By Jonathan Decker, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist
The most rewarding aspect of my work is helping to heal relationships. We all have the need to feel connected, to feel loved and accepted, and to give our support and affection to others. Sadly sweetness can turn to bitterness in our friendships, families, work partnerships, and romantic relationships. We sometimes wonder how it all went wrong and how to connect again.
In my personal life and with my clients I have found that five simple steps can drastically improve our relationships, provided we apply them consistently enough to form a habit. These five steps are comprised of techniques I learned performing multiple family group intervention with Dr. Margaret Keiley, along with the practice of emotionally-focused therapy by Dr. Sue Johnson.
Step One: Recognize Your Body’s Signs of Anger.
All of us get angry, and sometimes our anger gets out of hand. We say and do things that we later regret or we shut down and push others away; neither of these helps us to get the closeness we want. Our bodies actually warn us that this is about to happen with signs like accelerated heart rate, feeling “hot,” shallow breathing, clenched fists and jaws, and more. How does your body let you know that you’re angry? Pay attention, because that’s your cue to move to Step Two.
Step Two: Stop and Calm Down.
Get some exercise. Listen to music that calms you. Take a hot shower. Pray or meditate. Especially effective is taking slow, deep breaths; this will increase blood flow and oxygen to your brain, helping you to think more clearly.
Step Three: Identify the Vulnerable Emotion Underneath the Anger.
All anger is actually a vulnerable emotion in disguise. If someone insults you, under your anger is hurt. If your teen walks in three hours past curfew, under your anger is fear and worry. If someone publicly chastens you, under your anger is embarrassment.
Step Four: Put Yourself in the Other Person’s Shoes.
When I’m upset I’m 100% certain that I’m right and the other person is wrong. It’s only after I calm down (Step Two) that I can start to see things from their point of view. Often I realize that I’ve made mistakes that need correcting and apologizing for. It’s important to realize that everyone’s behavior makes sense to them, so if I think someone’s being an idiot, irrational, or a jerk, it often means I’m not trying hard enough to understand their perspective. Even if I disagree with, and can’t condone, the other person’s words or behavior, I can always relate to the emotions they’re experiencing.
Step Five: Express Steps Four and Three.
Tell them what you imagine their experience to be like without claiming to know what they’re going through. Trust them with your vulnerable emotion instead of manipulating them with anger; letting someone know that you’re hurt, scared, sad or embarrassed helps us to connect, while anger always pushes people away.