Coping with Stress

How to Control Anger in your Relationship

How to Control Anger: Yes, You Can Tame the Beast!

You’re not alone if you and/or your partner struggle with how to control anger in your marriage or relationship. Do any of the below sound familiar:?

— “One or both of us gets easily triggered when certain issues are brought up (such as his or her family, finances, challengeHow to Control Angers with the kids . . . even sex)”

— “The smallest things lately can lead to big arguments.”

— “My partner doesn’t seem to hear me, so anger is the only thing that gets his or her attention.”

— “When we argue, we often end up saying hurtful things to each other — and those mean statements linger and linger.”

— “We don’t like conflict, so we never resolve anything important. Then, it comes up later in anger.”

Emotions are part of being human and — of course — part of our relationship with our partner or spouse.

However, you can learn to tame the anger and turn feelings of hurt and disappointment into productive conversations that yield greater understanding of yourself and your partner.

In fact, you’ll learn that sharing our emotions with our partner is the best way to calm our heightened feelings and how to control anger. What’s complicated, though, is that our partner  actually can be the trigger for our anger and other strong emotions.

Understanding Emotions and How to Control Anger

There are two levels of emotions: secondary and primary. Understanding the difference is key to developing greater understanding of our partner’s needs — and to expressing our own requests in a healthy way.

Secondary emotions are ones we can see. These include anger, irritability, becoming quiet and avoiding, criticism, blaming and defensiveness. Secondary emotions show we’re upset, yes; but they don’t reveal the true cause.

The primary emotions are what push the secondary emotions that you see. The primary emotions are where the true meaning lies. The most common primary emotions in relationships are fear (of disconnection from your partner) and sadness and hurt.

Other primary emotions include: Hopelessness, feeling rejected, feeling not important or loveable, feeling inadequate to meet partner’s needs and feeling unwanted or unattractive.

All told, primary emotions are powerful. Yet — and here’s the tricky part — we ourselves are often are not aware of the primary emotions that are surfacing for us. Our partner can’t know either because all he or she sees are those secondary emotions.

Let’s See Anger in Action:

Drew is angry that Avery is repeatedly late and that he doesn’t call to tell her he’s behind schedule. When he arrives home, she lets him know how upset she is. Her voice is raised, and her facial expressions warn him that she’s furious.

The way out of this is, actually, both simple and difficult: Drew calms herself, and goes inward to try to understand why Avery’s lateness is so troublesome to her. She believes it’s because she gets afraid something has happened to him. Too, she feels maybe he doesn’t care about her or her feelings and is not respectful of her needs.

Avery feels bad, but he doesn’t know what to say. He felt he’d be even later — and Drew would be even angrier — if he took the time to stop and call her. In truth, Avery hates to disappoint Drew. He feels sad and anxious anytime he does.

Here’s the good news: Drew can let Avery know the real reason she’s upset. It’s about fear he’s been hurt and a fear she’s not important to him. Avery, in turn, can let Drew know that he feels both shame and guilt when he upsets her.

Tips for How to Control Anger

I’ll help you understand the basics of, first, how to calm yourself and, second, how to constructively discuss your feelings with your partner. I’m going to take you step-by-step through how Drew and Avery were able to get to the root of Drew’s anger.

To begin, one of the basic approaches of Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy, the most-effective approach to helping couples, is teaching couples to “slow down.”

When you’re upset, the emotions-control part of your brain is activated. Our responses to an anger trigger can be fast and furious with minimal forethought. But the escalated anger can cause our partner to shut down or become defensive and limit the potential to work through an issue.

You Can Learn to Slow This Angry Automatic Reaction

First, take a few moments to ask yourself some key questions:

  1. What was the “cue” or event that caused me to feel upset or angry?
  2. What deeper meaning did this cue have for me? (For example, “My partner doesn’t care about my needs.” “He or she is selfish.”  “I’m not important.”)
  3. What primary emotions lie beneath my anger? Sadness? Hurt? Fear?
  4. What do you need your partner to understand about your experience? 

Letting Your Partner Know Your True Feelings

This leads us to how you and your partner can learn how to control anger and have a very-different type of conversation. I advise couples to calm themselves first, avoid accusatory words or tone (such as “When you . . .”) and to remain curious and open about your partner’s feelings and his or her response to the issue you are raising.

After you’ve taken a few moments to understand how to control anger and answered the four questions above, you may be more calm. This way, your partner is less likely to become defensive as a response to your anger.

It may be helpful to take a few deep breaths, which tell your brain to become more relaxed. Also, try to let go of any negative assumptions you may have about how the conversation will go. Common assumptions could include, “We never get to the bottom of things” or “My partner never hears me.” You’re going to try a different approach this time.

