“I used to have a really bad temper. Seriously, it was really bad.”
My colleagues initially blow me off. “Yeah. Right.”
“No I’m serious!” I insist, “I used to have a very short fuse. The kind of short fuse that results in screaming and fist fights; the kind of short fuse that puts people in jail.”
They stare at me for a moment, confused. I can tell they’re wondering if I’m trying to pull one over on them. Some of them have half smiles on their faces as they wait for the punch line they are convinced I’m about to bestow. Others see the earnest expression on my face, understand that I’m serious, and look sincerely shocked. They’ve known me for years as an extremely easy going person who never even seems flustered, let alone upset enough to scream. Many of them have seen me in confrontational, stressful situations that have made them furious and watched, firsthand, as I responded calmly and even glibly. Painting me as a once unstable lunatic with quick fists is going to be a stretch for them. But it’s the truth.
I’m still trying to convince the nonbelievers. That they believe me is necessary to the point I’m trying to make. I take a deep breath as I search for the right words.
An image flashes in my mind. It is of a 10 year old me pinning my young brother to the ground. He’s crying; I’m punching him over and over in the face. I am tired and he keeps nagging me, so I hit him until his face is covered with blood, tears, and snot. When utter exhaustion finally slows my pounding fists, I can finally hear his screams.
Internally I shake my head and switch to another image. I’m a teenager in school now. A classmate walks up to me and tersely tells me I’m sitting in her seat. I already know I’m sitting in her sit. Part of the reason I sat there in the first place was to be antagonistic. Realizing this, she walks away, muttering under her breath that I’m a ‘Bitch.’ I am. I know I am. But that doesn’t stop me from grabbing her hair from behind and repeatedly slamming her face into a nearby table. I hear her teeth crunch.
No. I think, No. Stop. Something else.
I’m still a teenager, but now I’m sitting in my guidance counselor’s office. I have just assaulted my teacher. My guidance counselor says, ‘V, you’ve got to stop this. You have to. I’m afraid you’re going to end up in jail.’ She looks at me and she’s so sad. She’s so fucking sad for me. I cry. I can’t help it. I try, but I just can’t seem to stop myself.
Jesus Christ, no.
I don’t use any of these images when talking to my colleagues. I just stare at them desperately. For most, it seems to sink in.
With their images of me as the Zen Master temporarily spoiled, I begin explaining how changing your fundamental personality is possible as long as you have definite protocol in place. It’s a bit more complicated than making a New Year’s Resolution which is what most people don’t understand. This is why they ultimately fail, not because it’s impossible for a zebra to change its stripes.
So how did I finally learn to control my temper? I used the following process:
Plan to Practice Without Any Duress
The first time an actor says his lines aloud isn’t the night of the big play. The first time a figure skater straps on a pair of skates isn’t moments before competition. Yet, people who aim to control their tempers expect to be able to reel their fury in during a conflict. It doesn’t matter how much you really, really, really wish you could calm down. If you haven’t practiced beforehand, it’s going to be impossible to control yourself in the heat of the moment.
Envision Who You Are
Take of a moment to picture yourself during your last outburst. Was your face all red? Were you clenching and unclenching your fists? Picture your face contorted and screaming. Picture your environment and your loved ones shrinking back in fear and/or horror. Don’t waste your time thinking about what was inside your secret heart of hearts when you were freaking out. It doesn’t matter that you didn’t really mean what you said. When you’re a violent fucking asshole, all that matters is what you did. So ignore what you thought and take a long, hard look at your actual actions.
Envision Who You Want to Be
For me, it was pretty difficult to picture myself without a temper since that was all I had really known growing up. Screaming was normal. So I had to picture someone else. In my case, it was a good friend of mine. Very simply, she was the nicest person I had ever met in my life. Further, she never got mad. Calm, easy going, yet assertive…I envied these qualities in her. Those qualities were exactly the ones I wanted to replicate in myself.
