Thursday, November 17, 2011

The Pervocracy Guide To Not Doing Stupid Things Because You're Angry.

A number of people on the de-escalation post asked for a post on de-escalating yourself.  I'll say up front: I'm on shakier ground here.  I have professional training and personal experience in de-escalating others, and I can't say the same for self-de-escalation.  I'm a naturally meek person (offline); I'm more likely to apologize and back off than to press a confrontation, and the last time I struck someone in anger, a camp counselor put me in time-out.  But I'll try and bring my Armchair Psychology A-Game here.

Let your body relax.
A fun fact I learned from mental health workers: your hands know that you're losing control before you do.  They'll make fists before you realize that you're about to explode.  Catch them and undo it.  Close your eyes, take a big deep breath, and as you slowly let it out, unclench your hands and let them hang.  You can only get so angry if you have relaxed hands.

Do all the cliche touchy-feely yoga things.  They're cliche because they actually work.  Deep breaths.  Relaxed muscles.  Count numbers in your head.  Imagine peaceful things.  It'll slow down your bodily response--the pounding heart and pumping adrenaline--and it's a lot easier to think clearly when your body isn't screaming "RUN IT'S A BEAR!" at your brain.

Figure out what you want.
If you're upset, it's because something in the world is different than you want it to be.  Ask yourself what that thing is, and how you realistically want the other person to change it.  This isn't Occupy Wall Street; there's no point in having an argument if you don't have a demand.  It may not be tangible--it may be "I want you to promise to be more considerate" or "I want you to express appreciation for my work"--but it has to be something.  If all you can express is "I have angry feelings," there's nothing they can do about that unless you can lay out a plan that would make you less angry.

If there's nothing they can do, if they've firmly established there's nothing they will do, or if they've given you what you asked for and you're still angry: stop arguing with them.  There's literally nothing you can accomplish.  Remove yourself and calm yourself, because there's nothing left to argue about.

Don't attack.
It's okay to have a heated discussion to convince someone to behave differently.  It's not okay to have a heated discussion to convince them that they're bad.  That's not a decent thing to do to a person and it cannot possibly produce a useful result.  If you find yourself arguing the thesis "you are bad and you should feel bad," stop.  There is absolutely nowhere good that can go.  If you want them to apologize, change their ways, or make amends to you, say so directly.  A litany of why they're so bad--even if every bit of it is true--will only make both of you feel terrible.

Don't poke your own sore spots.
In my case, this means "Don't read YouTube comments."  Here's the Chrome plugin that lets you hide them, and it's saved me gallons of wasted adrenaline.  (The tipping point was looking at videos of astronauts, and seeing pages upon pages of "hilarious" comments that the female astronauts should get back in the space kitchen. WHAT THE FUCK IS WRONG WITH YOU PEOPLE.)  I also shouldn't read MRA websites, news articles about "the latest disturbing teen trend," or letters from my mother that start with "I'm very concerned."

If there's a particular situation or topic that sets you off every time--just stay away from it.  It can be very tempting to seek out these things because they grab your attention and set your mind going, but you always feel worse after exposing yourself to them.  Go look at puppies instead.  Unless puppies make you angry; then you have to know your limits and stop yourself before you start getting sucked down into the puppy-hatred-spiral.

Distract yourself.
I wasn't kidding about the puppies.  When you're cooling down from something enraging, go do something you enjoy, something totally unrelated.  Play your favorite videogame, go for a run, knit a few more rows on your project, something that keeps your mind and body busy.  Give yourself permission to have fun with it and totally lose yourself in it for a little while.  Even if the angry thing still bothers you afterwards, it won't have the same heat and bite it did before.

Hurting yourself, damaging your possessions, or "letting it out" by pounding pillows or screaming are not helpful distractions.  Do something nice for yourself.

When all else fails, physically remove yourself.
If you feel like you truly can't handle yourself--if you feel certain that the next thing out of your mouth is going to end your relationship or your job or reduce the other person to tears or make them afraid for their safety--just leave.  Walk away.  Put a closed door between yourself and the person you might attack.  Is it weird and rude to walk out of the room mid-argument?  Yes.  It's just not nearly as weird and rude as what you were about to say.  It'll be easier to apologize later for walking out than it would be to apologize for acting like a complete shithead.

