Plato does Anger Management

“There are two things a person should never be angry at, what they can help, and what they cannot.”

What? You thought I was going to humiliate myself again with a series of pictures or another stream of consciousness post?

This one is going to be about venting.  Don’t worry, the quote will make sense soon.

Many people view venting as something they can do to get a handle on their anger and release tension.  I try not to allow venting to go unchecked in session because allowing it would mean being complicit in an unhelpful, potentially harmful behavior.  There are many reasons why venting hurts more than helps.  I decided to list a few..

1. Venting means you’re not listening to Plato.  That’s not so bad, just because Plato says something doesn’t mean it’s right……except when it comes to venting.  Venting does nothing to directly change the thing you’re venting about; it doesn’t work to resolve the situation and it certainly is not indicative of you having accepted the reality that you do not have control over whatever it is you are upset about.  Venting gives you the illusion of taking action.  If you are venting to someone who isn’t involved, nothing will change.  If you are venting hoping that someone will do something for you, you’ll probably be disappointed. If you are venting to the person with whom you are angry, you might end up harming the relationship unnecessarily.

2. Venting can block helpful guidance.  Most people look at venting as something that needs to run its’ course and interpret it as “just blowing off steam”.  They may be fearful of saying anything to challenge the person venting for fear that they will be the next victim.  In other words, venting gives them permission not to get involved.  When our anger is at its peak, it usually has more to do with a button that was pushed than the real issue; venting is typically a stream of thought distortions or unhelpful comments that SHOULD be challenged.  Because the person hearing the vent typically remains silent or sympathetic, we can mistakenly believe they agree with us and we can walk away from the discussion feeling more emboldened to act on bad perspective.

3.  Venting escalates anger.  Venting can create a “logical” spiral of catastrophe pretty quickly because, as I said before, it is usually comprised of thought distortions.  Bad Logic + Anger = Eventually saying crap even you can’t believe. But it could be true….maybe we will figure out a way to make it true like….

“I bet he hates puppies.  Well he didn’t say that, but he did take my sandwich so it wouldn’t surprise me… he’s the kind of person that COULD hate puppies.  I mean what kind of person hates puppies. Only a sociopath!”

Which brings me to my next point.

4. Venting can really damage relationships and people in a way you never intended. The things we regret saying or doing the most usually come from a place of emotional extremes.  The reason of “I didn’t mean it…I just said it out of anger” may not be helpful in repairing the hurt created because people generally think we are most honest when we are escalated. The reason for this is we associate venting as something people do when they are not inhibited by consequences; we have this idea that venting is a glimpse of how someone “really feels” or thinks. We may not be thinking of consequences but usually, if we stepped back and really thought about the situation we would have a difficult time lending credible evidence to some or most of the assertions we make while venting.  Venting can make someone think that you are trying to cast them or the situation in the most negative light, which can lead someone to believe you were attempting to hurt them intentionally.

5. Venting feels cathartic.  Which means that it is more likely to become a habit than say eating Brussels Sprouts, it can become how we talk about issues and negotiate disagreements.  Think about all the friends you can win with a five hour rant about how this was the third week in a row you didn’t get the doughnut you wanted during the company breakfast.  Usually we vent because we have tolerated an undesirable behavior or set of behaviors for too long.  In some cases we may not have said anything about it to the person directly so they may have no idea that its’ a problem.  In other cases we may have communicated the issues but we have made a conscious decision to remain in  the relationship or “problem”. Either way, we have made a choice that, in part, created or sustained the problem we are angry about.  Venting keeps us stuck because it makes us feel better without really doing anything to solve the problem. Because we feel better we end up not feeling motivated enough to do anything to solve the problem.

6. Venting may be a sign of a dysfunctional system.  Did you think you’d read something from a therapist that didn’t use the word “dysfunctional”.  You were wrong baby.  In systems, people may vent because they feel like they have no other option; the behaviors, expectations and roles established by the system may be so rigid and hostile to feedback that there really isn’t any other way of dealing with the problem.  As a way of coping, people create cliques and subcultures whose purpose is to speak to and deal with the injustice.  This can occur in work and families; the two areas where other people’s behavior and decision making authority really set the stage for how things operate.  We feel trapped because leaving a job or setting hard boundaries with families may have consequences that actually outweigh any benefit (that we know of) to making the kinds of changes we need to in order to feel more in control.

There are a few things we can do to help us feel better about ourselves and our situation without losing control.

