I’m alone.
Now, having read a dozen good books about anger, having talked about this in-depth with my therapist, and having discussed it a lot with my wife (who happens to be a highly skilled therapist), I want to share a big piece of advice with my fellow strugglers.
The secret to not hitting people or exploding when you’re angry is this…
Slow your body down.
Your brain has a certain physical form and it’s a complicated mix of neurons, synapses, and various chemicals moving around all the time. It’s dynamic and never stops changing. That’s the physical, biological makeup of the brain.
I like to use the word mind in distinction to the brain to refer to the unique personality that is you. Your mind is the seat of your emotions, intellect, and will. It’s the product or output of your brain, but because you have a will, you get to make choices that affect the development of your brain.
The mind is like a fortress. Within its walls, concealed from the rest of the world, is where all of your self-talk and prayer happen. People can hear what you say and see what you do, but cannot ever know absolutely for sure what your inner motivations and intentions are because they originate from deep inside a mind that is entirely your own and no one else’s.
When we perceive that our fortress is under attack, we set up our defenses and get ready to attack if necessary. Our brain goes into motion. Certain chemicals are released and our heart is told to get ready, so it speeds up. And when our heart speeds up, we are set on a crash course with the limits of our own rationality.
To put it simply, when you feel insulted, attacked, or offended, your body speeds up. It’s like pressing on the gas pedal to escape a pursuer. And the faster your mind works, the harder it is to control.
So here’s what you have to learn to do…
Slooooow it down.
When you feel that little switch getting flipped, it is absolutely essential that you slow your mind and your body down enough to gain control.
You’ve probably seen in action movies when someone with super speed starts moving, everything else slows down. The action winds down like a record player coming to a stop for just a second and then we observe what’s happening with Flash in The Justice League, Pietro Maximoff in The Avengers, or even better, when Hammy has an energy drink in Over the Hedge.
Create that effect for yourself in the moment of impulse. Put everything in slow motion.
Here’s how I do this:
- I close my eyes (assuming it’s safe to do so) so that I’m taking in as little stimulation with my senses as possible.
- I breathe at an intentionally slow pace, very deeply. And again. And again.
- I force my muscles to relax, particularly in the places where I’ve noticed them tensing up — my neck, my jaw, and my hands.
- I cut the volume of my voice in half, even if I wasn’t yelling.
- I cut the pace of my speech in half and talk very, very slowly.
Do I look weird doing all of this? Probably so. But this technique works when I’m willing to employ it.
So far, I haven’t ever hit anyone… except this one kid in the sixth grade, but that was at least partly in self-defense. Sort of.
Just remember these two words: Slow. Down.
Photo Credit: Stillness InMotion via Unsplash.