Six Questions To Help You Keep Your Cool — Instead of Losing Your Temper.

Every Wednesday is Tip Day.
This Wednesday: Six questions to help you keep your cool.

One of my worst faults is my tendency to “snap” – to react sharply, in a minor but harsh way. This trait clouds my happiness and the happiness of everyone who feels the lash.

The conventional advice for mastering your temper is to “Count to 10” before reacting. My problem is that, in the difficult moment, it never occurs to me to count to ten.

Figuring out ways to control my snappishness has been one of my chief goals for my happiness project. To try to rein it in, I’ve tried everything from getting more sleep to the Week of Extreme Nice to hypnosis.

I also came up with a set of questions that kick into my brain (sometimes) in time to affect my behavior.

When I feel myself losing my temper, if I can muster the mindfulness to be self-reflective, I ask myself these questions:

1. Am I at fault? I hate to be criticized or to be in the wrong. Often, I’m angriest when someone is chiding me about something that I am, indeed, guilty of. When I’m about to hit back, I remind myself to accept criticism politely, if grudgingly.

2. Will this solve anything? I often snap when I feel like I’m confronting the same annoyance over and over. Fact is, people often have irritating habits that aren’t going to change. Failure to meet deadlines, failure to return phone calls, untidiness, etc., etc. I try to remember that snapping isn’t going to make any difference, but will only make me feel bad.

3. Am I improving the situation? This is particularly important with my younger daughter. If I lose my temper with her, the problem just escalates to a whole new horrible level. She dissolves into tears and wails, “You talked to me in a mean voice!” It’s far more effective to stay calm. Also, nicer.

4. Should I be helping you? Often, I lose my temper because I’m actually feeling guilty about my own unhelpfulness. My guilt makes me crabby, but it’s really a sign that I should be taking action.

5. Am I uncomfortable? Discomfort shortens my fuse. I’ve become much more careful to dress warmly (even when people make fun of my long underwear and double sweaters), to snack more often, to turn off the light when I’m sleepy, and to take pain medication as soon as I get a headache. The Duke of Wellington advised, “Always make water when you can,” and I follow that precept, too.

6. Can I make a joke of this? Using humor is extraordinarily effective, but I usually can’t find the inner depths to laugh at an annoying situation. A distant goal for which I’m striving.

It’s tempting to dwell on questions like, “Whose fault is it?” or “Why am I upset?” but in the end, these tend to stoke my temper instead of soothe it. I try to remind myself that no behavior is annoying if I don’t find it annoying. A hackneyed observation, but true.

Have you found any good strategies for keeping your cool?

* My friend Erin Doland is the editor-in-chief of the fabulous site, Unclutterer, and now the excellent Simplifried –“a blog about ending mealtime stress. If your nerves are fried, we’ll be your simple, delicious, and nutritious cooking guide.” The Simplifried Manifesto says it all!

* Sign up for the Moment of Happiness, and each weekday morning, you’ll get a happiness quotation in your email in-box. Sign up here or email me at gretchenrubin1 at gmail dot com (don’t forget the “1”). I’m thrilled by the response to this — I started it just a few weeks ago, and almost twelve thousand people have signed up already.

  • Tryon

    I pretend another person is telling a third person about the situation, as if they were an observer: “She was in the line at the supermarket, her kid asked for candy and she just about bit his head off!”. Pretending that someone else is watching me (Santa, my grown-up self, the local gossip) helps me to look from the outside – and reign it in.

    • gretchenrubin

      This is a great strategy.

    • http://www.jenniferlinforth.com Jennifer Linforth

      Really LOVED this idea Tryon! Kudos! I will keep it in mind!

  • http://www.happinesshereblog.blogspot.com Jennifer

    These are awesome tips, too, for school teachers. I’ll have to share this tomorrow.

  • Marylouisekidwell

    This is one of my main issues too!! Love the tips… Trying to focus my attention on anything BEFORE the snap – ahhh, there’s the challenge!