And if you feel like you're at risk of physically lashing out at the other person in any way, you have a moral obligation to stop yourself by getting far enough away that you can't reach them.  You're not going to slap your lover or shake your kid if you're in a different room, not unless you have advanced tele-slapping technology installed in your house, and avoiding that is worth any amount of weirdness.

Get real help if you need it.
As with the other de-escalation article, these tips (and especially the last one) are Sometimes Foods.  If you find that you need them frequently, that you're always easing yourself down from an explosion, you need more help than a sex blog with pop-psych pretensions can give you.  A professional counselor can give you a whole lot more help than I can if you have a serious anger problem.  Here's a guide to finding low-cost mental health care in the US and Canada.

Phew.  I really want to write about sex again.  Next post is a Cosmocking.


  1. Regarding youtube commentators... As usual there is a xkcd cartoon for everything:
    Also, I long ago learned never to read YouTube comments because it always ends with, "my mind, where did you go?"

  2. Anal Pleasure & HealthNovember 20, 2011 at 12:57 AM

    As a proud owner of the book, "Anal Pleasure & Health," from way back when it first came out, I am still eagerly awaiting the buttsex post. I say this in response to your postscript, but also b/c of what you say about distracting yourself. "Looking @ puppies" is one way to do this. Chocolate is my most frequent tactic. But good sex (or good kissing even w/o sex) is such a marvelous way for me to take care of myself. When I feel good physically AND I feel like someone thinks I'm attractive and wishes me well, I can't help but feel significantly better psychologically. In that place, I'm much less likely to go to a psychologically bad place. (My bad places rarely include aggression against others, but they do include aggression against me).

  3. My grandfather was physically abusive to his children and my mother credits the fact that she was the same to the fact that she applied the strategy of putting us in time out in our rooms or the car and physically removing herself. She also read fantasy novels to distract herself, at least when we were in the car.

    (by the way, if you have developed advanced tele-slapping technology, please tell DARPA)

  4. oops, er, she NOT physcally abusive.

    Except for that one time a therapist said that she shouldn't remove herself and so she slapped me when I was an infant. Yea, she stopped seeing that one.

  5. sigh... I swear I know how grammar works.

  6. This is such a great post with important info. If only I read this years ago.

  7. Great post, Holly. I know a few people who ould really use this advice.

    Now if you could only do a "How to not let resentments fester passive-agressively but actually talk about and solve your issues with each other" post, all of my problems would be solved! XD

  8. Is it weird that I was angry before this (a week long stomach infection hasn't helped) but news of cosmocking instantly calmed me down?

  9. @scintillator: The first thing is to have a partner who is willing to talk about issues. Without that, the rest of the advice won't be helpful. (Mine wasn't, unfortunately.)

  10. It's a shame so many folks get carried away with it. Arguing can be quite fun.

  11. Great post as usual Holly, but I do seem to remember you promised us a butt sex post several posts back. Nudge. Wink.

  12. Where's our buttsex post? It's so very overdue.

    No but seriously, this is fantastic self care/deescalation advice no matter what the situation is.

  13. This is a really good post. I think the parts about consciously changing what your body is doing are super helpful. I even find that when I'm outside in the freezing cold and my shoulders are hunching around my ears, consciously lowering and relaxing them makes my whole body feel warmer. Weird.

    Also, very excited about Cosmocking!

  14. Ha, I saw the new Cosmo in the store ("Gold!") and was psyched that you'd soon be mocking it!

  15. Great post! Lots of useful stuff there. Thank you!

    I have one thing to add. The advice "take a deep breath" you give is standard, but somewhere I learned a variation that works even better than "take a deep breath; let it out".

    Take a deep breath.
    Hold it for a second.
    Breath in even more.
    Breath out, but now all the way.
    Breath the rest of the way out.

    For reasons I don't understand, the in-in-out-out breath instead of in-out-in-out has a magical calming effect.

  16. This is a great post except I find one problem with your strategies: they all require a certain level of mental functioning. As in, I would have to make a conscious choice to take a deep breath, walk away, etc. when I'm angry, and when I'm angry, I usually don't want to make that choice. So, what to do? How to break through my overly-emotional angry state with a bit of logic that doesn't make me angrier?

