How to Control Your Temper

January 13th, 2010.

“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.

No.

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.

Follow Through

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.

Act

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.

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23 Responses to How to Control Your Temper

  1. dotlizard

    Have I mentioned how good it is to see you back here writing again? Because it is very, very good.

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  3. xxEva

    I’ve never had much of a temper, but when I get mad, I get REALLY fucking mad.
    So I listen to music.
    I pretty much just make a bunch of sarcastic comments towards whoever is offending me and then I leave with earphones in. I blast music and I try to ignore whatever the fuck it was that pissed me off.
    It seems to work.

  4. lostlogic

    Welcome back V; great to see you!

    Generally I agree with what you’ve said in this post. I do, however, disagree with the premise that labeling a current self as an asshole is the best place to start. How about sticking more to strict facts: “I am someone who has a strong tendency to yell and scream and hurt people that I care about when I’m under pressure,” or “I am a person who has often let my anger get the best of me”. From what I know of psychology, either of these views are a better starting point than “I’m an asshole”. It’s much harder to do as you describe and change _who you are_ to another _who_ than to change _your_ behavior. “I am someone who has often let my anger get the best of me and as a result I have severely hurt my loved ones. I’d rather not let my anger get the best of me in the future because I don’t like hurting my loved ones.”

  5. jonro

    Welcome back, V. It’s good to see you writing again. Good post. I agree with what you said and I think it’s applicable to other things besides anger management. Changing our behavior is a choice, maybe it’s not easy to do, but we can control the way we behave.

  6. horribilis

    Bravo! And Bravo again! Good to see you writing AND about such a sensitive subject! That’s a hell of a thing to conquer, the out-of-control part of yourself that you don’t want to own any more. You always strike a chord of some kind. I had the opposite problem. I could never feel my anger and had to learn to not automatically shut down. It’s the same thing in some ways. Again, Bravo! You should be very proud of yourself.

  7. kellydoodle

    This style of writing is what brought me to your site and has kept me reading. I know you only write for yourself, but I know I can take solid advice from this entry since I have a tendency to raise my voice in heated situations without knowing it.
    You write with such a vivid imagery when peppering in anecdotes from your life. Good to see you back.

  8. Dax

    Yeah V, you’re a f@*#ing Jesus… I mean genius.

  9. trustfarm

    This is a good article, but it pretty much ruins your site’s tagline.

  10. HeavensThunderHammer

    Good article. I had to learn to control my temper when I was younger… I could probably still work on it now. Thanks for posting this!@

  11. Volatile

    Mastering anger issues is a lot harder than the average bear would think. I’m still in the process of controlling my temper(I’ve been doing so for about a year now) and I’m proud to say I haven’t gotten in a fight in 2 months. It’s not as much of an “act” anymore to remain calm but once in a while I have to fall back hard on acting cool, calm, and collected when all I really want to do is smash that motherfuckers face in. Sooo all in all, I definitely appreciated you’re little spiel.

    Also: you’re super bitchin.

    Peace, Love, and Genocide,
    A.

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  14. wheelnut53

    It was AA and CA programs that allowed me to see the futility of anger, which was more of a problem for me than drugs or alcohol.