  • Fenner Kb

    I am pretty unfailingly polite and even-tempered–growing up in the Deep South helped, but also practicing equanimity, and trying to be compassionate–seeing things from the other guy’s perspective….my problem is a tendency to want to bolt when I get overwhelmed or snapped at–which is the same song, second verse as your snappishness, I think, and I’d add that I try to observe the HALT principle from the “recovery” people: don’t let yourself get too Hungry, Angry, Lonely or Tired.

    I also have found that just faking the need for a rest room break gives me the space I need to collect myself and “change the negativity tape” playing in my head. You are completely dead on when you realize that your snapping follows some faulty thinking a lot of the time.

    • http://www.tootoomama.com Tootoomamadaisy

      Goodness, a like soul. I’m a Southern girl who rarely snaps but is probably too timid. (Spouse is the snapper.) Doesn’t mean I’m not angry — it just leaks out in other destructive ways that don’t involve raising my voice — so you are right that the practice of working on the self-talk is key in either case. VERY hard to do in the moment. I love your bathroom strategy.

      • gretchenrubin

        Bathroom strategy is so effective — my challenge with all of these is to
        remember to think to do them, when I’m about to snap. So often, I think
        back, “Wow, I should’ve thought to do that.” Very hard to think of it in the
        heat of the emotion.

  • Sarah

    The issue I have is actually remembering to do this in the heat of the moment!

    Also, you might enjoy the book “joyful wisdom” by Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche :)

  • Nuray

    I am normally a very easy going person, very rarely I snap and hate that feeling..I just let it out and even worse I bring up old stuff that made me angry in the past but I never mentioned it before…Then this makes everything worse… I guess I’m most of the time trying to avoid situations that will cause a big snap :) It’s kind of escaping from things but it works for me…

  • Modernhousewivery

    This is very helpful. I too “snap” and have difficulty controlling my temper. Ironically with those I love the most. Its true what you said in your book that we more easily act this way with those we are closest too. But I’m working on it. Its a resolution in my toolbox. :)

  • http://becomingmorewithless.wordpress.com Frances

    These are great! I had to deal with a particularly tough situation for me. I was working with a girl with Autism who had the nervous habit of flicking spit at me! Sometimes I would get so angry I had to hit the pause button. I would completely turn away from her and avoid eye contact while taking a deep breath and holding it. My job at the time did not allow me to deal with her habit directly so it was all I could do to manage my temper politely. This really worked for me as a short-term solution, but I eventually quit. My next job was as a behavior therapist, changing these unwanted behaviors!

  • The Red Angel

    This is a great guide…..thanks for sharing! As a person who can have a pretty bad temper sometimes, I appreciate these tips very much! Although I dislike getting the blame, I try my best to go with Tip #1 and think with an objective point of view about the situation and my actions.

    ~TRA

    http://xtheredangelx.blogspot.com

  • flossattrocbrocandrecup

    Your description of yourself could have been written about me, too! I struggle with exactly the same snappishness, and pass it on to the rest of my family too, when I really get going… I spent a lot of time last year being mindful of what caused it and came up with a similar list to your own. The ‘uncomfortable’ question proved to be very significant! Like Tryon’s comment, I also saw a mum yesterday snapping unreasonably at her son because she was late for a doctor’s appointment, and I just thought: ‘been there’, instead of judging her. reminded me that a disorganised life has also a cause

  • flossattrocbrocandrecup

    Sorry, Disqus is being odd and my comment came out strangely – I was just going to add that a disorganised life, coupled with procrastination, makes me much more snappish. So ‘order’ is the thing that helps!

