When Arguing, What’s Your True Priority—WINNING OR RESOLVING? [Featuring Four Practical Steps For Positive Resolution]

What follows is for any important relationship you are in, or someone you know is in: romantic love, parent-child, other family members, or platonic friendship.

Let’s suppose you and someone with whom you are in a relationship argue often. Or, you don’t argue very often, but when you do, it can get nasty and contentious. What typically transpires, of course, is that you both go back and forth on the subject of the argument, e.g., money, domestic upkeep, keeping commitments, loyalty, et cetera.  Typical too, though, is the basic underlying message you are each giving each other, regardless of the subject being argued: it’s “I’m right, you’re wrong—and it really pisses me off that you don’t see it my way!”  

Well, ever heard of Newton’s Third Law—you know, the old ‘every action produces an equal and opposite reaction?’  When applying Newton’s Third Law to what l’ll call Human-Relationship Physics, what you can guarantee is happening is that each time one of you is emphatically taking the uncompromising “I’m right, you’re wrong!” position, that’s pretty much reflexively triggering an equal and opposite “No, I’m right, YOU’RE wrong!” position right back!  And round and round can this vicious Newtonian circle go, until one or both or one of you either says something truly mean and things get ugly, or one of you leaves the situation, until the next battle begins, an hour, a day, or a week later.

The question I now ask you is this: by holding on tightly to your “I’m right!” position, what did you win?  Did you get the other person to agree with you? Chances are maybe you forced their hand to agree on a rare occasion, but I doubt anything more constructive than that. Worse, did you and that person do anything at all truly healthy for the relationship? Did you grow together and nurture healthy habits? Obviously not—which is of course very easy for both parties to completely lose sight of during those Newtonian episodes (hey, when you come from an immediate family of quite a few arguers and arguments like I did, you know this stuff all too well, I guarantee you).

So, what can you do to try and nip these episodes in the bud?  Easier said than done for sure!  But, it truly begins with both of you committing to prioritizing RESOLVING over winning.  Practically speaking, resolving can involve the following diffusing steps:    

1)  Listening for what may be some legitimacy in the other person’s position.            

2)  Acknowledging the person’s feeling of the moment, e.g., “Hey, I assure you I see how angry/aggravated you are right now!”             

3) Challenging both of you TOGETHER about how much you’re hurting each other by staying on the attack, e.g., “but hey, can we agree to try and resolve this without hurting each other so much, like we keep doing?”             

4) Deciding together at that moment to either take a self-calming and de-escalating time out, or proceed to have a constructive discussion where intense anger and resentment are kept under control.

Should the two of you—with practice— manage to accomplish that last step, I encourage you to think in positive Newtonian terms of your accomplishment. You together switched the “I’m right, you’re wrong!” action/reaction PROBLEM into the “Hey, let’s really try to resolve this!” action/reaction RESOLUTION!

Oh, and one more thing: try reminding each other that you need to stop acting like adversaries if not enemies, because you supposedly love each other!

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Overcoming Emotional Trauma: A Menu For Healing The Hurt That Holds You Back

Growing up, I was emotionally hurt a lot.  Although I was an only child, my parents were so caught up in their own troubles and struggles that I managed to end up not fitting the stereotypes of an only child.  Meaning not only was I not spoiled and catered to, on the contrary: I was outright neglected.  Plus, my parents fought like cats and dogs (on a slightly lighter note, I would describe them as the understudies for the Costanzas on Seinfeld — except in real life, it was anything but funny to regularly witness, as I figure you can imagine).

All that arguing inevitably left me with plenty of core anxiety and insecurity—no surprise there, right? So, that was the essence of my emotional hurt growing up: a mix of deep feelings of neglect (accompanied by feelings of being unlovable), plus significant amounts of insecurity and anxiety; hurt that left me vulnerable to what I came to think of as my inner bully’s “double whammy” of potential self-sabotage.  Meaning: on the one hand, I am aware of my having an emotional core of hypersensitivity and over-reactivity to feeling betrayed and/or rejected. Yet on the other hand, I am equally aware I have a piece inside of me—a piece I learned from watching my parents argue so much—to pseudo-compensate for feeling hurt by all too quickly going to anger.

I tell you all of this for two reasons. First, so I can now follow it up by sharing with you how I know firsthand what the incredible benefits are that you can get from being in the right therapy with the right therapist (it took me quite a while, but I eventually found him, thankfully).  Am I no longer hypersensitive and over-reactive? Certainly these self-sabotaging tendencies are not gone entirely by any means, but I’m clear as daylight that I have come a long way in controlling them—especially, and most importantly, in the face of situational triggers.

