Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
(Dylan Thomas, Do not go gentle into that good night)

I have an anger problem. I’m what you would call a seether. I seem calm on the inside for 99.9% of the time, and it could be months; but then I’ll have a meltdown (swearing, throwing things, slamming doors, bringing up something that might have bothered me weeks, or months ago, etc.) Never have I been physically violent to a person. It is something I have been working on for the last three decades or so.

Most people who know me think I’m easy-going, calm, reasonable, easy to get along with … except the ones who have seen me explode. I began to recognize the pattern and its destructiveness when I was in my twenties. I realized that I had learned as a child not to express any negative emotions – anger, frustration, disappointment, disagreement, resentment, and so on. Let’s just say such expressions were not well received in my family, so I learned to stuff them away and keep the outside looking good. But that only works for so long, and then some poor fool drops the proverbial last straw onto the load of anger I’ve been carrying around, and I blow like Vesuvius. I haven’t been physically violent during these rages, but I came to realize that the verbal abuse I was capable of was almost as bad.

So, I set about to unlearn the whole pattern and to learn the new skills I needed to recognize and deal with my emotions as they come up, instead of bottling them up inside. The only way I have found to prevent the explosion is to not let the explosive stuff accumulate. It hasn’t been easy. The first thing I realized was that I was very out of touch with my emotions. At first, it might take me a week to realize that something had upset me. Over time, I have grown better at knowing when I am getting pissed off, and now I usually recognize it while it is happening.

The next thing I had to learn was how to deal with people about things that bothered me, and to force myself to do it before the situation became explosive. I had to learn to say things like “It makes me angry that …”, or “I think it is unfair of you to …”, or “I’m really pissed off about …”, or “Wait a minute, you don’t mean you expect me to …?”, and I had to say these things to the people who were pissing me off, not to some third party, or to myself, later. I also had to learn to say “no”. For most people, this may not be a big deal, but for me it was a long hard struggle, and I still have to remain vigilant lest I slip back into my old ways.

So that’s what works for me … when I do it. Probably because of my family history, I find it hardest to do with the people I care most about, because even small disagreements still feel like a threat to the whole relationship. Ridiculous, I know, but there it is. So I try to motivate myself to come up with the courage (and that’s what it takes) to have the small arguments and to air the small grievances rather than stuffing them inside and pretending that everything is fine, while the pressure builds toward the next eruption. I am even learning to do this with a sense of humour, if I catch it in time.

I also have learned to recognize in advance situations that might be toxic for me, and either avoid them or insist on some change that will make them easier for me to take. I think of this as a preventative action, similar to child-proofing a room before letting a toddler loose in it. I suppose I try to anger-proof my life where I can. I confirm appointments the day before (because I know I’ll be upset if I’m stood up), I get the first appointment of the day at my doctor’s office because he has told me that runs the least risk of having to wait … lots of little things like that to prevent stress and frustration where possible.

And I have learned that I have to let myself have some fun, have some of the things I want in life, so that I can tolerate the unavoidable annoyances and disappointments that we all have to endure. I have to be good to myself, and not expect that someone else will always take care of my emotional needs. I try to schedule some guaranteed good days on the calendar, some things I can look forward to, enjoy, and look back on with satisfaction. It helps balance out the crap and the misery. Of course, the downside to this is that it totally conflicts with another need – the need for accomplishment. You can completely waste your life having fun and accomplishing nothing, which kind of scares me.

Some of the first signs I get that I’m approaching meltdown are physical – my jaw tightens, I find I’m actually holding my breath, my hands clench into fists and/or I feel the muscles in one leg tensing as if to kick something. It helps if I consciously relax whatever muscles have tensed – relax the jaw, take a deep breath, relax my hands and arms and legs. It is surprising, but this actually helps me maintain control, and it buys me some time.

Sometimes, I’ll decide at that point to just walk away from the situation. But that is not always possible. If I have to stay in the situation and deal with it, whatever it is, I next try a thought that helps me put the situation in perspective. One of the ones I use is “Will this matter in a year? 10 years? 50 years? 100 years?” Sometimes when I look at the situation in the larger framework, I realize that it isn’t that important, and I’m able to let go of a lot of the anger. Another thing I do is to study people I know who handle difficult situations very well. I actually memorize some of the things they say, so that I’ll have those words available to me when I need them. It may sound artificial, but I had almost 20 years of studying a couple of bad examples of dealing with anger, so I need to work hard to replace those role models with better ones.

I also try to avoid situations that might send me into orbit. For example, I don’t take it well when people don’t turn up for an appointment or planned activity, so I usually reconfirm plans a day in advance. I try to be prepared with a plan for dealing with situations where I can anticipate trouble but don’t have a way to prevent it. I think of the possible things that might happen and decide in advance how I’ll respond to each one. So then, I’m not ad libbing when I’m angry. It is much safer at that point for me to stick to a script I wrote out for myself when I was calm and in my right mind.

I should add, that anger itself is not always such a bad thing. It motivates us, it gives us a huge impetus to change something that needs to be changed – I mean, let’s face it, there really are some things in the world that are worth being furious about. The difficulty for me is in finding a useful direction for my anger, an appropriate and legitimate way to express appropriate and legitimate anger. That’s a lifetime challenge.

I never saw a counsellor about this problem, but I had seen one about persistent depression, and I’m sure some of the things I learned from that, then helped me to find ways to deal with my explosive anger problem when I decided to face it.

Expressing your anger as it happens is very effective, but it’s easier said than done, since for many of us it can lead to rejection. Sometimes I just walk from away from what (or who) is bothering me (if they are non-essential), just eliminate them from my life.

The tide of emotions is fascinating and terrible.