Tuesday, August 28, 2012

A New Approach to Anger Management

When I was young, I was a hothead. Some of that is physiological--I can go from zero to 60 in two seconds. And some of it is cultural--I'm a New York Jew, a culture that is more accepting of  displays of anger.
A few years ago, I finally realized that most successful people are relatively calm. Both President Obama and candidate Romney are examples. So are Bill and Hillary Clinton, Colin Powell, Dick Lugar, and John Kerry. I saw the 2004 presidential front-runner Howard Dean kill his chances with one whoop, a mere moment of irrational exuberance. 

But what I think what most convinced me to change was watching C-SPAN. It's a parade of America's most influential people: not just political leaders but CEOs and eminent experts. Even when discussing terrorism, their demeanor usually remains moderate.
I looked back on times I displayed anger and never was I glad I did. Sure, positive passion, a measure of enthusiasm, is great. But showing anger is a no-no. (So much for America being a tolerant society.) 

For example, I had written the cover story for a major magazine and eagerly bought a copy to see what it looked like in print. To my horror, the second paragraph had been omitted in error. I was furious. All I could think was that many people would stop reading it after the first two paragraphs because that second one was a non-sequitur. I grabbed the phone and laid into the editor. Of course, all I accomplished was to reduce my chance of ever writing for that magazine again. In retrospect, I doubt if anyone was hurt because the paragraph was deleted.
I've become aware that, alas, few things matter that much in the larger scheme. Billions of us are trying to change the world or at least our sphere of influence, and even when you do everything right, it's hard to see real change. So yes, it's worth trying hard. Without working diligently toward goals, life has too little meaning. But being too invested in the outcome may be a fool's game. I do think the Buddhists have it right: Be in the moment and focus on your current task, but after it's done, let go of the outcome. That is beyond your control.
I've also used this approach to anger management: If I start to feel angry at someone, I force myself to leave the room, take deep breaths, remind myself to have perspective, and only then return. When I'm angry at something I see in writing, I draft a response but delay sending it until the next morning when I can view it with fresh eyes.
Mainly, I just try to remember that the most successful, influential people stay calm except for demonstrating an only moderate amount of enthusiasm. I also work at staying in the sweet spot of trying hard but letting go of the outcome.
I can't always make myself retain Obama-like equanimity but I'm getting better. I'm hoping at least some of my approach to anger management will do the same for some of you. 

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