As my fist was going through the wall I could feel my anger surging. Even with temporary adrenalin-induced tunnel vision, I could see the 2×4 wall stud right next to the hole my fist created. I had almost crushed every bone in my hand. For just an instant, I was totally out of control, letting anger take charge. Thankfully I missed the stud. Thankfully I did not direct my fist to my roommate’s face. I had a boundary that I would not cross. What triggered this anger? My roommate and I were arguing about who should buy the next case of beer.
As a twenty-year-old at the University of Arizona, I was just beginning to see myself from a different point of view, a more critical and introspective perspective. I had taken six of eventually eight classes in Psychology and was learning that our brains can be reprogrammed. I had taken both Normal and Abnormal Psychology and wondered where I fit on that spectrum. How would the occasional outburst of anger be diagnosed? Was this normal or abnormal?
A few years later, when I was 24 years old, I lost complete control again. This time I screamed and yelled at my girlfriend who had just said she was seeing someone else. The words and the hatred that spewed out of me were as violent as any verbal attack could be. This eruption was so embarrassing that I vowed never to lose control like this again. I was not sure how to change, but I was determined.
Though anger was still a regular visitor, my behavior was changing. I was not as obviously violent when my anger trigger came from those around me. If I was angry at someone, they could see that anger, but it was more from my facial expressions, my tone and my words. Yes, on occasion, I raised my voice, but not to full throttle yelling. I did have a relapse a year or so later, yelling a string of expletives at full throttle, but this time the anger was directed at a sheet metal screw that I could not get screwed into the wall vent in my home. My new girlfriend, soon to be wife, was in the room when I went ballistic. She thought it was sort of funny as she had never seen me lose control and did not feel threatened by my attack on the screw. We both laughed it off. I was cautiously optimistic that even though I lost control, the verbal violence was not directed at a person.
As my understanding of anger grew, so did my understanding of violence. Violence is not limited to physical abuse. Nor is violence limited to hatred filled diatribes. Ten years after the sheet screw incident, I was leading a larger than normal work meeting, with about twenty staff members present. After hearing a dozen or so updates, one of my best salesmen reported, “I can’t get the proposal out this week.” Something triggered in me, my anger surged, I slammed my fist on the table and walked out of the room while saying, “I don’t want to ever hear ‘I can’t’ in this company again.” Within seconds I realized that I had blown it. Yet again, violence, both physical and verbal was my instinctive reaction to anger. Slamming my fist on the table, though not with great force, and walking out of the room were manifestations of physical violence. My words, though not yelled, were violent none the less. I was progressing in my journey with anger, but there was still so much to learn and so much to improve upon.
Since that last slam of my fist, I have stopped using physical violence in reaction to anger and my verbal violence continues to morph into a more hidden and subtle form. I learned how to verbally express my anger in such a way that many observers would not even recognize it as anger. I would ask a question or make an observation with the intent of hurting the person. I would not consciously want to hurt the person, nor would I formulate the most cutting words, but the hurtful words still came out. My voice would be calm and my body language at ease, but the anger was present, not surging as it used to, but flowing none the less.
Ten after that last fist slam, a moment of clarity came to me while I was sitting at a conference table with a dozen professional colleagues. For years I had referred clients to them, but rarely if ever had they returned the favor. I felt cheated and for years the anger slowly grew inside me. During a discussion on referrals, my adrenalin started to flow and unfortunately, I spoke. I attacked my colleagues’ character in a very subtle matter. My tone was gentle and my words were eloquent, but my unconscious intent was to make them feel bad. In just seconds I realized that my anger had taken control again. As always, I was very embarrassed for I had been violent.
I needed something to anchor me when anger surged. I needed something to hold my instincts back. At that moment, I decided that all my future communication would come from a loving intent. If my communications come from loving intent, I know that anger is not controlling my words. When anger is present, I need to keep quiet until I can express myself with loving intent. If asked a question while anger is present and I am not grounded in loving intent, my response will be, “I need more time to think.”
I am now in my mid fifties now and I rarely allow pent up anger to come out in any physical or verbal form. Thirty plus years of behavior modification have come with two steps forward and one step back. Progress continues, but mistakes still happen. I know that anger is a completely normal reaction to life events. I also know that showing anger gives important feedback to those around you. My challenge before me now is to recognize that first ping of anger and quickly grab control away from my destructive instincts. Focusing on loving intent is my permanent companion on the anger journey. I suspect will be friends for life.