  • Katskime

    I too have that snap reaction…a bitter temper! It seems for many of the same reasons that you do. This is most apparent in work situations where it is most difficult to fix. I do alot of apologizing.
    I have newly found my voice out of necessity at work as I am a supervisor learning a new job. There was not only content and logistics to learn but management skills.
    Fortunately, I am a nice person and people forgive my outburst. At this point I have thought out the problem and can talk about a resolution rationally.
    I have recently begun therapy to get to the heart of the matter…plain old insecurity or type A personality or both. I went in to try hypnosis as well but the therapist suggested another technique.
    Since my last session with her this technique worked and did not come in handy when I really needed it. My anger is a form of spontaneous combustion, it just blurts out.
    One annoying situation at a time…

  • Peninith1

    Snappishness is not my big fault–being an over-worrier is. Herewith are

    Four tips for combating anxiety

    I have a serious fault, which not only makes me undergo a lot of unnecessary suffering and unhappiness, it also has the potential to damage my closest relationships. I am a worrier—particularly about the status of my relationships. I tend to wildly imagine that something is wrong, someone is angry at me, or that I am on the verge of finding myself drastically and humiliatingly abandoned. Of course there is precedent for this, so my thought patterns are hard to combat. To curtail my suffering and prevent damage to relationships in which NOTHING would be wrong if I were not projecting wrongness upon them, I have been practicing several steps.
    1. I have learned to recognize when I am falling into a bad thought pattern. For me the markers are the almost instant appearance of full blown scenarios of horror that carry with them an air of complete certainty and authority. The more certain my mind is of what it is imagining, the more spurious and made up the dire imaginings are likely to be. When I find this happening, I now try to STOP before I do or say anything based on my imagined reality.
    2. I repeat to myself the mantra “YOU DON’T KNOW” when I start to imagine the worst. It is hard to be uncertain, hard to wait and see, but better to recognize the truth that I don’t know what’s happening somewhere else with others until / unless I’m told. Travelers may be safe, people I’ve not heard from for a week may not be angry at me, and my significant other may not have abandoned me.
    3. I find something active to do that fills up the screen and occupies my mind and body. BE HERE, NOW is my second mantra. I have been repeatedly surprised at how easy it is to calm down when I divert my attention from imagined scenarios of hospitals, morgues, and good-bye notes to a pleasant occupation. I find that a sewing session, some exercise, gardening or even housework and paying the bills, will do the trick.
    4. In conversation, I strive to ask neutral, unloaded questions. Instead of ‘is something the matter?’ or “are you all right?” or “where were you?” I say “Hi! what’s up?” or “how’s it going?” These more open ended questions don’t put the other person on the spot and allow them to inform me about what I didn’t know and let me see for real what is happening. Sure enough, no one is mad, no one is in the hospital, and no one is abandoning me.
    Gradually, these measures are helping me to stop myself and pull back before I fall into a waking nightmare of anxiety and the potential for self-created disasters.

    • pjpowell

      I am much like you. My two favorite quotes for the affliction of worrying yourself into a state on panic… “Anything can also be somethig else” and “If your hypothesis is strong enough, you can see things that are not there”
      Sometimes, they help. ;-)

    • emmy

      Thank you, Peninith1. My over-worrying is something I’ve been struggling with lately and I’ve just realized how it’s negatively impacting my romantic relationship.
      Thank you for your tips. :)

    • Ariel

      Oh I so get the worrying about people being mad at you. I used to be like that! Also worrying in general. Growing up with an alcoholic mother and enabling father everything was blamed on me (my Mom’s drinking etc.) so I grew up tip toeing around people and thinking that if someone was mad, upset it had to be something I did. It was exhausting. It took getting married to a wonderful person and having several children before I decided that this was no way to live. I decided that I was a decent person the evidence being I had a really happy marriage and kids who loved me and good friends. If someone was mad at me they could tell me, otherwise I would assume that someone’s bad mood, anger etc. was not about me. It has taken a great deal of mental retraining and my Dad still tries to drag me into the guilts with my Mom but I’ve come too far to go back. Thanks for your post and good luck to you.

  • keishua

    Oh, this is so timely. Just what I need. I am annoyed at someone right now and feeling like lashing out but I know that is not what I need to do in this situation. Keeping my cool is something I am not the best at. When I am angry I am like a little teapot-I get all steamed and let it come out. Thanks for this timely reminder that its okay to let it be.