Deal with problems when they are small. Small problems usually demand small changes. If things have gotten “big”,  use the immediate problem in front of you to influence small change instead of trying to re-write history.  If someone keeps eating your favorite doughnut during the company breakfast and you’ve let it go 30 times, don’t assume the other person knows you’re upset about it.  Bring it up to them as if it’s the first time it has ever happened because that’s how they’ll probably see it.

If “they” keep eating your doughnuts then accept that “they” will not change. Figure out environmental or behavioral changes that could work to meet your needs. These are the company’s doughnuts, not yours, so the best you may be able to hope for is some sort of compromise. Maybe you can each take turns eating the doughnut.  Maybe you have to show up earlier to get first crack at it. Maybe you should just buy your own dam doughnut…which brings me to my wrap up.

If the doughnut situation has become so intolerable where it’s to the point that you feel like you need to leave the job, start taking productive steps that help you feel more in control. Looking for new jobs and sending out resumes can help us feel better even if we are not ready to act on it.  Being prepared to jump ship and/or knowing other companies would gladly negotiate a doughnut clause into the work agreement may help us feel less trapped.

Another strategy may be to have a doughnut social at home once a week, this way you get the need met somewhere else without having to put up such a fight. Sometimes we get stuck on how the need is met vs. the actual need. If the strategy you are using hasn’t ever worked, it may be time to reconsider how you are going about things.

Empathy is more about helping yourself

Many people view empathy as an action one engages in to help another person.   We tend to think of empathy as something that we access or use when someone comes to us in times of distress or need.

This is true but not even half the story.

Empathy is something I work with a lot when it comes to interpersonal effectiveness and anger management.  It is an attitude, way of thinking and set of behaviors that can increase our effectiveness in handling a situation. It gives us a better opportunity to influence a person or situation in ways that benefit us.  It can also provide us with the ability to reduce the intensity of potentially harmful emotions that drive us to react in ways that can create bigger problems.

Consider the following scenario:

Luke is sitting quietly at his favorite lunch spot eating a sandwich.   His supervisor Darth walks into the cafe and they both notice each other’s presence.

Even before they saw each other, like they could feel each other in the room.  Weird. Right?

Anyway, Luke isn’t very pleased with having Darth as a supervisor.  Darth lives at his job, is a perfectionist and can be rather cruel when expectations aren’t met.  Darth walks up to Luke and says, “I’m glad I caught you before you left today.  I need the team to come in on Saturday and Sunday to finish organizing the supply closet. “

Darth pauses then adds, “By the way, you need to do a better job at matching your ties with your outfits.”

“This, coming from a guy who wears a cape and helmet to an office job every day.” Luke thinks to himself

Darth, without waiting for Luke’s reply, abruptly turns away and goes to the counter to order his lunch.

Luke begins to have some other thoughts, thoughts we could all imagine having after that sort of exchange

“What an a-hole”

“There’s no way I’m doing this”

“Who does this guy think he is, my father?”

Empathy involves asking a different set of questions than we may be accustomed to in order to construct a different sort of narrative.

“What kind of experiences would turn someone into the kind of person Darth turned out to be?”

“What kind of life does a person like Darth live?”

“What are the emotional and social consequences to acting this way?”

These questions quell the demand for justice (because there are consequences for people’s behaviors even though they may not be evident to everyone) , makes the issue less about who we are and diffuses some of the anger we may hold because we are looking at the behavior within a larger context.

I’m not saying Luke should excuse Darth’s behavior and give him what he wants.  In fact, what empathy can do for Luke is put him in a better frame of mind to react to Darth.  It can help Luke think about solving the problem more strategically versus reacting to it emotionally.

Our relationships with others have a big impact on how we feel and think about ourselves and the world around us in our day to day life. We are not in control of how others behave.  We can control the power we give those behaviors in our thinking and our actions.  When we act from a place of pure emotion when faced with relationship distress we run the risk of acting in a way that can hurt us. Sometimes we place our own credibility into question while potentially intensifying the poor behaviors of the other person.

This does not mean we become the guest therapist on Oprah or a welcome mat.  It does mean taking a step closer in viewing the demands others make of us and those we make of others from a place of positional intensity (a product of reason) vs. emotional intensity (a multilayered wild card mess that is not only connected to the thing in front of you but the 3,000 events that you experienced leading up to that thing in front of you).  We’ll pick up on those concepts another time.