Confessions of an Angry Therapist-to-Be Part 1 of 2
It was Christmas in Princeton, New Jersey. I was in grad school at the time, and the mall’s parking lot was hopping with holiday shoppers. As I was scanning the lot for open spaces, a car suddenly pulled in front of me. Although we were both moving at a snail’s pace, the jam-packed lot meant that I had to slam on the brakes to avoid hitting him. The driver who cut me off needed some advice about manners, I thought to myself.
I threw the shifter into Park, and got out to share what was on my mind. But before I could talk to him, he had rolled up his windows and locked the doors. Prior to putting his car under lockdown, my intention was to use words-and nothing else-to express my pique. But now I was really mad. No sooner than you can say, “Anger management,” then my fist plunged into the top of his car and left its mark.
As he drove off in a panic, I experienced a moment of reflection, “My anger is hurting myself and others. I really need to change.” Although the realization and motivation were immediate, the transformation required work. When I recount that story today, it seems as if it were a completely different person who committed that act of aggression so many years ago. Who knew that many years later, I’d write a book on anger management and help countless people lead less angry lives.
The Start of High Stress Season
The fall signals the onset of the holiday season. It’s time to take some preemptive measures in order to manage the stress of the coming months. Which points to one of the most important things about stress-many of life’s stressful moments are avoidable if we plan ahead.
Let’ take driving for example. Imagine that traffic is worse than expected, and now you’re running late for a meeting. Add to that your GPS is not working, and now you’re not only late, but you’re lost too. You’re stopped at a red right; it’s only 8:00 a.m. and your frustration is off the charts. The light turns green, but the car in front doesn’t budge because the driver is busy texting. You honk. He responds with a passive aggressive lurch forward. At this point, any long held adherence to world peace or “Make Love Not War,” is put on hold. You’re now ready to act in a way that would make the leader of a rogue nation proud. Meanwhile, negative thoughts fill your mind. They range from the internal, such as “Why didn’t I leave earlier?” to the external, “Why is this driver being so rude?”
Take the same bad traffic/faulty GPS scenario and imagine that you’ve magically been given an additional 30 minutes to arrive at your destination. Sure the texting driver in front of you may cause some irritation, but his behavior would be far more tolerable. You may even choose to wait for the driver to notice that the light is green. Although traffic stinks and you’re still lost, you have time to pull your car over, and call the office for directions. Despite all the obstacles you’ve confronted, you arrive on time and relaxed. On top of that, you didn’t act in a way that was unkind or hostile towards yourself or others.
In the day-to-day of life, so often we believe that our frustrations are someone else’s fault (like incompetent drivers) or we blame circumstances outside us (like bad traffic). We believe that the external world is preventing us from living life fully and richly. But even in the midst of stress, we can embrace the beauty of the present moment. In fact, we can look at life’s low points as opportunities to learn more about ourselves. In the next blog post, I’ll explain how the difficulties we face are really our teachers in disguise, and I’ll show how this approach can diminish stress and increase happiness.