One of my favorite books, by Dr. Eric Berne, discusses in detail three ego states people transition throughout their daily experiences. These ego states are simplified as adult ego state, parent ego state and the child ego state. For clarity, I will define each of these states as their definitions bare importance for the title of this post.
The adult ego state can be defined as an objective state of consciousness. It is in this mind state that we can see things for what they are, without any assigned meanings or interpretations, (think Data from star trek). The parent ego state can be defined as a moralistic state of consciousness, it is from this state of consciousness that we pass judgement on the behaviors of ourselves and others. Finally, the child ego state can be defined as primal/emotional state of consciousness. It is from this state that we seek to get our emotional needs of acceptance, recognition, love, respect and autonomy met.
Now, you may be asking yourself, what does all this have to do with handling hostility? Simple, the best way to handle hostility is from the adult ego state. This is because, in this mindset, you are not taking things personally, you have both your parent and child ego states in check and you win. The aggressor is not successful in getting you upset and gives up.
This video, shows the me using demonstrating the adult mindset in action.
Now getting yourself in the adult ego state is easier said than done, even If you know you will be dealing with hostility in a future interaction. While I respect and deeply appreciate the work of Dr. Berne, nothing compares to cognitive behavioral therapy. This is because the best way to handle hostility comes from a revaluation and reordering of your belief system. For example, if you know you are headed into a hostile situation, it would be a great time to challenge your beliefs regarding your interactions with others.
If done properly, you will always arrive at an objective belief that states something to the effect that while hostility from others is not preferred, you can choose to not take it personally and focus on more healthier relationships. The process of addressing your beliefs forces you to simultaneously address your beliefs about morals and values (parent ego state) and how you get your emotional needs met, (child ego state.)
The strange thing about the parent ego state is that is that it is often wrong and only right when you encounter someone who shares the same morals and values with you. A popular example would be religion, specifically, religious rules on human behavior. Your morals are often going to be validated by someone of the same faith as you, while disregarded by someone else who does not share your faith. An objective reevaluation of your belief system will reveal that if someone’s behavior does not involve harm to someone else, then there are no issues. Further, even if someone’s behavior does involve harm to another person, the best course of action is to aid the person harmed, rather than attack the person doing the harming.
Most of the clients I treat for anger management describe themselves as terrible people. Furthermore, they are often described as bullies by their family members and those who are close to them. Typically such a description will come from a spouse who will call in to schedule an appointment on their behalf.
In getting to know these clients, overwhelmingly men, I find that they are typically overwhelmingly nice. To a point where they are inconsistent in setting for themselves healthy boundaries with other people. In close relationships this becomes a problem as the person seldom addresses naturally occurring conflicts with the other person or persons. This leads to stuffing of feelings and chronic pretentiousness in the relationship, until the person can no longer keep his feelings bottled up, the next stage is the angry outburst. In severe cases, particular crisis fueled episodes, the angry person habitually engages in bouts of angry outbursts with strangers.
To others who witness these outbursts, based on their feelings of confusion and feelings of being upset, they come to see the “angry” person as a bully or mentally unstable at worst. Meanwhile the person who engaged in the angry outburst is burdened by feelings of guilt and shame and will typically resolve to double down on his commitment to being the nicest person possible. Unfortunately this plays out as the person failing to exercise assertiveness skills leading to little or no boundaries being set. This then sets the stage for a new cycle where the person habitually stuffs his feelings, bottles up resentment before deciding that he can no longer put up with perceived disrespect. For people in close relationships with these people, it could feel that the angry outbursts are unpredictable, when it fact they are very predictable.
At the beginning of therapy for poor anger management, the person is first introduced to exercises for recognizing his difficult feelings. He is then introduced to cognitive strategies for recognizing and responding appropriately to his difficult feelings.
The core of addressing poor anger management skills is to address the core beliefs of the chronically “angry” person which influence his episodes of anger. For example, with someone who has difficulty exercising healthy boundaries in his relationships with others, it will be important to determine what beliefs he holds unto which prevent him from setting healthy boundaries.
It could be a belief about how he communicates with others, or it could be a belief about how he sees himself, these are just two examples of a variety of possible beliefs a person could hold unto. For example, I once had a client share with me that he viewed expressing his disagreement at work and at home as a form of complaining. He then further stated that he saw complaining as a form of being weak minded.
Whatever belief he is holding unto, is going to be an irrational belief. Put simply, irrational beliefs are beliefs which are not true, but feel true to the person who holds unto them. For example, a belief which states that “no one should curse at me,” is a belief which feels true, because people generally don’t like to be cursed at, but is an irrational belief because we have no control over the words of others.
