Case #1: Jeanette and Tom had been married 15 years. Wanting to surprise him for his birthday, Jeanette, with her own money, bought Tom a big-screen LCD television.
Tom’s reaction? He instantly blew up and berated Jeanette for spending so much money — buying more television than they needed, a bigger model than they had previously looked at together.
Jeanette was dumbfounded at Tom’s reaction; she truly thought this would be a gift that would greatly please him.
Case #2: Jim was having a friendly beer with his brother-in-law Jack when the discussion turned to Jack’s success in life. Wanting to compliment him, Jim commented on how far he had come, how proud of himself he must be and how much he is an inspiration to others, given his background with alcoholic and dysfunctional parents.
Rather than seeing this as a compliment, however, Jack became offended and angry. He berated Jim for “putting him down,” as he interpreted Jim’s comment.
Views cause anger
As these examples clearly show, people are not disturbed by things or events, but by their view of them, as Epictetusan — a Greek philosopher — observed early in the 2nd century.
When an upsetting family event occurs, you have a choice of how you are going to explain it to yourself — what you are going to tell yourself about it. This will influence how angry, stressed, or upset, you become over the event.
Learning to change what you tell yourself — your self-talk — can break the cycle of negativity that can often poison our minds when we get angry. We all have ‘scripts’ in our minds that tell us messages and stories about family members and how they behave.
Tom, who exploded when his loving wife bought him a new television, was telling himself things like: she has such poor judgment-buying a bigger TV than we need; there she goes again, spending money excessively; why can’t she ever do what I want her to do? Why did I marry such a woman?
Of course, none of these things made any sense to Tom once he cooled down and became his rational self again. But, at the moment of anger explosion, Tom’s self-statements seem 100% true to him.
Jack who became offended at being congratulated for overcoming his past, was actually having the following conversation in his head: he is putting me down because I had alcoholic parents; he is saying I am not capable of being successful on my own instead of ‘overcoming’ something in my past; he is mocking me because of how I grew up.
No wonder he became so upset at Jim’s innocent attempt at a compliment. Like many of us, Jack was responding to his perspective of what was being communicated — not Jim’s.
Changing your self-talk
The next time anger threatens to spoil a family event, try these simple steps:
Step 1: Retreat and think things over. Never respond immediately to a family anger or stress trigger. Give your body and your mind a chance to calm down so you can think rationally. Research shows this may take at least 20 minutes.
Step 2: Examine the evidence. The most convincing way of disputing negative self-talk toward a family member is to show yourself it is factually incorrect. Do not lie to yourself, but — like a detective — simply and honestly look at all the evidence at hand.
For instance, when calm Tom remembered that his wife was excellent with money and rarely overspent. Jack remembered that Jim never disparaged him and, in fact, had always supported him throughout the years of their friendship.
Step 3: Find a more positive and useful way of interpreting the behavior of family members. Tom was finally able to see his wife’s buying behavior as a sign of love and caring for him, rather than trying to hurt him or cause stress.
Jack was eventually capable of seeing that Jim was truly trying to compliment him and that he truly saw Jack as someone to be admired because of how far he had come in life.
2005 © Dr. Tony Fiore All rights reserved.
About the Author:
Dr. Tony Fiore is The Anger Coach. New anger resources are now available for the 21st Century: The 8 tools of Anger Control print and ebook, bonuses stopyouranger (dot) com. Check our Anger in the News blog and comment at: http://www.angernews.com.