  • Kathy

    Let me join the ranks of snappers! The problem, for me, is that I snap before I think. Like you said, Gretchen. I usually don’t mean to be snappish – I’m often embarrassed at myself, truthfully. But it’s all after the fact. Luckily, the people around me are fairly forgiving, but I wish they didn’t have to forgive me in the first place. I’m trying to learn to LET IT GO – one of my resolutions. And I’ve discovered that I can, sometimes, use humor to defuse myself. Still, I wish it didn’t happen in the first place, know what I mean?

  • jessa

    This is my resolution for the year: to stop yelling at my 2 kids (ages 5 and 7). i snap mostly at them when i feel out of control, too much chaos, like when we get home from school with backpacks, purses, and groceries. i like to PROCESS everything instantly when i get home. so i am totally stressed thinking of getting the kids to take off their shoes and wash their hands WHILE we unpack backpacks, repack snacks and non-perishable lunch stuff for next day, put groceries away, unload dishwasher etc. i was JUST thinking this morning that maybe what i need to do is LET THE KIDS do computer or watch TV for 30 mins as soon as we get home so i can do all the “processing” without being stressed by them running all over and pulling toys and games out (“making messes” in my mind).

    so i am trying to identify the times of day that make me snap (morning rush out the door, getting back home after school) and come up with ways to take care of ME during these times.

    other strategy i use in general with the kids is “HUG THEM” instead of snap at them. it dispels the anger and helps me calm down. the kids know that when i “get in that mode” to come hug me and it ALWAYS helps me.

    • Grace

      When my children were young like yours, I came across this phrase in a parenting book, and to this day (they’re mid-teens now) I often repeat it to myself to calm myself down from the intense noise and confusion from two happy boisterous kids and their friends: “for soon they will be grown and gone, and the house will echo with a mighty silence where once you had longed for a bit of peace and quiet.” The words “mighty silence” puts everything into perspective. I will miss them so much when they leave, that I can surely tolerate – even embrace – anything they can dish out now!

      • Grace

        In case anyone is interested, and for my own curiosity (and, okay, out of post-holiday ennui), I decided to find the source of that quote. I googled “echo with a mighty silence” and was taken immediately to this source: “Raising Strong Daughters” By Jeanette Gadeberg, 1997. Judging by my 15 year old, I think so far we have raised a strong – and delightfully noisy – daughter!

  • Kristi

    I am so your #1. I pride myself in doing a good job, work hard and have the best of intentions. So am blindsided when I get criticized, even when it is deserved. Then it all goes downhill from there. I am getting better as I know this about myself, but I am not “there” yet.

    Knowing to step back and actually stepping back are two things. I do like the “potty break” tip. What good input from all the commenters.

  • LuAnn

    The key for me is to think “Stay behind the yellow line” before the irritation takes hold. That is so difficult, but does work, if only it comes to the front of my thoughts, and QUICKLY.

  • missy

    I have a mantra to calm down, “Infinite patience.”

    Funny enough, it’s taken from the movie Dogma, and it’s not in a good context there. So I start thinking it in Ben Affleck’s snide tone of voice, and before long I am feeling it genuinely.

  • http://www.facebook.com/leahgraves Leah Silver Graves

    Great list. It made me think about my own workday and my own work environment.
    http://leah-onesnap.blogspot.com/2011/01/keeping-your-cool.html

  • http://scarlettnotions.blogspot.com Natalie

    Great questions! I also do a big stretch, briefly close my eyes, and exhale deeply…it gives me a “wait a sec” moment before I fire off a snappy remark.

  • http://www.postcardsfromapeacefuldivorce.com Molly Monet

    I really appreciate this post. As is often the case, some family drama arose during our holidays. It was a great opportunity for me to reflect upon my current practice of non-reactivity. The tips you provide here are very helpful for that.

