It’s early Monday evening and I’m waiting for the lift in my apartment block. My two-year-old son is clutching my hand, while his baby brother is happily drooling over my left shoulder. We’re heading off to the park.
The lift door opens and out comes my neighbour from across the landing. “Hey Monica,” I say, “How are…”
“I’ve got a migraine!” she snaps. “You’ve had the door open to your flat and the smell of whatever the hell you’re cooking is so strong that I haven’t been able to concentrate on my work. I’ve had to spray my expensive perfume all around my apartment just to cover up the smell! Why keep your door wide-open?”
“Hang on, I’ve just got back from work. What’s happened?”
“…And your children make such a bloody row! Screaming. Crying. Carrying on. Day and night. Can’t you think about your neighbours?”
I feel a slight tightness in my shoulders. “Uh-oh, have the kids been causing a ruckus?”
“Keeping your pram outside the door is so dangerous, too. I’m going to report it as a fire hazard. I’ve had a migraine all day…”
“Look, Monica I’m sorry for any bother. The good news is we’re actually moving out in a couple of weeks.”
“You’re moving out? Fantastic! What date?”
There’s something in her tone of glee that does it. But suddenly it’s like my mind has been hijacked.
I tell Monica that she’s got a fucking nerve lecturing me on being a good neighbour after I’ve lived opposite her for 13 years and she still doesn’t even know my name. I tell her she’s so loathed in this building that most people take the stairs rather than share a lift with her. I tell her she a mean-spirited, old cow. And I go on and on and on – the words spilling from my mouth with murderous ease.
She backs away but I keep on ranting until the door of her apartment slams shut. It’s only then that I notice that my bewildered toddler is cowering behind me and the baby has begun to cry as I’m gripping him way too tight.
Outside in the park, I feel light-headed. The visceral thrill of letting loose has already curdled into a familiar sense of remorse. I’ve just lost my temper. Again.
Bad avocadoes. Queue jumpers. The nanny state. Yappy dogs in offices. Donald Trump. VAR technology. People who wear beanies in the gym… These are just a few of the niggling, serotonin-sappers that have already riled me up today. It’s barely 10am.
Yes, they may seem trivial (beanie-wearing gym-goers notwithstanding). But my brain often feels trapped in a demolition derby where fresh irritations jolt it from every direction. Some days, I just feel angry at the world.
It seems like I’m not alone, either – right now anger is all the rage. When the latest Australian Wellbeing report came out last November, it reported that 75 per cent of us believe our society is becoming angrier and more aggressive. Worldwide the pattern is the same: in Gallup’s annual Global Emotions Report, 22 per cent of respondents told the organisation they felt angry – the highest proportion since the question was first asked.
This isn’t a positive development for anyone. That’s because anger doesn’t just make you overreact, punch walls and act like a dick. It can also wreak a toxic effect on your health.
Sydney University researchers found you’re nine times more likely to have a heart attack in the two hours after a heated outburst. Other studies show anger can weaken your immune system, decrease your lung capacity and crank up your risk of diabetes, back pain and stroke.
Clearly anger is self-destructive. But that’s not why I want to learn to cage my rage. Partly it’s because I’m fed up with allowing piddly little incidents to yank me into a negative tail-spin. Partly it’s because I’m not always a nice person to be around and don’t want to snipe and bicker my way through life. But it’s also because when my son regrettably learnt to say the word “motherfucker” last week he was, of course, copying me. Since then, I’m more painfully aware than ever that my behaviour plays a defining role in my kids’ actions. Frankly, I need to set a better example. And yell fewer obscenities at taxi drivers that cut me off at the lights.
It doesn’t exactly look like a palace of Zen. Anger-management specialist Robert McInnes operates from a windowless room with yellow walls that sits above a hairdresser in the Melbourne suburbs. Right now, he’s busier than ever.
When McInnes started his counselling practice nine years ago, ‘explosive anger’ represented about 15 per cent of his client base. Today, it accounts for over 50 per cent. So what’s happened? “It’s a reflection on our greater sense of entitlement,” reasons McInnes, an avuncular figure in spectacles and tweed. “Social media has made us impatient. Now people need everything to be resolved quickly.”