Am I no longer prone to outbursts of anger?  I can’t say they never occur, but I can unequivocally and unhesitatingly say they occur a lot less, and manifest much more often than not in an increasingly controlled manner.

So, what’s my “secret” here, to use this overused term?  It’s called HEALING. No, my painful emotional wounds certainly are not 100% healed; some scars do for sure remain. But my confidence in my ability to comfort myself and be resilient in the face of feeling betrayed or rejected, as well as in my ability to keep my anger in check have never been stronger.  And to what do I attribute my healing?  Here’s my “menu” for success.

First, again, being with the right therapy/therapist. Then, add all of the following items: having the incredible good fortune to still love my work, learning self-comfort tools, turning to my robust network of great friends for support (while making sure to give it back to them as needed, too), performing acts of kindness and courage, allowing displays of  vulnerability at the right time to the right people, getting a good laugh a day (and a good cry when needed), and, last but not least, staying as active, healthy, and playful as I have the luxury and ability to be.

So: care to share where YOU are on the healing front?

Learn more about my journey to overcoming my Inner Bully and tackling Self-Sabotage by checking out my two published books, browsing my recent blog posts, and connecting with me on my Instagram and Facebook pages. Oh, and I encourage you to download a FREE chapter from my book: you can find the link to download that here!

On Anger Management

Almost everyone has heard the term anger management. Some of you may have even seen the comical version of the term anger management, i.e., the movie by that name, starring Jack Nicholson and Adam Sandler. For the very most part though, need I say there isn’t much room in real life for thinking about it in humorous terms.

In addressing the subject of anger management, let me first focus on the word anger, or a little more specifically, “angry.” The key here is that for many people, hearing someone sound and look angry implies that that person is being judged as being out of control (i.e., “flying off the handle” or “flipping out”). Yet for other people, the word angry may NOT imply being out of control. Instead, it may imply being frustrated or irritated–feelings which even if strong are usually perceived as the person still being in control of themselves. There also are many instances in which a person is perceived by others as being out of control–i.e., angry–yet NOT out of control in the eyes of the “angry” person himself/herself. And when this becomes a pattern of behavior, others may perceive that person as having an “anger management” problem, but the person himself/herself may not.

One postscript here. I think it’s safe to say that when it comes to someone having a pattern of launching into full-blown RAGE episodes, even that person will have to acknowledge that that clearly reflects a major problem they have controlling their anger!

Psychological Factors Surrounding An Anger Management Problem

People with an anger management problem are likely to have that problem for a variety of possible psychological reasons. Let me break these reasons down into 4 main categories: 1) feelings of betrayal, injustice, and entitlement; 2) parental role-modeling; 3) “masking” of vulnerability; and 4) feeling empowered.

1) Feelings of betrayal, injustice, and entitlement–The definition of betrayal that I use in my work (as well as in my personal life) is: any significant feeling of letdown, by someone important to you, based on what you believed you had the right to believe they would never do to you. Connecting this to problems with getting a handle on anger, it’s safe to say that the more someone feels either one huge betrayal or a series of betrayals that add up to a huge one, the more that person is likely to develop a storehouse of anger. This especially applies, I will add, to the feeling of betrayal being triggered by severe abuse, severe neglect, or outright abandonment. The sense of injustice that typically accompanies deep feelings of betrayal, combined with a strong sense of entitlement that the injustice be undone or eliminated only adds to the size–not to mention persistence – of that storehouse.

2) Parental role-modeling–Simply stated, a person is much more to develop an anger management problem if they had at least one parent who presented with this problem themselves.

3) “Masking” of vulnerability–While I see this issue as generally applying to men more than women, there certainly are exceptions on both sides of the gender coin. The basic point here is: suppose someone is having difficulty dealing with strong vulnerable feelings like, e.g., fear or anxiety, guilt, hurt, or sadness. The more that person judges themselves as “weak” for having much less showing these feelings, the more automatically if not reflexively he/she may display strong anger. This display of anger then “masks” those weak–i.e, vulnerable–feelings.

4) Feeling empowered–Many people who have an anger management problem, whether they acknowledge it or not, experience a surge of feeling powerful when they are angry. This surge can behaviorally manifest in what could be seen or felt stereotypically as “macho” behavior or “attack mode.” In contrast, and going back to the “masking” concept, when someone is feeling any of the vulnerable feelings listed above to a strong if not overwhelming degree, accompanying that negative self-judgment of “weakness” can be the opposite of feeling powerful, i.e., feeling powerLESS (consciously or subconsciously).