Once an irrational belief has been identified, a healthier alternative is chosen for the person to adopt, along with cognitive behavioral strategies for internalizing the new belief. The process of practicing new beliefs produces a paradigm shift in how the person’s sees the world around him and subsequently how he interacts with others.
For those who are successful in adopting and implementing new healthier beliefs, family members and others close to them come to see them as more genuine, confident and compassionate.
Ugo is a psychotherapist and owner of Road 2 Resolutions PLLC.
In the early two thousands, I worked for a residential treatment program. This program provided treatment services for youth offenders who had been convicted for various offenses through the juvenile courts. One day the program director, summoned me into his office, he was making me a job offer, specifically, he wanted me to take over the resident director’s job. I found two problems with this offer, this first was that the resident director was still in that position, the second was that it was not a therapeutic position. My primary issue with the offer, was that he had just had a heated disagreement with the resident director, in front of witnesses and his gesture in offering me the job was a power move. I knew that he would be offended if I did not accept the offer, and that he might see it as a political strategy of sorts on my part. Perhaps he would think I was aligning myself with the resident director against him. I simply did not want the job, because I enjoyed being a therapist and I also considered it immoral to accept a job position that was already filled. I did not want to walk around the facility engaging with the resident director, knowing that he was soon going to be fired and that I would take his place. I also did not want to lose my job.
So I took a deep breath, said a short prayer in my mind and politely declined the offer. To no surprise he gave me a look of surprise and annoyance. I happened to understand that if he could so easily throw the resident director under the bus, my acceptance or decline of the offer would not protect me from similar treatment.
This is my understanding of what courage is, understanding that there are no guarantees or shortcuts in life. Courage isn’t necessarily about sacrifice, this is because without realizing it, most human being put their lives on the line in certain everyday activities. Most notably would be driving. Courage is the recognition that challenges or struggles in our everyday lives are inevitable and that avoiding them or putting them off only makes these challenges more difficult to overcome in the long run.
Most of us have been led on to believe that if only we would submit to some type of lifestyle or entity that everything will end up being okay. From cultural beliefs, attending institutions of higher learning to being employed by certain employers. We surrender beliefs in our personal powers to buy into the illusion of an easier life, all the while failing to recognize the role we play in maintaining the illusion.
As a therapist, when working with clients who have difficulty in making what may seem as a risky or out of the ordinary courageous decision; I guide them through an exercise designed to help them recognize how much of their personal power goes into maintaining the current situation that they are currently unhappy with. It is after they have come to understand and accept this revelation that the conversation shifts into how they can use their personal power into creating the new type of life they desire and deserve.
Ugo is a psychotherapist and life coach.
When I was a young teen, I remember getting so frustrated with trying to solve an algebraic equation that in anger I broke my pencil. My teacher then gave me the advice to practice taking breaks from problems I couldn’t solve and coming back to them. Specifically, he shared with me to accept that I couldn’t solve the problem then take a break from the problem, and in situations where feasible, sleep on the problem.
From then on, when I couldn’t solve a math problem and I came to a place of acceptance, I found myself more at peace with the situation when I took a break from the problem. Nine out of ten times when I came back to the problem, I would have a fresh perspective on the problem leading me to solving the equation.
It is easy for us to get angry at things that don’t go our way, but even more challenging being able to admit that the anger we experience is a sign that we are experiencing a situation that calls for us to use our problem solving skills. Often times I either read or hear about people calling for others to get angry when their rights are being violated. The funny thing is, that you don’t need to get angry when your rights are being violated, it is a natural reaction. The question is what are you going to do about it?
It actually takes more courage to put aside your anger in order to access the prefrontal cortex of your brain to solve a problem. If you find yourself getting angry and perhaps hostile in response to any type of disrespect towards you, it is because you did a quick risk assessment and determined that you would not experience major penalties for acting in aggression, or that you could afford to experience major penalties for acting in aggression.
This is why people who come face to face with others who are equipped to respond with even more hostility, then to go the passive route. It is much similar to an angry and unruly child, who becomes passive and quiet upon encountering an adult disciplinarian. When we attempt to solve problems from the primitive region of our brains we either go into a fight or flight mode, specifically a flight mode when faced with overwhelming force from the opposition.
This is why go to war units in the military train soldiers to not respond with anger when faced with things not going their way but with assertiveness. Not being angry does not mean that you don’t get upset when things are not going your way, nor does it mean that you go into denial mode and pretend to be happy. The best response to dealing with things not going your way, is to get past your feelings of anger, acknowledge the situation for what it is, and assertively go about in addressing it.
If you are reading this and asking yourself how this can be done, I provide the answer to that question in my book, Anger Management 101: Taming the Beast Within.
Ugo is a psychotherapist and life coach.