“OMG! He makes me so angry! He pushes my buttons.” When you hear this, what thoughts come to mind? This person believes someone else causes her to be angry. She has adopted a “victim” role. If she rigidly holds on to the notion that “he makes me angry”, she has turned control over her feelings to him, making herself helpless. Only if he stops doing what he is doing can she feel calm. If he continues, she has no choice, but to be angry. How sad!
And yet, this mind set is encouraged and reinforced by our society. Greeting cards have slogans such as “You make me so happy.” TV characters recite lines such as “You made me sad.” Even psychotherapists so often ask the cliché question, “How does that make you feel?” Each of these statements and the assumption underlying them are disempowering, blur interpersonal boundaries, and erode personal responsibility.
According to the tenets of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), how we feel is largely a product of how we interpret situations and events based on what we say to ourselves. CBT encourages patients to be their own therapist and practice new alternative ways of thinking and acting. Using technology, we can efficiently guide our patients as they practice changing their thought patterns.
Making the most of the technology available to us, we teach our clients to be stubbornly happy as follows:
Step 1: Have client record the triggers that precede their anger reaction in their journal or daily logs. We recommend using a digital journal. Overtime you will see a pattern. Have them tag their journal entries so that you can track the triggers. Spend some time in session reviewing their daily entries.
Step 2: Encourage client to explore the interpretations and assumptions that underlie their getting angry. Message them probing questions that help them see the paths which lead them to be angry. This accelerates the therapeutic process by using the time between sessions.
Step 3: Send client assignments on what do to suspend anger using self-soothing techniques such as breathing and self-talk.
Step 4: Have client journal alternate ways of thinking about the events that do not result in anger, and about interpersonal boundaries that allow for a reasoned, strategically effective response.
In our practice, we use CaseKeepers.com which supports messaging, journaling, tags and popup questions. We find it particularly useful with younger clients as they can capture their thoughts and feelings at the time of the triggering event using their mobile devices.
As an example, suppose you act in a mean way. I can react with anger and assume that you “made me” angry. Or I can perceive your behavior and tell myself that you are not worth getting angry about because you are in a bad mood, are tired, have brain damage, or are a mean person that I should avoid.
I can also tell myself that there is a boundary between us, that you are you, and I am me, and just because you act this way does not require me to become angry. You do not control how I feel.
When you encounter an anger-provoking event, it is likely you will sense an immediate emotional reaction like anger. Quickly, though, you can decide not become angry and engage in self-soothing. Then you can decide whether to respond to the event or ignore it. If you want to respond, be strategically effective: diffuse tension with an apology (even if you did nothing wrong), use humor, and don’t argue or try to change the other person’s thinking or get him to adopt your narrative of what happened.
What if you believe the other person is intentionally trying to provoke you, and you feel he is “pushing your buttons”? You can dismiss the person or the event by assuming (a) his actions are not intentional or under his control, (b) his actions are not personally directed at you, and/or (c) there is no consequence to what he is doing.
Some clients will say that this is “easier said than done.” Yes, this takes practice. Others will insist that they have a right to be angry. I am not advocating here to not be angry, or that anger is “bad”. Sometimes anger helps us overcome fear to correct an injustice. I am advocating for choice and not making oneself a victim.
In our first blog – Doing CBT Backwards – we suggested asking clients “How do you want to feel?” If you choose to feel happy, you can do so even when someone is acting to provoke your anger. You can choose to be stubbornly happy.