Brain Physiology And The “Highjacking” Phenomenon

To help you gain a further understanding of why impaired anger management is such a complicated syndrome, we must also look inside the brain. To keep this as understandable as possible, there are two main structures in the brain that have a great deal of bearing on anger management. The first structure is called the AMYGDALA (a-mig-duh-luh). This is the part of our brain that is centrally involved in the universal “fight/flight” response, where “flight” refers to fear or anxiety and “fight” refers to anger and aggression. In brief, when someone is stressed and resultingly develops a good deal of agitation inside, the amygdala actively fires away. If the intensity of the agitation quickly becomes intense, the amygdala can quickly become not just reactive but, more problematically, HYPERreactive. If the stressor triggering hyperactivity in the amygdala is fear-related, the person will likely develop a very high level of fear or anxiety. If on the other hand the trigger is anger-related, then the person is likely to become intensely angry.

The other key structure in the brain involved in anger management is known as the PREFRONTAL CORTEX (PFC). This is the crucial structure in the brain that is the seat of rational and logical thinking, including good decision-making, concentration and attention, and impulse control. Connecting this to anger (as well as fear too), the brain-based physiological general rule of thumb here is: the more the person’s PFC is functioning at a normal–i.e., non-stressed/agitated–level, the more controlled and better managed will that person’s anger be in general.

Now let’s tie these two structures of the brain together as it relates to anger management problems. In a nutshell, when some stressful/agitating situation triggers significant hyperactivity in the amygdala, the process known as “high-jacking” occurs. Specifically, the amygdala essentially overtakes–i.e., high-jacks–the PFC, resulting in significant impairment in the person’s ability to think clearly, concentrate adequately, and control their self-defeating impulses. In anger management terms, this means that when the amygdala is triggered to become very hyperactive, and the PFC’s functioning is therefore limited, anger takes control of the person. Which in the extreme–such as in a state of pure rage–creates the proverbial “zero to 60” effect. The overall moral of the story here being: this high-jacking process in the brain does not excuse a person with an anger management problem, but it most certainly helps EXPLAIN the problem.

Strategies For Anger Management

Given all that’s spelled out above on the psychology and brain-based physiology of anger management, I hope you are clear–maybe clearer than you’ve ever been–just how much easier said than done it is to achieve. And yet: whether you’ve ever really looked at it this way or not, in the end there are two extremely important reasons to work on anger management. The first reason is an individual one: self-respect. Simply stated–and feelings of empowerment and masked vulnerability notwithstanding– if you let intense anger take control of you, you cannot possibly respect yourself for your pattern of “flipping out” and “flying off the handle.” But just like with addiction, and to put it bluntly, who the heck ever thinks about self-respect when you’re in the middle of being very angry or indulging in an addictive substance! Yet the psychological fact of life is: a pattern of a significant loss of self-control guarantees an accompanying loss of self-respect. And that’s, let me reiterate, whether you ever consciously think about that or not.

The second reason to work on anger management has to do with being challenged or confronted by significant others about their feeling that your problem controlling anger is in there eyes sabotaging your relationship with them. If that is their experience and perception, and your relationship with them truly matters to you, then I’d say it’s advisable you get to work on your problem for this reason too!

On that note, presented below is a “menu” of strategies I recommend for working on anger management. Like a real menu, you can choose the same item each time, or change around if you feel trying a different item would be better for you. Let me preface this menu though by saying that no matter which items on the menu you choose to try to help yourself manage your anger better, it is absolutely essential that you practice them as often as possible. Otherwise, you must face the music as they say: if you don’t practice them, there is virtually no chance that you will make any progress on this troubling–and trouble-MAKING–front.

The menu I recommend for anger management includes the following:

–mindful meditation (especially focusing on breathing, tension in the body, and visual imagery; more spiritual pursuit of some type can also be a meditative option )

–“get physical” (e.g., walking or more strenuous exercise, gardening, or something cathartic like pillow-pounding)

–“get vocal” (e.g., call a friend, or: go in the car, don’t drive anywhere, and yell your heart out)

–“get your journal” (emotional venting in written form)

–“get musical” (listen to whatever type of music you believe can help you reduce your agitation)

–“get perspective” (basically, force yourself to remember that you are allowing your anger to control you in a way that can be sabotaging to your self-respect and also potentially to the relationship with someone important to you; that perspective can leave you still feeling angry yes, but able to express it in a more reasonable and controlled manner)

–“get de-stressed” (do the best you can to cut down on the overall stress in your life)

Last but not least, given the complexity of the problem of agitation management and the big challenge it therefore presents, I highly encourage you to give yourself a big pat on the back each and every time you do something to keep your anger to a manageable and controlled level!