Five Steps to Anger-Free Communication

Here’s how you can apply what Drew did to let Avery know how she truly feels when he’s late. There are some basic steps.

  1. Begin with your primary emotions. “I’m feeling so anxious when I’m expecting you at a certain time. I get so afraid that something has happened. It feels almost paralyzing. I get stuck in a circle of worry.”
  2. Allow your partner to hear what you’re saying. If he or she has questions, be calm and open to learning their thoughts and concerns.
  3. Calmly let your partner know what you need. “I’m okay with your being a little later if you let me know. I’d really appreciate you calling me. This way, I won’t worry and be angry if you’re behind schedule.”
  4. Again, slow down so you can hear your partner’s thoughts by asking, “What do you think?”
  5. If you both have agreed on a solution, restate your agreement and future actions you’ll take. “Thank you for understanding me! I’m glad you’re Okay with calling if you’re running behind schedule.”

Giving yourself time to tune in to your own primary emotions helps you get to the real root of the issue. Together you can “make sense” of your anger,  learn how to control anger and have discussions that lead to greater understanding and to resolving important concerns.

 

Angry familyA Few Words About Anger Out of Control

When anger turns to violence in a relationship, there is great cause for concern. The couple needs a physically safe environment in order to be able to have meaningful conversations and resolve concerns.

Importantly, children are impacted emotionally by violence in the home.

If there is violence in the relationship, this issue needs to be addressed. If you feel unsafe at home, you can reach out to local resources, including domestic-violence shelters such as Safehouse Denver that can provide assistance in how to get the help that is needed.

 

If you and your partner want to learn how to control anger in your relationship, our couples counseling can help you identify what’s really going on under that anger and how to communicate it in a way that doesn’t cause fights or shut each other down.

 

Counseling for Anxiety and Relationship Issues Actually Changes Your Brain

Help Ahead for depression and relationship issues'Did you know that counseling for anxiety and relationship issues (as well as a host of other things) can re-wire your brain?

Many people have heard of how the way that we think influences how we feel. And most of the time, the way we feel influences how we think. If we experience a worry, that can create a physical feeling of anxiety. This physical feeling and the fear that come with it cause us to do things that might not be helpful, such as worry more or avoid situations that cause us stress. Sometimes it’s the physical feeling that comes first. All of these things seem to be wrapped up together.

The same is true for conflict in relationships. It’s easy to go on autopilot and have that same fight with your spouse over and over, without ever wondering if there’s something that your brain has been trained to do. You feel nervous and defensive in your body, and you know there’s going to be a disagreement. So you go ahead an strike first.

All of this happens without even thinking most of the time. And the more your do and experience certain types of things, the more they are likely to happen.

Your brain chemistry changes with your experiences.

In science this is called brain plasticity, but what it means is very practical. It means that even adults have a tremendous capacity to change how their brains are wired, for the better. You can actually learn how to create an upward spiral for yourself that is even better than antidepressants or anxiety drugs. Sometimes these drugs can be a lifesaver, but pills alone never work at both the symptoms and their causes. When you learn how to re-wire your brain through powerful techniques learned in counseling for anxiety and relationship issues, you are not only learning how to address the causes of the problem with different behaviors, but you are actually changing your brain’s chemistry, much like an antidepressant.

The details of how your brain changes are too detailed to get into here, but think of it this way: If you drive a Jeep down a muddy road, you leave tracks in the mud. The more you drive through that, the deeper the tracks get. When the mud dries and hardens, you are left with hard tracks that the wheels of your Jeep will naturally fall into the next time you go down that road. Our thoughts, feelings, actions, and brain chemistry create these tracks. These tracks represent how our brains are wired to have a certain chemical and neurological makeup. It is within your power to create new tracks, and actually have different chemistry and neurology. This means a new experience with a re-wired brain. You aren’t destined to drive down that same path with those old brain wires if you have some help in creating those new tracks.

If you are interested in learning more about how to create real and lasting change through counseling for anxiety and relationship issues, we’d be honored to help. Call our Lakewood office now to get your  free consultation and explore what new tracks you’d like to create on your road to the life you want.

The Real Reason You Can’t Stay Motivated

The real reason you can't stay motivatedI have a really bad habit when I’m trying to stay motivated to change something about my life. It’s something that I recognize does me no good, but it creeps up on me like the dishes and the laundry. I don’t notice it at first, but then suddenly I’m knee-deep.  Somehow my optimism about things has dissolved and I have a case of the screw-its. I’m talking about feeling discouraged at the amount of progress I’ve made in my endeavors. Trying to be a better parent and spouse. Trying to do the things that I know are important for my mental and physical well-being.  Have you ever worked hard at something, but couldn’t stay motivated because you weren’t seeing any progress? Since I’m a human, I do things that work against my peace of mind. And, since I’m a therapist, I know I didn’t invent this little mind game.  In my Lakewood counseling practice I see this all the time.