Don’t Forget the Physical
Now that I had an image in my mind of the person I wanted to emulate, I paid close attention to her in a conflict. I noticed her wry smile and the way she shrugged her shoulders. When her buttons were pushed, I watched fascinated as she made a clever joke. When particularly frustrated, she gulped down a large breathe of air, smiled, and rolled her eyes heavenward. Palms turned upward, she shrugged slightly again and changed the subject when it became obvious she was going to gain any ground. Instead, she decided to just let it be. This. This is what I wanted for myself.
Know Your Warning Signs
I suspect for most, losing their temper does not come as any great surprise. In the midst of conflict, there is generally a slow build up. I further suspect that before finally and inevitably blowing up, most make an attempt at control. My advice is for people to pay attention to the physical cues their body gives them that they are becoming overly agitated. For me, my teeth would clench and my hands would begin to itch. In particular, my hands itching was a pretty clear physical sign that I was about to start swinging them. If you don’t know and understand these cues in yourself, you have absolutely no shot at heading them off at the pass.
Remember how I told you that you had to practice without any duress? Well, time to start practicing without duress. I pictured myself in the middle of a heated conflict and I practiced being the person I wanted to be. I physically practiced. In my head, someone would say something or do something that would typically set me off, and I actually physically shrugged my shoulders. I smiled wryly. I mastered the art of rolling my eyes heavenward. I did this in my bathroom mirror. I held imaginary arguments in my car. I got up and gracefully exited the room as if I were walking away from a real, live confrontation. If you haven’t practiced these sorts of things beforehand, in the heat of the moment you will be sorely lacking in any kind of muscle memory. Therefore, all of your wry smiles will inadvertently turn into angry grimaces.
OK, so now that you’ve done what I told you, it’s time to put yourself to the test. The next time you enter a conflict and your body cues start warning you of a potential melt down (Are your fists clenching? Etc), think this sentence to yourself, “Lights! Camera! Action!”
Then, act. Literally. As if you were an A-list celebrity in the middle of the movie that will make our break your career. Act. Smile wryly as you trained yourself to do. Say your pre-planned clever quip. Sigh and exit the room in such a way as to make the imaginary director filming you mutter to himself, “He/she is a star!”
That person standing across the room from you? They’re also an actor. Their job is to rattle you, but your character is not the type to be easily rattled. Once this is over, you and that actor will probably grab a bite to eat in your trailer. But first, you have to nail this scene.
Will doing this feel a little awkward and weird? Sure will. But it’s better than putting your fist through the wall, isn’t it?
Now a lot of people are reading this and saying, “She’s asking me to pretend to be an actor in a movie! Keyword: acting! That’s not being true to myself!”
To which I reply: You’re absolutely right. You are acting and you are not being true to yourself. But ‘yourself’ is a fucking asshole, remember? Why would you want to be true to that, particular, ‘self?’ You, in your natural state, possess a distinct tendency to act like a raging dickhead tornado leaving nothing but pain in misery in your wake. And you want to keep that up (despite the pain you cause others) all in the name of personal honesty? Come on! Get your fucking priorities straight!
Furthermore, the more you do this, the less awkward and fake it will feel. The more you act like your ‘unruffled, Zen master, character’ the more you will, in fact, become this character. Pretty soon, someone will say something to piss you off and you will not even think about acting. You will just do it and it will feel completely and totally natural. It’s not a character anymore. It is how you behave, it’s how you handle conflict; it is who you are. It’s how you feel inside.
Remember, when you have an out of control temper, it’s a part of you. That temper is who you are, fundamentally, as a person. It isn’t a bad habit like biting your nails or twirling you hair around your finger like a moron. It is a major part of your character. In learning to control it, what you are asking of yourself is to become a different sort of person. Accept that, embrace it. Currently, you’re an asshole. That’s OK because you don’t always have to be an asshole. You can instead choose to be a nice guy. Your personality isn’t something you’re born with. It’s a choice. And with a clear vision in your head and just the right amount of practice, you can train yourself to make better choices.
“So how long does it take to become someone new?”
Well, for me, it took about 8 months. I acted for 8 months and then suddenly, I wasn’t acting anymore. You wouldn’t know it from this website, but I’m actually a fairly laid back person.
However, I still do have a bit of a potty mouth.