    I had written a piece about this and I linked it to this article for my readers to check out your tips. http://www.postcardsfromapeacefuldivorce.com/1208/much-ado-about-nothing/

  • Susan

    I almost never snap at people, but I tend to make snap judgements usually blaming others for things that initially seem negative. Closer anaylsis usually reveals either a part that I’ve played or that the negative is not entirely negative. Ironically, it always helps to take a step back to get a better view.

  • LivewithFlair

    Very nice advice today! I like to ask myself whether or not I’m “being a blessing” in this situation. I’m teaching my girls to be a blessing to each other and not snap! http://www.livewithflair.blogspot.com

  • Ella

    Off topic – this article from today’s paper really made me think of your video, “The Days Are Long but the Years Are Short.”

    http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/06/garden/06Domestic.html?scp=1&sq=day%20he%20knew%20would%20come&st=cse

    • kristi

      Thanks for sharing the article. It rang true for me.

  • http://www.jenniferlinforth.com Jennifer Linforth

    Number three is brilliant and I appreciated learning that other Mom’s of little ones here “You talked in a mean voice!” Maybe reminding myself that I am not the only mother, or person, in the world that can get snappish will help make that moment seem not so drastic to me. I’m not alone!

  • ML

    Thanks for all the great tips!! I love this blog! I really feel that i can relate to Gretchen and the people who left comments. What helps me is when i am about to get very angry or start my “panic/worry” attack” is to imagine a big “stop sign” and tell myself that i will try not do or think or say anything for the next 30 minutes. I use the 30 minutes to give myself timeouts so i can cool down. That usually helps me a lot.

  • @elizabethcraft

    If I know in advance that I’ll be in a situation that’s likely to trigger me, I can give myself a talking to about staying calm beforehand. It’s probably 80 percent effective.

  • Heidi

    I work at a homeless shelter and one of our programs is rent assistance. The majority of people who call are in serious danger of losing their homes and sometimes start to take that out on me. I always say to myself, “This is not about you,” and then I acknowledge to them how very stressful this situation is and almost to a person, EVERYONE (including me) calms down.

  • http://upfromsplat.com Ande Waggener

    Many of the items on this list are ones I use when I’m angry, especially “can I make a joke of this?”–it’s my favorite.

    But “Should I be helping you?” is a new one for me and it’s OUTSTANDING! Talk about turning inward, which is where we must be looking when we’re angry. Thanks for reminding me that the buck not only stops with me but has a nice comfy home in my head and heart and trying to get it to move on to some other unsuspecting soul isn’t helpful to anyone. :)

  • Angela

    For me, it seems like I have only a nanosecond of time before I snap to stop myself, so I need a way to pause the reaction, and this needs to work FAST!!! Once I am triggered, if I can quickly say to myself “It is well”, most of the time that reminder to be at peace can buy me enough of a pause to not halt the snap.

  • http://trailblazingmylife.blogspot.com/ Rachel

    Your 4th point really hit home with me. I think this explains 90% of me not keeping my cool with my kids -especially the youngest.

    http://trailblazingmylife.blogspot.com/2011/01/one-week-of-happy.html

  • Nadia

    I so love this post! I have a really long fuse but strangely one or two people or things used to trigger an automatic defensive and ill-tempered response on my part and you are so right turning it into a joke really works as well as (your advice here) defining the problem. I work really hard at keeping our house running smoothly and it makes me nuts when my daughter says she has no clean clothes (she changes 3 times a day), or complains about some house issue that is fairly insignificant or that she has caused (no milk, she drank it all). I used to get defensive and mad and launch into a diatribe about how much I do blah, blah. Then I thought about what bugged me. I felt unappreciated and she was beginning to have a sense of entitlement. Now I just smile and make a joke out of it or ask her nicely if she would like to learn how to use the washing machine. She has learned to be more appreciative now that she sees how much laundry she generates. Another one my mother-in-law, hot spot for me; she is so possessive of my husband and fairly irritating. Now when she makes one of her ridiculous comments I smile and nod and say good for you, or I’m sure it is nice to be so close to your only son. I realized my problem there was I was getting caught up in a silly competition of hers own making. Then I saw how absurd it was. I’ve learned that being light hearted in my approach leaves her competing all by herself and I don’t have to get all irritated and worked up.