Or they take matters into their own hands, often with disastrous effect. Like one of McInnes’ former clients who held up a liquor store with a shotgun for two bottles of Jim Beam, then shot a passing driver and stole his car. “An angry man,” McInnes concedes with a sigh.
Like most of McInnes’ clients, that man didn’t come to see him voluntarily. Of the 25 new clients that sign up each week for his one-on-one sessions or online course, 70 per cent are sent by a court after being slapped with a restraining order or following an incident of domestic violence or criminal assault. But McInnes believes he can help them with the anger-management technique he’s developed to get fast results.
“What I’ve worked out is how to change your habits subconsciously so that you change without even thinking,” he says. “I got the idea from hypnosis.”
Sitting across from each other in armchairs, I explain my issue. When I feel provoked – as with the Monica incident – my response is often way out of proportion. In fact, I almost pounce on those chances to unleash my frustrations. “A bit like a soft-cocked version of Michael Douglas in Falling Down,” I suggest.
McInnes jots down some notes and begins gently probing my life. We talk about the death of my father, my mother’s depression, ex-girlfriends, sibling-rivalry and my relationship with my long-suffering wife. At the end, McInnes frowns thoughtfully and delivers his verdict. “This is just theory,” he says. “But it sounds like you have minor trust issues because your father died when you were at a vulnerable age. I think you trust your partner, but this is really about if you’re pushed: can you trust yourself to control yourself.”
In the context of McInnes’ more colourful clients, “minor trust issues” are fairly benign. But his anger-management technique is the same whether you’re a violent armed robber or a grumpy journo belatedly overcompensating for a lifetime of not assertive enough. Essentially, the aim is simple: to train your sub-conscious brain to stay calm during the 90-second burst during which any emotion is at its most volcanic.
For my rage-reduction homework I am given a mantra that I must repeat for five minutes a day when driving or performing any activity than keeps my mind off the actual words.
“Say these five words: ‘Stop, Find calm. Big picture’.” McInnes explains. “Don’t think about what you’re saying. Just keep repeating it. It is a mantra, not positive thinking. The phrase is a direction from the conscious mind to the sub-conscious mind.”
On the rainy drive home, I figure that now is as good a time as any to start. “Stop. Find Calm. Big Picture,” I repeat. “Stop. Find Calm…” But there’s a Mitsubishi Pajero hogging the middle lane of the freeway while dawdling at 60kmh. Hemmed in, I flash my lights, but the driver repeatedly ignores me. I gesticulate and honk. What is this cocksucker playing at? Returning to my mantra, I realise this take some time.
But I persevere because my wife reckons this is long overdue. “Do you think I’m an angry person?” I ask her. She waits a split-second too long before answering. “Well, you’re very impatient,” she says. “Plus you roll your eyes a lot. Look, there you go, again…”
I storm off to fume on her assessment. Yet I know that I could actually do with some pointers. Our family has just moved interstate and we’re staying with the in-laws until we find our own place. It’s a life-saving arrangement and my wife’s parents are kind-hearted and basically terrific. Just as long as the conversation steers clear of race or politics. Unfortunately, it’s election time.
Trying to be polite all the time is exhausting – I feel like a chained zoo bear. Meanwhile the pressure is on, too, as I’m working round the clock on a start-up while rushing to finish a deadline for a book. Then one morning I wake up with a dull ache in the left side of my jaw. This quickly degenerates into an evil throbbing that’ll turn out to be an oral cyst pushing my wisdom tooth onto a nerve deep in my jaw.
Suffice to say, this does nothing to improve my mood. The pain makes it hard to concentrate on anything. But I’ve got a big work project to deliver so need to be on my game and, preferably, stop punctuating every sentence with “Oh, for fuck’s sake!”
So I cling to the mantra. I repeat it to myself when I’m rocking the baby, when I’m washing the dishes or mowing the lawn.
Astonishingly, after a few days, it seems to kick in. When for example, I discover the local dentist is closed due to “electrical work on the street” (what sort of provincial hell-hole is this?) I still feel a surge of blinding rage. But then “poof!” … somehow it magically disperses before finding expression. My sub-conscious is apparently submitting to the mantra, even while my conscious is plotting to have all my teeth extracted and living on a diet of pumpkin soup and heavy painkillers.