There are plenty ways to describe this habit. You can call it perfectionism, pessimism, realism, the need for instant gratification (I want this issue fixed now). Sometimes I just call it:

“I’m never going to stop yelling as a parent. Things were going well this morning and then I blew it.”

“My partner and I haven’t solved our fighting problem, this isn’t working at all.”

Why do we do this to ourselves? Goal setting and staying motivated while you are imperfect isn’t easy. Here’s a neat way to combat this that I got from a mentor of mine:

String.

Yes.

String. This is a powerful metaphor for setting goals and having confidence. And it’s a way to learn how to be gentle with yourself. Here’s how it goes:

Everyone has a certain length of string. This string represents how much good stuff we have that can combat a problem. Coping skills and tools to use in difficult situations. Knowledge that we need. Resources such as having enough support and encouragement. Usually we have a relatively short piece of string. We humans tend to recycle the same strategies to deal with issues over and over. We yell. We sulk. We turn to substances or other distractions. We get mad. We approach our issues the same way over and over.

We add to our string every time that we work at improving ourselves, try to learn new ways to deal, etc.  So you tried to be patient with your spouse and not start an argument when you would otherwise have gotten into a huge fight? String. You are trying to take better care of yourself by eating healthier? String. You tried out meditation that one time? String. We don’t add a whole lot of string at one time because we don’t magically erase all of our problems at once. We tend to add it inch by inch.

Here’s the problem

If you had five feet of string, then, no, an inch wouldn’t even be noticeable. That is the lens that we are looking through – we think we have way more than we do, so small changes are too little, too late. But, adding an inch of string to 4 inches is a significant improvement.  That’s something to protect and keep working at. It’s very, very easy to discount your efforts because you think that you should be better at this happiness thing. Then, it’s hard to stay motivated to keep trying.

You didn’t yell at your children this morning, but by the end of the day you were barking orders from the couch again. You tried really hard not to argue with your spouse, but you still had an argument anyway. We think, “That’s nice, but it’s not enough. This isn’t fixed.” We focus on the fact that we didn’t add ten feet of string, and we cut off the bit that we do have by thinking it’s not enough.

It may sound strange that overestimating how many coping skills we really have is not helpful. Isn’t self-esteem important? But, what does it do to your self-esteem to feel like no matter how hard you try, you stink and aren’t changing enough in your life?  By remembering that naturally we humans only have a few ways that we know of to deal with issues, we can take a deep breath and realize that a teeny bit of string added (to our tiny bit of string) is a real change. Yelling bit less during the day, holding off before you jump into that argument, thinking about starting to eat better – inch by inch you are making real progress.

So when I’m getting discouraged at just how little I’ve been able to change, I try to take that as a clue that I need to think about string. If you are struggling to improve your relationships or accomplish your goals and feeling stuck, it might be time to call us at (720) 443-1947 to schedule a free 30-minute consultation and learn how to create the life you want.

Kat Mindenhall, LCSW, is the Director of A Peaceful Life Counseling Services in Lakewood, CO. She specializes in helping people create vibrant lives and relationships.

How to be Your Own Therapist

How to be your own therapistBe your own therapist? This is what you need to know

My approach to counseling is about creating psychological flexibility- the ability to essentially be your own therapist. If you can remember the parts of a butterfly, you are well on your way to understanding the elements of what psychological flexibility is.

Our psychological flexibility is like a butterfly. A butterfly has two wings (in this example) and a body in the middle. Each wing flutters in sync and they attach to the body, which is like the hub and hinge of it all. Without the body, the wings are useless. Without each wing, the creature falls to the ground and spins in circles. (Sad picture, but stay with me here).

We all have painful and unhelpful thoughts, feelings, and habits that get in the way of just about everything. We have to be able to cope with these feelings and thoughts as they come. Many people can see clearly that this is necessary, and enter therapy searching for a way to do just this. Working with these thoughts and feelings is one wing of our butterfly.

The second wing balances the other. It is the important stuff; our goals and meaningful things we do that make our lives vital. It’s going in the direction that is healthy and good for you. It’s knowing what direction that would be, and what we’d be doing more of to get there. Sometimes folks are aware that they need something like this, but may have no idea how to figure that out and create change.

In the middle is our butterfly body. This anchors and powers our two wings of strength and meaning. The body is our ability to be present and have a helpful rather than a rigid story about ourselves and our struggles. Being able to notice when one of the wings is off and what needs to be done to fly well  are the hinges that keep the butterfly going.  That’s where you learn how to be your own therapist. Many people come to therapy craving some way to learn how to make themselves feel better. They want to see what the problem is and what to do about it.