  17. @Ada: I find a physical shocking sensation (shoving my hand in cold water, taking a sip of a drink) can be enough for my brain to quickly reboot and remind me that I am angry and that I need to deal with that anger.

  18. +1 for taking a walk. Just say, "I need to take a walk and cool down before we finish this conversation." People get it. I've never had anybody say, "Boy, you really should have stayed and freaked out at everybody."

  19. Ada, I think that these are things to do when you see yourself getting angry. I don't get angry as a binary fine-RAGE-fine thing, and if it's the same for you, pay attention to the changes as you go from fine to RAGE.

    I work in special ed, and one of the things we do in the behavioral rooms, at least in elementary, is self-monitoring. A lot of times, the kids don't know what's going on inside them, much less how to handle it, so we work on identifying things ("Are you having a feeling?" "NO!" with tears running down kid's face) and then to asking for breaks, saying they need to calm down, et cetera. It means that every once in a while, I can walk up to the lead teacher and say, "I need a break to calm down," and get a piece of candy and five minutes to myself because I am modeling appropriate behavior.

  20. I use similar strategies with my 2E 8 year old. Little fella can be quiet and placid one minute and a screaming lashing out ball of rage the next. If you know how to look you can spot the signs (his hands tensing is a good one. Also his breathing rate) and head it off by allowing him a break from the world! Looking for the signs in yourself is probably harder (and something we are slowly trying to teach him) and I think probably takes a lot of practice.

    Great advice - thanks!

  21. I really appreciate this! My boyfriend and I don't fight much at all, mostly because I've realized that when I'm unhappy, I tend to go straight for really unfair guilt-tripping (probably has something with being raised Catholic...).

    So I've found that if I give myself a day or two to calm down and rationally sift through my feelings, I can get past the urge to just make him feel as awful as I do, and actually say something constructive. Its why I really hate the "don't let the sun go down on your anger!" type advice - personally, I need time to do a mental sorting out of my feelings (what's due to what he did, what's due to 'background noise' of a bad day or whatever, what's due to my own insecurities, etc).

  22. The hands, oh the hands! My man gets stressed (but rarely angry). He compulsively clenches and flexes his hands when he's under pressure, to the point where I've had to point out that he's crushing my fingers as we walk.

    @Ada - this is more about de-escalation - methods that can be used during the escalation process. Most of us don't lose our shit at the first provocation - there is usually a series of events (or an argument, whatever) that builds before we get to the tipping point. The key is recognising that that you're *getting* angry, and do something to lessen it before shit gets serious.

  23. I really should have thanked you sooner, especially since I was one of those who requested this post in the first place. Thank You.

    Although a lot of this is stuff I know already, it's good to have it set out in one place like this. And there were a couple of gems in there too, like the hands thing. I'll definitely try that next time.

    I was curious that you said it was Ok to have a heated debate to try to get someone to behave differently. That's how a lot of my anger gets started - I don't attack people personally at all. I guess that would fall under the heading don't poke your own sore spots.

    Another thing I find hard to deal with is the sheer size of the adrenaline rush that anger provokes. It's often not enough to go and take a few breaths to calm down; sometimes the shakes and residual emotional turmoil can last the rest of the day. The bad mood certainly does.

    Oh, one thing you seem to have missed but that I find helpful is controlling your blood-sugar levels. I'm so much easier to tip off-balance if I haven't eaten well, or ate too long ago. The mantra "If you're going to snap, snack!" should be easy to remember, and a quick boost like a banana or some bread should help you to recover from (the early stages of) getting worked up.

  24. I found this post and the other one on de-escalating others useful. A problem I face is that I frequently apply the 'remove yourself' tactic - I can get screaming-angry very quickly, but I'm aware it's happening and it also fades away very quickly - but my partner has real trouble with me doing it. It makes her more angry and she will follow me, and then I get madder that I can't take 10 minutes to calm down, even to the point of making a scene in public. I don't know how to deal with it AT ALL.

    I second snacking!

  25. Once I ran a building and had an employee who for whatever reason got angry with me and sort of ambushed me in the basement of the building. There was a language barrier and I said the word "confront" which apparently translated as "we fight now" because the guy's eyes got real big and he put up his dukes.

    I really didn't want to fight the guy because he had about 25 years on me which meant that either I was about to get beaten up by an old man (80% chance) or I was about to beat up an old man who happened to be my employee (20% chance) and I wasn't really excited about either of those outcomes.