It’s session number two. I’m back in the windowless room (after expensive/extensive dentistry) eyeballing Robert once again. As we’re in Melbourne with thudding inevitability the conversation turns to AFL.
“When you watch good footy players, they’re focused on the ball,” McInnes says. “That’s how they can best influence the course of the game. Bad players that don’t have any skill? They’re forced to resort to going for the man instead.”
McInnes wants me to apply this same principle to those tinderbox situations that threaten to ignite a flare-up. I need to focus on the mechanics of the problem rather than taking a verbal swing at the perpetrator. “Separate the behaviour from the person,” he says. “That way you’re focused on finding a solution.”
The next morning my son wakes at 4.30am without a sense of humour. For the next three hours he’s impossible. Between a maelstrom of tears and tantrums, he manages to break a lamp and push his brother headfirst into a bucket of Lego. During my second attempt to cajole him through breakfast, he erupts because his porridge isn’t in the right-coloured bowl. As soon as I’ve completed the switchover to the orange one, he demands the other bowl with the bunnies. Which he promptly upturns over the floor.
I shut my eyes.
Playing the ball here, I realise, is simply to persevere and coax some food into my son in the hope it’ll make him slightly less demonic. I turn on PlaySchool, clean up the mess and make Joe some Vegemite toast. Eventually, he eats a few soldiers and his mood brightens.
Heady with triumph and a contented child nestling in my lap, I’m reminded of a recent Instagram post I saw quoting the Dalai Lama “The true hero is one who conquers his own anger” I whisper into Joe’s ear. Within the hour he’s scrawled a felt-tip mural on the kitchen wall.
Returning to McInnes’ yellow room. I tell him that I feel like I’m making progress. I’m calmer, less indignant and not getting sucked into so many internal fantasy arguments about issues that never materialise. I’ve also realised that losing my shit rarely ends well.
“Who are you?” McInnes asks.
The question throws me. Disorientated, I mumble and stall, before McInnes finally intervenes. Everyone finds that a hard question to answer because there’s no context, he explains. You don’t know whether you’re being asked about your family, your values or your work. But there’s one question you do constantly need to ask yourself, he insists: “Who are you now?”
This is the final piece in McInnes’ tool-kit – basically a mindfulness tactic for hot-headed loons. The idea is to retune your mental antennae to synch with your current situation. Ask yourself “Who am I now?” when you get into work, for example, and your answer might be: “I’m a team leader”. Rather than, say, a disgruntled commuter still raging because your train was 25 minutes late.
By adjusting your mindset to the task at hand, the aim is to park your ancillary problems to stop them infecting your new scenario. Make an effort to keep your head in the game that you’re actually playing, McInnes suggests. “Try to focus on the present.”
I walk out of the session into the autumn sun, feeling an unlikely sense of hope. After all, from sour-faced neighbours to emergency root-canal work, bad things are always going to happen. All you can really control is how you respond (note to self: do not hold up liquor stores with a shotgun even when seriously peeved).
I walk over to my car and, you’re kidding me: there on the window is a parking ticket from Monash City Council. I pluck it off the windscreen and crumple it up into my fist. Then I take a breath and I smile.
Robert McInnes online anger-management course is available at: cognitiveprinciplematrix.com.au
Your Rage-Reduction Tool-kit
Week 1: TRAIN YOUR BRAIN
Whether silently or aloud, repeat the phrase: “Stop. Find Calm. Big Picture”. You need to say this mantra for five minutes, everyday for a week while doing a low-level physical activity like walking, driving or vacuuming. “The phrase is a direction from the conscious mind to the sub-conscious mind,” McInnes says
Week 2: PLAY THE BALL
Stare at an empty chair, then drop your head to look at the floor and say the word “ball”. Bring your eyes back to the empty chair and repeat the process. Perform this exercise for two minutes every day for a week. The next time you’re confronted with an angry situation, look down for a split-second and then back at the person. Focus on their behaviour not the person.
Week 3: FIND YOUR FOCUS
When faced with a new situation, practise asking yourself the question: “Who am I now. “You can only solve one problem at a time and you are only ever in the now, not the past or the future,” McInnes says. What role should you embrace to handle the current situation. “Ask yourself whether you’re solving the problem as a father, employee or a friend. Once you are focused on who you are, then you focus on what you want and how to get it.””