Two wings and a body, and you have a beautiful analogy of psychological flexibility. Any issue, from actual diagnosed mental illnesses to relationship struggles and stress, call for psychological flexibility. Wouldn’t you like to have a mind like a butterfly? Strength, meaning, and presence. To be able to float, change course, land quietly, and make fine tuned adjustments in your life. Flexible enough to dream of new possibilities and strong enough to deal with what gets in the way.

If you are like many folks who feel more like that butterfly going in circles on the ground, I’d love to help you increase your psychological flexibility in your life and relationships.

What are your thoughts? I’d love to hear them!

The Secret Ingredient to your Problems

secret ingredient to your problemsThere is a secret ingredient to  your problems that might surprise you. It’s called avoidance. Our minds come up with a lot of ways to help ourselves deal with everyday life. A lot of the time, it says that when we make ourselves feel better, this is a good thing. So we spend a lot of time not wanting to experience any discomfort if we can help it. But, most of the time the things we do to avoid discomfort create problems of their own. We work so hard to avoid dealing with negative feelings that we create many problems.  Over time, these avoidant activities can take on a life of their own – leaving us with the original problem AND our unhelpful way of dealing with it. Hiding in a little box like this kitten!

Do an experiment: Take a problem that you have, whatever it is. Now, think of what would make that situation better. NOW, ask yourself what stops you from doing that. If the answer is another problem, ask yourself the same questions. Eventually, you will get down to what thoughts, feelings, memories, sensations, (any private, internal experience) that you are avoiding.

Here are some examples of avoidance- see if you have ever done any of these things:

  • Procrastinating to avoid doing something, or avoid the distress that comes when you can’t do it perfectly/my way/all at once.
  • Avoiding working on difficult relationships because of having to address problems and possibly deal with fears of abandonment, vulnerability, blame, guilt, anger, etc.
  • Avoiding things that require too much effort – like working out, hobbies, etc.
  • Letting opportunities go to avoid fears of failure or change.
  • Being self-destructive to avoid emotional pain.
  • Abusing substances to avoid boredom, emotional pain, or withdrawal.

Notice anything interesting? The problem is not the uncomfortable internal experiences you have, it’s how you choose to approach them. Waiting to feel better in order to make your life better is like waiting for an illness to subside before you treat the illness.

My next post will look at a perspective that helps make some sense of what is a helpful approach to these problems.  For now, stop and ask yourself, “What am I avoiding?”

Kat Mindenhall, LCSW, is the Director of A Peaceful Life Counseling Services in Lakewood, CO. She specializes in helping people create vibrant lives and relationships.

Why Is Your Pain so Complicated?

One of the things that really contributes to stress is how our minds make up all sorts of unhelpful ways to help ourselves. One of those ways can be called Complicated Pain. Why is your pain so complicated?

Let’s say you have a young child that throws a tantrum in public. The frustration and possible embarrassment that you feel during the tantrum itself is called Simple Pain. It’s what comes naturally when life doesn’t go your way. It’s to be expected, and it will go away once the tantrum is over.

Now, let’s say that you notice this Simple Pain, and you immediately think to yourself, “I should be more patient,” or “This wouldn’t happen if I were doing a better job as a parent.” These thoughts naturally can lead to feelings of being ashamed, upset with yourself for getting irritated, feeling guilty, etc. That is Complicated Pain. It’s pain brought on by how our problem-solving minds tend to worry about how we worry, or chastise ourselves for feeling discomfort. The problem is, there is virtually no limit to how much Complicated Pain we can bring upon ourselves. There’s always a judgement, regret, worry, and uncomfortable feeling that we can pile on. Quite effortlessly, I might add.

You could take any problem you are having, and make a pie chart representing all of your suffering from a given situation. Divide it into the Simple Pain due to the problem itself (such as: Car broke down, so I have to walk), and the Complicated Pain (such as: Car broke down, so I’m worried about money, afraid that this is going to ruin the whole year, getting upset with my spouse for spending too much last week, irritated with myself for feeling this way, fearing that this means I’ll have to go see a therapist.) Ask yourself whether what you are experiencing is directly from the event, or in any way part of your thoughts about the event.

My prediction is that a lot more than half of your suffering is due to Complicated Pain. Though there are many ways to reduce this, a great and simple way to start is to just notice without judgement that this is happening. You’d be surprised at what might happen for you! But, don’t worry, I have more hints to share in upcoming posts, so stay tuned!

Kat is a counseling therapist in Lakewood, CO specializing in helping people get unstuck from relationship and personal problems.