Home Psychology Toxic Anger Part 3: Tools to tame the beast

Toxic Anger Part 3: Tools to tame the beast

by Dr. Barry Lord, Psy.D

No one has ever said that it was easy to deal with harmful, and ingrained habits of angry expressions. Anger is a form of coping strategy that once it works is difficult to change.

Many times, when I am dealing with a very angry person, I check in to see if I am actually dealing with a depressed person. Anger often masks depression. (Note: same brain mechanism)

There is an old saying that says: “If someone can get your goat, it’s probably because you have a goat to get.” Over the past half century, I have met thousands of people; friends/foes, relatives, coworkers, students, clients, famous people and not so famous people, yet none of them had a perfect rein on their emotions.

We all could handle our anger better. It’s also been said that “The reason your parents can so easily push your buttons is that they probably installed them.” What really counts in this world toward having healthy relationships, is how we control our angry outbursts. We all have reasons for our anger, but seldom good ones.

In my many sessions with groups of difficult clients, I often begin by having them clarify what they are thinking or what they are feeling. They need to be able to clarify when they are thinking and when they are feeling. Without this important clarification, they cannot begin to be aware of each and where each comes from.

Many people slide through life on their emotions without knowing why or how they came about behaving in self-destructive ways. In other words, people slide through life rather than deciding in life. There is a difference between thinking and feeling.

When one goes through life depending on feelings, it’s like riding a wild horse without using any reigns. The horse goes wherever it wants without any decisions or control on the rider’s part.

Tactics to better tame our out of control tempers/emotions.

Whenever we seek to change any behavior, first we must become aware of it. In order to control behavior, you must put your finger on the behavior and the driver of most behaviors. You have to name it then claim it. When you are not aware of a feeling like anger, it can be a daunting task to manage it. It takes awareness to manage any feeling.

Awareness of one’s feelings is always a crucial first step to understand and challenging one’s choices and behaviors.

This is a skill not everyone can master. Little kids aren’t very aware of what they feel, they just act out in response. That’s why they have tantrums when they’re angry. As we grow, we can develop the ability to become self-aware. When you get angry, take a moment to notice what you’re feeling and thinking. Maybe ask what did I say to myself that may have caused this feeling. “Name it and claim it”. (Trust me when I say it takes practice.)

The ability to control one’s emotional outbursts is truly about thinking before feeling. Actually, my feelings give me clues as to what I am thinking. (Self-Talk) Awareness is about acknowledging what I am thinking, naming the feelings and choosing the appropriate behavior. Behaviors can become habits.

Only when we are aware of our thoughts and feelings as they lead to our behavioral choices can we begin to change unpleasant consequences in our lives.

Getting Ready to Make a Change

People don’t embrace a lifestyle change for many reasons. It could be because it takes too much work, it’s scary, they believe it’s the holy grail of who they think they are, or just because they don’t want to.

In her book of poetic musings Portia Nelson, wrote: “There’s a Hole in My Sidewalk” which became a mainstay of twelve-step programs.

Chapter 1

I walk down the street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk
I fall in.
I am lost…
I am hopeless.
It isn’t my fault. (Denial)
It takes forever to find a way out.

Chapter 2

I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I pretend I don’t see it.
I fall in again.
I can’t believe I’m in the same place.
But it isn’t my fault. (Denial again)
It still takes a long time to get out.

Chapter 3

I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I see it is there.
I still fall in…it’s a habit
My eyes are open; I know where I am;
It is my fault. (Acceptance)
I get out immediately.

Chapter 4

I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I walk around it. (Acceptance leads to a behavioral choice and change)

Chapter 5

I walk down another street. (Acceptance leads to a lifestyle change)
This is the goal.

How does a lifestyle change occur?

A lifestyle change only occurs because people want to change. Dr. D’Arcy Lyness website in 2019 describes out of control behaviors. She writes:

“Deciding to get control of your anger — rather than letting it control you — means taking a good hard look at the ways you’ve been reacting when you get mad. Do you tend to yell and scream or say hurtful, mean, disrespectful things? Do you throw things, kick or punch walls, break stuff? Hit someone, hurt yourself, or push and shove others around”?

(Lyness, 2019)

James 1:19-20 19   My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, 20because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires”.

(NIV, 2018)

Many of the people with whom I work, in my batterer’s clinics, have experienced out of control emotions and behaviors. They almost always convince themselves that they are the true victims. Actually, they are the victims of their own inability to think before they act, feel and choose an action that causes the police and courts to intervene. If alcohol or drugs are involved, they lose their inhibitions (Mask) and the real monster comes out to play.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is the model that many therapists use when helping people to change unwanted consequences for their untoward behaviors. The motivation to change can range from having better self-control, deciding rather than sliding through life, experiencing greater joy in successful relationships, to developing better self-worth. It does, however, take a great deal of practice and tutorage.

