Feeling irritable lately? We tapped experts Russell Kolts, Ph.D., a psychologist and the author behindThe Compassionate-Mind Guide to Managing Your Anger ($16.56, Amazon), Alice Boyes, Ph.D., and author of The Healthy Mind Toolkit ($10.89, Amazon) and The Anxiety Toolkit ($12.17, Amazon) and Susan Pollak, Ed.D., author of Self-Compassion for Parents ($11.29, Amazon), to tell us what’s behind an uptick in our “Grr” factor and how to control anger by using our compassion to recall joy.
1. Swap Shame for Curiosity
“While men tend to feel guilt after an angry episode, women often feel profound shame,” says anger expert Kolts, who hosted a popular TEDx Talk on the subject. “But shame prevents us from investigating what made us vulnerable to anger.”
Instead of blaming yourself, ask questions, such as, “When does my angry edge come out? Did I feel powerless when I lost my temper — or was I tired?” This will help you shift from self-blame to curiosity, and in time, you’ll start to understand your triggers.
2. Cue Calm in Seconds
We evolved to react aggressively to threats, explains emotions expert and Psychology Today blogger Boyes. The result? We have a “hostility bias” that leads us to interpret ambiguous cues as negative and feel attacked even when no one was on the offense. “Luckily, we can train ourselves to notice our biases before we overreact,” she assures.
“If, for example, your partner asks a question you interpret as a criticism, ask yourself, “Is my attack-signaling system misfiring? Is there another way to interpret this?” This small shift can help you cool off almost immediately.
3. Pause the Personal
Another common anger trap is personalizing. If someone says something odd to you, do you think it’s because you said something wrong? To break this pattern, we must learn to tolerate uncertainty, says Boyes. “Being OK with not knowing if something was personal helps calm us,” she says.
Next time you’re fixating on someone’s intentions, imagine playing a game of tug of war. “Instead of pulling harder, visualize dropping the rope. As you practice this, you’ll start to feel less reactive.”
4. Call on Your Heart
Instead of dwelling on whatever irritated you, tune into your compassion. “Take a moment to note that the next person you see just wants to be happy and not suffer,” says Kolts. “Soon, when something sparks your anger, you’ll find it easier to react empathetically.”
5. Tell a Larger Story
When someone is rude, it’s easier to be compassionate if we imagine what might be going on in their world. “The woman snapping at the waitress about the temperature of the coffee is not upset about the coffee,” says Pollak. “She may be depleted from caring for a parent or worried about money, so the coffee is her only treat.”
Her circumstances don’t excuse her, “but considering them helps you rise above her rudeness.”
6. Honor Common Bonds
“A powerful way to nurture your compassion is by volunteering in a setting that truly speaks to your soul,” says Kolts.
Pollak, who teaches mindfulness at Harvard Medical School, notes the power of giving back to a special cause: “As we help others, we’re reminded of our common humanity and that we’re all in this together — instead of letting the irritability we sometimes feel divide us, let the joy we feel bring us closer.”
This story originally appeared in our print magazine.
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