    I really didn't know what to do, and lacking any hope of talking to the guy, I went down on both knees and put my palms out in the universal "hey, I'm a reasonable guy" gesture. He immediately calmed and we wound up reconciling. I'm long gone but AFAIK he still works in the building.

    I'm not exactly recommending this as it was a unique situation, but I thought it was an interesting impromptu example of deescalation.

  26. i can get to your blog again!!! i haven't been able to get here for a couple of weeks.

    thank you for this! really. my PTSD counseling got me off the hair-trigger-fight/flight response [if people snuck up on me and startled me, i was as likely to swing as to run, and NEITHER is appropriate in most situations.] but these weren't "i'm angry and can't control myself" issues, these were "my subconsious "KNOWS" that anyone sneaking up on me means to hurt me and it must force me to do whatever it takes to not be hurt again".

    getting rid of THAT was, relatively, easy. i DO NOT LIKE hurting people.

    but because i'm considered to be at risk for harming self but NOT at risk [anymore] for harming OTHERS, i can't seem to get any work in those areas - there's always something that the counselor and/or psychiatrist thinks is more important. and i'm not even sure i disagree, but i have NO knowledge on how to control/regulate anger, because until recently, anger wasn't something i was "allowed" to have. i'd be angry, except it would immediately turn into self-loathing because i'm not ALLOWED to be angry.
    and now i'm at a point where even my subconsious is beginning to believe that i AM allowed to be angry - i'm 34 years old and i've never been truly angry until recently [and possibly as a toddler] and i don't know how to deal with it at all. one time, i thought i was having an EXTREME panic attack and went to the ER.

    that was perhaps a bit TMI, but wanted you to know HOW useful this is going to be for me :)

  27. A little late to the game, but loved this post. I wish more people recognized that self-de-escalation is far better than WE MUST DUKE IT OUT RIGHT NOW.

    But I do have to say, re: "+1 for taking a walk. Just say, "I need to take a walk and cool down before we finish this conversation." People get it. I've never had anybody say, "Boy, you really should have stayed and freaked out at everybody.""

    You're very lucky to be surrounded by people who get it. I try to be, but am not always successful. Some people, as other commenters have noted, absolutely *don't* get it and will escalate the situation themselves in an attempt to prevent you from taking your 5-minute cool down.

    I've been in multiple relationships with men like this and had friends like this. When you're upset, it can be difficult to communicate "Hey, I'm taking a few seconds to calm down; I'm not leaving you forever," so I can understand why a partner might react badly the first time. But I absolutely don't have patience with someone who insists on stomping all over your personal space and wishes when you've repeatedly expressed that as part of your communication style, you sometimes need a few minutes. Drives me crazy. I've learned to not engage, to stand firm on getting myself out of the immediate situation, and to not feel guilty about it (which is surprisingly difficult).

    I grew up with a mother who, while mostly good except for her terrible taste in men, absolutely does not get this either. The only time she's visited me since I moved 1000 miles away, I got to use the "My house, MY rule" line, and it was very cathartic. We were fighting about something dumb I didn't want to fight about; I told her calmly that I was upset, but that wasn't going to fight about it, and walked away to get into the shower to calm down. As soon as I got out, she started yelling at me for "storming away from her like a child." I stopped and calmly corrected her: "No, I calmly stated my opinion and walked away as to not escalate the situation. In my house, we don't yell at each other when we are angry. We take some time apart until we can sit and discuss things calmly. I'm not going to do this."

    As I said, very cathartic. This post is a great one to share with people when trying to explain how I handle anger issues (I'm not being passive-aggressive! I'm trying to be a grown-up!), and I will definitely be sharing it.

  28. So true. Another thing I've found useful is "don't let yourself seethe". I can really work myself up into being majorly annoyed over little things, and one of the ways i deal with that is to say (out loud if there's a specific other rather than a random annoyance) something along the lines of "What you did upset me, and we're going to talk about that later. However, I forgive you." I find that it just short-circuits my "seethe" reflex and when later comes along, I can say "This is why what you did made me unhappy, can you not do that again please?" rather than "ANGRY ANGRY ANGRY!"

  29. Thank you for this, and THANK YOU especially for the link to finding low-cost mental health care, I've been stressing about that myself recently.