When You're Hot, You're Hot

Having a hot temper is a burden. When anger overtakes volition, it works against us. We release what has been pent up and let the other person have it, consequences be damned. Over time, with repetition, colleagues drift away. Loved ones back off.

In the workplace, people with a hot temper miss so much - the back and forth of freewheeling dialogue, the stimulation of hearing opposing viewpoints, the creative tension that comes from not being the only person in the room who is right. It takes only one outburst, one cornering of a person in the hallway, and word spreads. Hot-tempered people become increasingly isolated as fewer people seek their input or advice.

At home, the lonely consequences are even more devastating. For people with a hot temper, a tiger sits at the gate of emotional intimacy. Anyone who hurts them will get bitten, and their level of sensitivity to hurt by those they love is extremely high. It doesn't take much, and there they are - furious. "You always!" "You never!" The accusations fly, and everything in their facial expression, gesture, and body posture says, "Go away!"

If someone has emailed this blog to you and you are wondering why, a person may have done you a brave favor and shouldn't be put on the spot. This person may be counting on your integrity, that you will at least consider how much of this applies to you. If you are a person with a hot temper, this person must value you enough to have taken the chance that you may react badly. Hold back. Take a deep breath and look back at how you conduct your relationships, both at work and at home.

Do people ever disagree with you face-to-face? Do people tend to look down when you speak? Do light-hearted conversations cease when you walk into the room? It is terrible to think that others may regard you as a tyrant, yet you may have felt inklings of this isolation. Without realizing it, you may have become a world unto yourself, the person who is not invited to occasions when colleagues are disarmed. Family members, too, may wait until you are gone in order to kick back and just be themselves.

Having become successful professionally is no reassurance. There are plenty of bullies in positions of power. Many so-called leaders are surrounded by sycophants who scramble to please them. They get lots of compliance out of fear, but this isn't the same thing as respect. All they ever hear is the "yes" of reflexive acquiescence. To keep from making them mad, colleagues tiptoe around them and find ways to get things done that leave them out of the mix. Their ideas aren't heard; they are merely endured, because people don't feel free to push back with questions or disagree directly.

If you have recognized yourself in this depiction, something important has already occurred. You have moved toward increasing your self-awareness and you have opened up a vital line of inquiry. You may soon discover how true strength arises from getting to know what's underneath these eruptions. The possibility and the difficulty of attaining mastery, of taking charge of your temper, lies in the very quadrant of yourself you have been most reluctant to explore.

Yelling makes us feel strong, invincible, but deep inside we may be crying. This is the crux of it - anger is a disguise for vulnerable emotions. Within all rage is some kind of grief or helplessness. Just like grief, anger is full of yearning. During the heat of attacking, even while such ferocity pushes loved ones away, we are actually aching to be comforted and understood.

A certain temperament at birth may incline us towards a hot temper, but almost always childhood wounds maintain it. The more hurtful experiences we have growing up, the more we may try to conceal our soft spots under the cover of fury. Gradually, we may become impervious in order to feel safe, walling off all that is most tender in ourselves. Later, when an intimate partner tries to get close or seems to violate our trust, out comes that self-protective anger. Unwittingly, we re-create the situation of unmet childhood needs. Thus, lashing out can become habitual in adulthood through a cycle of unvoiced needs, a flashpoint of hurt and disappointment, and loved ones withdrawing the very tenderness we are craving.

To be overcome, this reflex has to be confronted at its core. It can be hard to accept that when we get caught up in a surge of anger we may be returning to our emotional origins. But when the rage far exceeds the situation at hand, this is the time to grasp the likelihood that past issues are flooding the present circumstance.

Admitting to all of this requires no small courage. We leap ahead into the work of mastery the first time we say to a loved one, "You didn't deserve that. It had nothing to do with you." Claiming it like this might take a week; with concerted effort, it might be the next day that we recognize that a particular outburst didn't belong to the current situation. Then, there may come a time when we are about to blast someone away and we see it on the spot. We walk away, calm down, and taste the sweetness of another kind of power.

With less at stake emotionally, the workplace can be a good setting for practicing these skills. Taking responsibility for over-reacting to a co-worker's hurtful mistake may be much easier than doing this with a loved one. Developing the discipline of stepping away when upset and thinking things over before speaking may become an encouraging fluency at work, even while many stumbles are still occurring at home.

Gradually attaining self-control means no longer being at the mercy of a force that harms our most important relationships. It can take a long time, but we may eventually find ourselves able to let loved ones have access to arenas where we most need their care and attention. Calling off the tiger at the gate of intimacy can bring deep rewards.

Copyright 2016, Wendy Lustbader. Adapted from Life Gets Better: The Unexpected Pleasures of Growing Older, Tarcher/Penguin, 2011.