I have a temper, and it gets me in trouble. My work is freelance, and I know I've lost jobs for snapping at somebody who asked me a stupid question or made an unreasonable demand. Now my wife tells me that while she can put up with my grouchiness, she's worried how it will affect our kids. The truth is, I just can't seem to control my temper. Any advice?
I want to be helpful, but I also need to be a little blunt. Generally, when a person says that he can't control his temper, he's not telling the truth. Unless you're taking certain mind-altering drugs or suffering from certain types of brain damage, you can almost always control how you express your anger (even if you can't control what makes you angry).
For example, say you're raging at your family, usually the most common objects of angry people's fury. Suddenly, there's a knock on the door; you open it, and standing there is your boss or a client whose business you're soliciting. How likely is it that you'll go on screaming at your family? In actuality, you'd probably act calmly and pleasantly.
Now, you might say, "Big deal. So I'd act calmly for five minutes, and then, as soon as the other person left, I'd start raging again." Well, that is indeed a big deal. The fact that you can restrain your temper for five minutes means that you can control your temper. And I'd argue that you can probably control it for far longer than five minutes.
Consider the following, admittedly utopian, scenario. You're made the following offer: if you cut down on your explosions of anger by 75 percent over the next six months, you'll receive $2 million. You'd probably become a genius at learning how to control your temper. What's so sad is that in the absence of the $2 million, you're running the risk of ruining relationships with your children that are worth far more.
If what I've said so far doesn't apply to you--that is, no matter what the circumstances, you still can't control how you express your rage--then I believe you have a moral obligation to seek out psychological or psychiatric help, and a moral obligation to take any medication that will help keep you calm. The people who live with you have the right not to be subjected to your explosions.
In the meantime, let me offer two suggestions for dealing with your anger. First, restrict the expression of your anger to the incident that provoked it. If you rant about the specific thing that has annoyed you, make sure not to use words like "always" or "never," as in, "You're always inconsiderate" or "You never think before you act." If you use such words, how is the other person supposed to react? Is he or she supposed to say, "You're right. I'm sorry. I never do think before I act" or "I'm sorry, I really am always inconsiderate"? It's important not to say something so exaggerated that it will inflict irrevocable hurt on the person at you're angry at or cause irrevocable harm to your relationship.
My second suggestion works only if you're really motivated to hold your temper. I draw this advice from a medieval Jewish text known as "The Beginning of Wisdom": "Decide on a sum of money that you will give away if you allow yourself to lose your temper. Be sure that the amount you designate is sufficient to force you to think twice before you lose your temper."
If you're making an effort to control your temper, over the next week or month donate to charity the sum of [fill in the amount] every time you express anger that's disproportionate to the provocation.
As noted, the sum has to be enough to inhibit you, and should be over and above the amount of charity you'd give otherwise; in other words, it must act as a kind of a fine.
If this technique doesn't work, give the money to a cause you wouldn't otherwise support. If you're a conservative Republican, donate it to a liberal Democrat's political campaign; if you're a liberal Democrat, give it to a conservative Republican's campaign. You might not be happy to send your money to a cause you disapprove of--which alone could cause you to hold your temper--but at least your anger will then do something for the cause of societal unity.
If you find this technique too expensive for your liking, there's one approach that will cost you no money at all: do nothing. In the course of a few years, this won't cost you any money, but it might cost you your friends, your spouse, and your relationship with your children. In other words, the above suggestion might cost you a lot of money, but in the long run it's inexpensive.
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Joseph Telushkin, a rabbi and Beliefnet columnist, is the author of 10 books, including " The Book of Jewish Values," just out from Bell Tower/Crown.