  • Amelia

    Just re-reading this post…another question I like to ask myself, if I am being mindful in my moment is whether I will feel better after reacting. It’s related to the will this solve anything question. Most of the time I can answer no to my question and then I’ve also provided some perspective to the situation at hand.

  • Jlrufo0320

    Thanks for this post, Gretchen. I have been losing my temper on a daily basis with my kids (twins going through the terrible twos) – and your comments have given me a fresh perspective on how to work on my temper, yelling, etc. Perfect post at the perfect time for me!

  • Ebremmer

    This was the motivating factor for me buying your book.  My temper with my children has really impacted my day to day happiness, partly because of the frustration that I feel about tantrums, stuffed animals taking over my house, and zero alone time…and partly because of the guilt I feel when I lash out.  I am only halfway through your book, and already feel so much better knowing there are other people out there that struggle in the the same way.  Just knowing that makes me feel like less of a bad mother, and more energized to try to be calm and enjoy this time.  I just want my kids to look back on their childhood that was happy.

  • Fi Newood

    I would add an extra question to your list Gretchen – if I may be so bold!

    I am a foster parent and often find myself getting angry at silly things that the children do.  Following a recent training course I now ask myself (when I remember!) whose anger I’m feeling.  The children are often so angry and unable to express it so find ways to pass that anger over to me unconsciously.  For instance, recently when told ‘no’ my son deliberately damaged something in his room that he knew would annoy me.  This was safer for him than simply telling me that he was angry with me for not allowing him what he wanted.

    It also helps me to think when I’m dealign with them how their social worker would feel if they were watching me – much more scary than the local gossip!!!

  • Lion-hearted

    Once again, Gretchen, your tips are amazing. I have some about anger–forgive myself. I hate my temper so bad, i’m likely to lash out even more if someone calls me on it. I have to go to prayer, to forgive myself and my annoying friend at whom I may have snapped. Losing temper is even a foreign phrase to me–you mean we have to temper our feelings as a matter of course? I have two talents that satisfy my energies but make me walk a tightrope to get all done to my standards. I’m always over-reaching, joyfully so–until I’d want to say, “Don’t bring me down!” But mere humans always trip my tripwire, and God says Love them, so I seek a “way of escape” promised in scriptures. You are not tempted in any way others are not, so when (that pain) strikes, I will give you a way of escape (the strength to endure it without reacting badly.) However,unfortunately, sometimes a new friend cannot forgive me, I have to win back trust–or let time repair it, but I have to forgive as I wish to be forgiven. My sisters are my good example.This morning, all was love and peace with them–and it did my heart good to know it. For last week they had a painful falling out, and it hurt to hear it. Then to know forgiveness freed them both and gave them back their trust of each other and the universe–that’s the most healing news in the world. So, yes, us high-strung achiever-wannabee’s pay a high price–but we don’t want anyone dissolving in tears at our “mean voice”. I’ve heard that mine is pretty awful, and I will take all advice and counsel to avoid resorting to that, because it makes me feel just terrible to erupt into my own anger, when I should “own it” and not blame “them”! Oh, one of the best tips I ever heard was this, when something strikes you as an offense, say to yourself, “I am angry.” Compared to “this is an outrage,” that simple ownership of a feeling is a get-out-of-jail card that will build a whole new habit into your self-control. Thanks for bringing it up, Gretchen. How could I have forgotten my one favorite help to sane self-control.?

  • http://www.chinabiohacker.com/ Randy

    Hi Gretchen, this article is one of the better ones that I’ve come across on the topic. Useful tips indeed. I detail my own struggle and ways I manage anger here: http://www.chinabiohacker.com/blog/hacking-anger-management-temper