Emotions & Shame

Why You Lash Out — Sometimes for No Good Reason

Do you slam doors? Throw heavy objects? Give in to road rage? If you overreact or get defensive very easily, these anger-management tips can help.

Man with ADHD sitting by steps with hands on head dealing with anger issues
Man with ADHD sitting by steps with hands on head dealing with anger issues

Do you lash out when your spouse reminds you — nicely — to take out the dog or pick up a gallon of milk? Do you fly off the handle when the boss asks you to turn in the next assignment on time? Have you wondered, “Why am I always angry?

I know many people who do, including myself. In fact, many of us adults with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) lack restraint when we think that someone is dissing us. The question is: Are they? Because many of us have low self-esteem — after years of negative interactions — we are hypersensitive to criticism, real or imagined.

Bursts of anger have repercussions that last much longer than the few seconds it takes to vent. Having an argument in the workplace can get you fired. Blowing up at a loved one can strain the relationship. And it all takes a toll on your self-esteem — bringing remorse or shame for days afterward.

Get the Anger Out?

My client, Mike, came to me to learn some anger-management strategies after he realized his ADHD tantrums had damaged his relationship with his teenage son, who, like Mike, has attention deficit. Mike had long believed that “getting the anger out of [his] system” was healthy.

Until now. “My outbursts are creating a rift between me and my son that doubling his allowance won’t repair,” he told me. “I need to figure out how to keep anger in check — or I may make front-page news for strangling my son!”

I explained that most teens know which buttons to press, because they installed them. After a good laugh, we identified the times when Mike was most likely to lose his temper — after a tough day at work when he had screwed up an assignment. When he came home to find that his son hadn’t taken out the garbage — again – Mike got upset. If his son had a fender bender, received a parking ticket, or cut out of school early, Mike blew his lid.

Help, Don’t Yell

I reminded Mike that he must maintain realistic expectations about his son, who was easily distracted. Mike came to see that neither he nor his son was perfect, and that he should adjust his own imperfect behavior. Instead of yelling at his teen for forgetting to do a chore, Mike worked on helping him remember to do it by posting a list on a bulletin board in the kitchen and reinforcing it with text messages during the day.

If Mike’s son still forgot — or got into trouble at school — Mike learned to observe his rising anger, and figured out ways to short-circuit it. He took a relaxing walk with his dog and deferred discussions with his son until Saturday or Sunday morning, when he felt refreshed and less pressured by his job. He and his son were able to talk calmly — and productively — during those chats.

Finally, Mike found comfort in a local ADHD support group for parents contending with similar problems. It is a great comfort to him to know that he isn’t alone with his anger problems.

Another client, Karin, who was sweet and personable during her visits, surprised me when she told me she had problems managing her anger at work. Karin was furious with a coworker who frequently blamed her for something that wasn’t her fault.

Instead of talking with the coworker or her immediate supervisor, she acted impulsively and went to the boss to defend herself. “Knowing that everyone thought it was my fault that the company lost the contract made me so angry,” says Karin. “I felt I had to let Mr. James know that it wasn’t.” Karin’s supervisor was livid about

We talked about a strategy that would let her indulge her anger without acting rashly. I suggested that she set a timer and let herself be angry for five minutes. After the time was up, she had to move on. I also had her place a visual cue next to her phone that would remind her to pause before taking rash action — like calling the boss. She rummaged through her photos and found a snapshot of herself and her kids making sand castles on the beach.

“Looking at the photo does two things for me when I get angry,” says Karin. “It reminds me that my job is not as important as it seems. What counts most is my relationship with my family. It also reminds me that my happiness doesn’t come from my job but from within — and that no coworker or boss can take it away from me.”

Karin still gets angry at work, so she has expanded her cuing strategy: She keeps a draft folder for e-mails labeled “Wait On.” If she thinks she is sending e-mail out of anger, she lets her message sit for 24 hours and re-reads it before hitting the send button. “Many of these e-mails never leave that folder. If I decide to send one, I edit out rude or inappropriate remarks before doing so.”

And when she does slip up and says something that she regrets later? “I own up to my mistake and apologize.” Not all of her apologies are accepted graciously, but saying she’s sorry makes her feel better about herself. As a result, her relationship with her coworkers has improved dramatically.

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