I was in the car on my way to a meeting, when I saw two cars on the road ahead that were clearly stopped and parked at rather odd angles. "Oh dear," I thought, "this could be an accident, I'd better see if anyone is hurt". As I got closer, I saw the driver of the first car get out and walk back towards the driver's door of the second vehicle.
He then grabbed the door handle of the second car and shook it quite violently, trying to open it, simultaneously banging on the window with his other hand. It was by now quite obvious from his stance, his demeanour and the snarl on his face, that this was not an accident; this was road rage in full flight.
Fortunately the second driver had locked the door and the first man having shouted a few juicy sounding expletives and unable to access the second driver, stomped off back to his own vehicle.
There were a number of witnesses about and I decided I didn't need to stop, so I carefully manoeuvred my car to get past them both.
I was left wondering what the incident had been that had sparked such rage and wondered whether the man who had appeared so angry was often like that, or if this was a "one-off" uncharacteristic response provoked by the situation.
I also wondered whether he had any idea of how menacing and frightening he appeared at that moment. What if he could have watched his behaviour at a later time and reflected on how this situation could have been managed differently - would that make him less likely to react the same way another time?
Louise Altman, author of the Intentional Workplace writes some very insightful pieces and her latest blog was coincidentally about anger. She talks about how we manifest our anger as those feelings that express our hurt, fear and frustration and shares the great quote from Thich Nhat Hahn “Anger can be a wonderful wake up call to help you to understand what you need and what you value.”
It is our choice of how we respond to those needs and values.
If we choose to explore our anger, then it may reveal something we hadn't realised about ourselves.
Of course anger is only one of many powerful emotions that we experience as feelings. It is our ability to respond "appropriately" to a particular situation that forms the basis of what is called our emotional intelligence.
We often intuitively know that expressing strong or very negative emotion may not only be socially unacceptable, yet it is not always easy to have the sufficient skill and self-awareness to quickly and effectively diminish those emotions to a more manageable level.
Being of English extraction, I spent years cultivating the skill of the "stiff upper lip", choosing not to reveal my true emotions because it was deemed "un-British", "a weakness", and a "professional no-no". Yes, I became a black-belt master in emotional suppression: damping it all down and keeping it under wraps to reveal later in private, or possibly not at all.
Neuroscience has revealed that emotional suppression is the worst way of regulating our emotions because it has the opposite effect of what we intend it to do. If you suppress your feelings, your amygdala, the part of the limbic system associated with processing emotion becomes more activated, not less. Moreover, anyone with you will either consciously or subconsciously know what you are doing, which causes their amygdala to fire up and elevate their blood pressure! Now you have two upset people.
Matt Lieberman from UCLA has reported how "labelling" the emotion you feel is a far better way of reducing tension. Simply saying to yourself "I feel angry, I am really cross" allows your conscious mind to acknowledge the feeling and allow it to dissipate.
Reframing or reappraisal are two very powerful tools that can aid to keep things in perspective.
In the road rage incident, the first driver who was clearly feeling aggrieved could have labelled his feelings. "I am really angry and frustrated by this idiot who nearly caused an accident."
He could have reframed the situation by asking: Was the driver of the second vehicle unwell, distracted (or just an idiot)? We don't know what is going on inside someone else's head at any given moment. They could have been daydreaming or worrying about an issue concerning a family member or something going on at work or just made an error of judgment. We are after all; all human and humans make mistakes.
The ability to use these techniques is enormously powerful to just "let go" of otherwise potentially explosive and kneejerk reactions.
Our strongest feelings often come from a place of fear that we then manifest against someone else.
So how do you manage fear and your anger?
Are you in a work environment or personal situation that exposes you to another person's anger that you recognise is coming from their own fear, inadequacies, guilt or shame?
And if so, how can you help them to manage their emotions differently?
Dr Jeffery Schwartz is presenting on Tuesday night at UWA extension and in part will be discussing how you can use reappraisal and reframing to mindfully manage those situations where you might otherwise experience intense fear or distress. In his book "You Are Not Your Brain" he outlines four simple steps:
to help you focus your attention so as to retrain your brain and up-skill in those areas you determine need some attention.
If you have a ticket, I look forward to seeing you there.
Until next time,