The Five-Step Approach to Managing Anger

The key to learning to control the habit of our out-of-control angry outbursts can be the following:

  1. Ask: “What am I feeling?”. (Name the feeling so you can claim it) You cannot control a feeling unless you can first name it. (Angry, glad, sad, afraid, etc.) This and the intensity of the feelings will give you a clue whether or not it is appropriate for the situation.
  2. Ask: “What did I just say to myself? Is my self-talk appropriate?” Often, we react according to what we tell ourselves. If what we tell ourselves is an overreaction it may be that what we are saying to ourselves is inappropriate for the circumstances.
  3. By putting into words what you feel, you can go about the business of owning your feelings, describing the situation and then your needs. You can go about the business of getting your needs met without exaggerating a situation and stop making others responsible for how you feel. (even if you think they caused it)

For example: You are angry at your spouse about something.

Ask yourself: What can I do? Think of at least three things you can do. I could find time to discuss the situation. Praise him/her for their good parenting, and/or use three-part “I” statements:

I feel_______ , because_______ . Therefore, I need______

  1. This is a possible way to find a solution without condemning your spouse or making him/her wrong. The “I” statement puts the ownership of your feelings on you rather than making him/her at fault for how you feel. (Think it through). This is where you think about the likely results from different reactions and you come up with better solutions.
  2. Check your progress. After you’ve acted and the situation is over, spend some time thinking about how it went. The key to a win-win situation is to engage and find solutions together, not to win the argument. Do engage with your partner, don’t teach or fix them or compete for control. Your goal is win-win. How can you win and help them win?

Give yourself a pat on the back if the solution you both chose worked out well. If it didn’t, go back through the five steps and see if you can figure out why.

Additional Ways to Manage Anger

Consider these things even if you’re not angry at the moment to develop physical and emotional resiliency. (The ability to remain healthy and bounce back from stress and wear and tear. The purpose of these strategies is to help prevent angry feelings from building up.

Stress is wear and tears on the body. It is cumulative and tends to attach itself to the weakest part of the person and over time progresses. It builds up (back, heart, organs, etc.).

Stress is activation of the Amygdala in the Limbic system of the brain that readies the body for imagined crises (Fight, flight, freeze response).

  • Exercise. Considerable research has shown that a well exercised/athletic body has much more resilience to the ravages of stress. Even minor but regular exercise has considerable value.
  • Listen to music. Music seems to work quickly according to researchers… And if you dance, then you’re exercising and it’s a two-for-one. (Lyness, 2019)
  • Write down your thoughts and emotions. There are many things that you can write about in many ways; for example, in a journal or as your own poetry or song lyrics. Taylor Swift has gotten rich doing this. After you’ve written it down, you can keep it or discard it. Writing is self-talk and writing down your thoughts and feelings can improve how you feel. Amazing insights can be the result. (Lyness,2019)

Note: When you write, you are “seeing” your self-talk. When you notice, label, and release feelings as you write, they show up in smaller portions. You can then identify untoward thoughts. Then they don’t have a chance to have as much impact on you. I have even had clients write using different colored pens. They use colors to match their feelings. This way you can actually see how thoughts create feelings.

  • Draw. Scribbling, doodling, or sketching your thoughts or feelings might help also. (Lyness,2019)
  • Meditate or practice deep breathing. This one works best if you do it regularly. This is more of an overall stress management technique. It can help you change the subject so you don’t feel overwhelmed when you are anxious (worried). If you do this regularly, you’ll find that anger is less likely to build up. Anger is found in the amygdala the seat of reactionary emotions. The activation of the Amygdala activates stress reactions.
  • Read the Bible. What does God say about you? You would be surprised how much he adores you.
  • Talk about your feelings with someone you trust. Lots of times there are other emotions, such as fear or sadness beneath anger. Talking about them can help. a great deal of the time what we say about a situation is inappropriate. We tend to exaggerate, awfulize, and catastrophize problems. This is a behavior, and sometimes a bad habit.
  • Distract yourself. If you find yourself stewing about something and just can’t seem to let it go, do something that will get your mind past what’s bugging you — watch TV, read, or go to the movies” (Lyness, D. 2019).


Bible, New International Version. (2018)Retrieved March 19, 2019. From www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=James+1:19-20&version..

Fader, Sarah. (December 5, 2018). What to do when you have anger issues. Retrieved from https://www.betterhelp.com/advice/anger/what-to-do-when-you-have-anger-issues/

Fernandez, Ephrem. (November 20, 2018). What is “toxic” about anger? OUP Blog. Retrieved March 4, 2019. From https://blog.oup.com/2018/11/toxic-about-anger/

Fraum, Robert M. Ph.D. (n.d.). Do you have difficulties coping with anger? Retrieved from March 4, 2019, from https://www.angermanagementnyc.com/types-of-anger
Mayo Clinic Staff. (September 19, 2018). Intermittent explosive disorder. Retrieved n 3/14/2019 from https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/intermittent-explosive-disorder/symptoms-causes/syc-20373921

Lyness, D’Arcy, Ph.D. (2019). Dealing with anger. Kid’s Health. Retrieved 3/15/2019 from https://kidshealth.org/en/teens/deal-with-anger.html

Strong, Debbie. (May 29, 2018).7 ways anger is ruining your health Retrieved March 11, 2019, from https://www.everydayhealth.com/news/ways-anger-ruining-your-health/

Vilhauer, Jennice, Ph.D. (June 11, 2017) Do you have toxic anger issues and not know it? Psychology Today. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/living-forward/201706/do-you-have-toxic-anger-issues-and-not-know-it

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