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  16. Katie

    I was like that all the time with my friends i was friends with them for years but never really talk to them or hang out and stuff or sit at lunch with them and then in 5th grade i finally had the guts to talk to them and hang out and stuff like that so i did but i would say stuuf that i shoundnt say and thats beacause i dont think 2 before saying what i would say not to mention i would swer not a them like bepp u but i would swear and thats because i grew up with my dad swearing at his viedo games and when ever i did something wrong i would cr pretty much cry every time plus its a little hard becuse my mom died when i was only 9 and i j\dont know how to dell with my anger ever they were only my friends like half a year because i woluld always do something that i dont mean to hurt them by but they get mad a me and of course i dont mean to or want to like there was one time are teacher hand out homework pass and only 3 people said thank you and i was one of thosee girls and so the teacher gave us a choclate bar and i was bitting down on the choclate bar and turned around and there was a few of my friends and then one of my friends emidetly stared a fight that i did not want to get into but anyways see said why are you being mean and eating that in front of us an di said i ddidnt even know yuo were there cause i only heard them talking a little Ps i was really mad because one of my other friends and there friends was standing next to them and eating a choclate bar to while tlaking to them and then all of my friends was very very mad at me becase i was eatin candy in font o them i told them i was ssorry and they didnt beieve me beacuse we have gotten in tons and i mean like over 50 or 100 fihgts and most them i ddidnt even mean to do i was just talking to them do omething like ask weres one of my friends and shes gone alot so i ask were she is a lot and them me friend alex i changed there names those arent really there names so she got mad at me beacuse i dont ever ask were is alex? when shes gone so i asked her howwoukld you know if i do or dont your not there an d she ask my other friends maci and sarah and jane and they said never and i know im just show up there and its almost time to go in and then i ask were alex is and then she shows up and then im not always out at recess or hanging out them at recess or just not thinking strait and why should she be mad at me about she never asked were i am once 3 of my freinds said she does all the time and 1 friend that i realy really trust says i never heard her say weres katie once and also when ever theres a asigment were you have to pick a partner the tearcher says chosse some one you tempted not to talk to and you work good with alex and maci always pair up always or they pair up with jane and stuff and i ask how comw you never pair up with me and she said because it just feels awakard with out alex or maci there because we grew up being best best best bes best bst friends and that ticked me off and when ever we g on a feild trip i just want to sit by one of them or james or somebody i trust and half the time maci and alex sat toghther with each othe and with gina or jane and most of the time they would tell me i could and then they would say jane really wanted to sit by us because she doesnt have any were else to and know i dont have any were to go so i try seeing if i cant sit by james or some one but the people who called me a diese or i never brush my hair or you smeell like you havent took a shower ever and yes people would do that so i always got stuck sittin some one who saide you cant sit there its reserved or saying you cant sit there because theres already to people her and its only soupessed to be 2 to sit and know its not its souppposed to be 3 to a sit and then the teacher yelled at me because i was soupposed to sit down so i sat down quickly and they said its already super crowder and both of them took half they sit up and i had the edge the very very edge i littlery fell down like umm like 10 15 times and they said some i wass faking some i was to make them feel bad but it didnt work and then the rest of the time i did fall down and they said it is still so crowd in the sit even when i was fling off the sit i want to kick them and punch them so my freind jane was in the other sit and shes a little tall for her age and there was 3 to a sit and with her in the sit i t was like 4 people in the sit instead of 3 and those people didnt complain and the people i sat with were super skinny we could fit like 2 more people super skiny in there and there is like 50 other fights and i would be mad at them beczuse they said i could sit with them and then i would have to ist with some one else like right acoss from them i would just go into a position that i was comfortabl in when i was made andthey woud be like katie stop doing that and stuff and the worst part was some guy in my class thst would tease me and every body a lot he poked some one in the back with a pencil once and her keep ayoning me and stuff but the people is at with this time was some of my friends nd then i stared to cherr up a little once they got me to listen to them

  17. Asia

    I enjoy reading V’s posts and I often read comments below. Katie, Katie, Katie! Please use punctuation or at least hit the space bar five times

  18. Dawna

    These are such straight forward instructions! Your swearing makes this funny, and more enjoyable to read and makes me want to do these steps over and over again. I have a daughter with ODD and ADD her doctors refuse to diagnose and get her the help she needs. I have anger issues and coupled with a 6 y.o that acts like they are 17 can be a very bad environment I often cry in the middle of the day because of how angry we both get. And these are things we can do together and make our lives better. I love my kids so much and my daughter is sooo smart but at times when she allows herself to be a kid and not understand her consequences its so hard not to get mad with her. im constantly throwing a plate at a wall, or breaking a picture frame, (its been almost 2 months but today was so bad I took my anger out on items instead) People hate that I break things as do I but if I took it out on her well Id be locked up.

    Thank you for your post and being so honest with everything.

  19. Joe

    I’m struggling with managing my tempers myself and I think your tip on ‘Acting It’ is spot on. I’m doing that myself right now. This just affirms the method works. I hope to be a more peaceful and calmer person by next year.

    Thank you for sharing this.

    Best,
    Joe

  20. Marlene

    Sjoe this was a lot to take in, my Temper almost ruin my one year anniversary last night. Even at work, I get so mad I go Blank, after wards I can’t remember anything, I will know I had words with someone, but I can’t remember one thing I did or say, I sweared my boss three weeks ago, and got a warning, my first ever in my life, and I’ve been working for 13 years already, this has never happened to me before, why is it happening now ? Its busy ruining my life, work wise and personal wise, I love my Fiance more than anything but I’m afraid that this could be the end of us if I don’t do something about it. He said to me this mrng I better make a plan and start controlling myself or else it would be hit the road for me, he is the best thing that ever happened to me, what do I do ? Someone please give me a bit of advise, it usually happens so quick I will be having a conversation and next moment I can’t remember anything.
    Thank you for reading

  21. Joanne

    Hi, really nice to see you had your temper under control already =) For me is the same case. I would be violent to my younger bro no matter i want it a not. I just cant seem to control myself anymore. Yet i only do that to my bro , in school i am this free and easy kid,easy-going kid,no temper……yet…….I really hate myself, after looking at what i done to my bro.Thanks for sharing though.

  22. Kane

    I love your writing style. It’s very conversational. I just got a new job in my field and my passion FOR my field has historically made me act like an asshole during conflict. I’m going to try this and try it hard because I NEED this job to go well. Please let me know if you write any more about this subject.

  23. Benjamin

    This is what happens when you can’t control your temper: You pick the wrong person (man or woman) to deal with in that manner and they tune you up like a piano and then you spend copious amounts of time at the dentist getting your teeth fixed, rehab for the physical damage and possibly reconstructive surgery. When a woman acts like a man (violent, mouthy, etc.), she just became one and can suffer all the same consequences and pain associated with her decision. It’s really that simple. I know because I’ve tuned people up like that but there is always someone meaner, stronger and faster………always. It’s surprising no one beat the living shit out of you in school and fortunate, for you.

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