An Unexpected Way to Cope With Anger and Temper

Here’s a technique for coping recently described by someone I know:

‘When you’re really upset at someone, imagine what you want to do to them. It might be something completely wrong or irrational to do in reality; but visualizing it makes me feel better and helps me cope.’

The person who described this used to have a big problem with temper and impulse control. She told me those problems have almost completely disappeared since she started using this approach. She no longer threatens people or voices hostility towards them. If someone annoys her, she simply ignores them or withdraws from their presence, thanks largely to this technique.

This technique flies in the face of a common but prevalent false belief. The false belief is that there’s such a thing as ‘bad’ thoughts. ‘I’ve had a thought of doing something bad or wrong. That makes me a bad person.’

That’s not necessarily the case.

Fantasy can be a form of relief or release. Is doing something the same as thinking about it? Obviously not. So why hold yourself accountable for merely thinking about something the same as if you actually did it?

Can fantasy be unhealthy or destructive, thus implying thoughts can be bad? No, because it’s never thoughts in and of themselves which are destructive. It’s what you do with your thoughts that counts.

The same thought can serve two different purposes. You can think about wanting to harm someone. You do so in order to help you cope with your anger and control your temper. Or, you could think the very same thoughts with an intent to act on those thoughts. Same thoughts, two different contexts. The first context is perfectly harmless and maybe even healthy; the second context is obviously destructive, because you intend to act on harming someone.

In psychotherapy, clients sometimes speak to me of wishing to do something that’s obviously not right or rational. ‘Please don’t call the police on me,’ they’ll say, sometimes half-jokingly and sometimes seriously. But all they’re doing is venting steam and processing their emotions of anger or rage. This is perfectly fine. In fact, if they weren’t taking the time to process these emotions, they’d be more likely to act on them in inappropriate, irrational or destructive ways.

It’s not thoughts or feelings which are damaging. It’s what you do with them, or don’t do with them, that counts.

But isn’t it possible to dwell on destructive thoughts to the point where it becomes unhealthy? Certainly. But the problem here would not be the thoughts themselves; again, it would be what you do with them.

People who dwell on emotions of rage or destruction usually have the false belief that this will somehow achieve justice. ‘If I never forget about this awful thing this awful person did, then things will be right.’ Of course, ruining your life because of someone else’s injustice will only make a bad situation worse. No, it isn’t necessary to forgive someone for something they did wrong. But it isn’t necessary to dwell on it, either. Doing so will only heighten the injustice.

Think of what a creative writer does. An author writing a story or a novel plays out events the way the author feels events might or ought to be. For example, you could write a story based on someone you dislike, someone who got away with something wrong—but in your story, gets exactly what he deserves.

If you do this with your imagination, as a coping technique, instead of going to the trouble to write out a novel or story, what’s wrong with that?

Many people have observed that art, music, fiction-writing and other creative endeavors can be mentally helpful to those who engage in them. Why not extend this idea to everyone, to people who don’t engage in these activities as careers, but can still utilize imagination to help them address their troubling or unresolved emotions?


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