Stoic Therapy for Anger by Tim LeBon (part 2)

Meeting 3.    How to  Manage Anger

Lucas: Good to see you again Anthony. How did you get on?

Anthony: Good.  Here’s my reconstruction of what happened on Father’s Day.

Event/Trigger:

Robbie spilt coffee over the computer

Stage 1 – first movements towards anger (including fight or flight response and first thoughts)

Shock. Adrenalin rush, Fight response. First angry thoughts “What the ..” “What a clumsy child!.

Stage 2 – My  further thoughts and whether they resisted or intensified  anger

Definitely intensified anger. Thoughts like  “Look what he’s done to my laptop!” , “He needs to learn not to be so clumsy” and  “He should have been more careful” . I had a sense – I wouldn’t say it was a conscious thought-  that it was appropriate for me to get angry, that it was be wrong not to get angry.

Stage 3 – What happened as a result

I guess I fell over the edge of the precipice, as your Seneca puts it. Yes, I shouted at him, my wife says I looked very angry.  

Robbie was petrified, my wife was horrified, and I am mortified.

Lucas: Well done. Today we are going to look at what you could have done differently – as Stoics do in their evening review. If you get into the habit of analysing angry outburst in the evening and rehearsing how you can avoid them in the morning then you will be able to overcome your anger problem.

Anthony:  Like  a golfer practising his putting on a carpet at home, right?

Lucas: Let’s begin with the trigger, Robbie spilling coffee. Do you remember what we said about non-Stoics being too idealistic?

Anthony: Was it that I need to lower my expectations and to remember that the universe doesn’t always behave how I would like it to?

Lucas: Absolutely.  You haven’t got control over other people or the past, so its best to accept these things – even if you don’t approve of them!

Anthony: It reminds me of a song from an old Mel Brooks movie. “Hope for the Best. Expect the worst. Life is a play. We’re unrehearsed.”. I wonder if he was a Stoic!

Lucas:  There’s a lot of Stoic wisdom in a number of traditions and common sayings, like the Serenity Prayer. Actually learning helpful quotations could be really useful. “Hope for the best. Expect the worst” could be a good one to include.  You might also have a look at a famous passage from Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations.

Anthony: Sure.

Lucas:  Moving on to stage 1 of anger, what were your first movements towards anger when Robbie split the coffee?

Anthony: Shock. Adrenalin rush,  the Fight response. My first angry thoughts were something like  “What the ..” “What a clumsy child!.

Lucas: Seneca says you haven’t much direct control over these, so you shouldn’t try to stop them but you do need to notice them and put yourself on red alert for the next phase of anger.

Anthony: I think you said last time I need to be like a sentry on guard duty

Lucas: Exactly. Then at stage 2 we have your window of opportunity. One of your thoughts was “Look what he has done to my laptop?”  You need to question whether you have  really been harmed. Seneca points out that “The things which cause us such great heat are really  trifles, the sort of things that children fight and squabble over.”

Anthony: But my computer was broken!

Lucas: Your new shiny toy!

Anthony : Are you saying that I exaggerated the harm done?

Lucas: Well,  did you?

Anthony: Well, the keyboard was ruined – but I took it into work and got a replacement the next day.

Lucas: So the actual harm done was …

Anthony: Ultimately, very little.  I see what you mean.

Lucas: And even if the laptop had been ruined, how much does a laptop matter compared to the well-being of your son and your being a good parent?

Anthony: Are you  saying I need to get things into perspective?

Lucas:  Exactly – and things don’t matter as much as how we conduct ourselves in life. Seneca’s next point is that  it’s vital to judge others accurately and fairly. You intensify anger by acting as the prosecution, you resist it by making the case for the defence. Were you acting as the prosecutor or the defence attorney for Robbie?

Anthony: Definitely the prosecutor.

Lucas: What might you have said  had you been defending him?

Anthony:  “He did not intend to damage my computer. He meant well”.

Lucas: “Brilliant. Seneca also says something that is really appropriate to your case. “If is a child, let us pardon his youth.”.

Anthony: That’s true, I was forgetting he is only six. What’s Seneca’s next piece of advice?

Lucas: We must also remind ourselves that we are all hasty and careless, we all are untrustworthy, we all have many faults. Seneca says “What room is there for anger? Everything ought either to move us to tears or to laughter. There is only one route to peace of mind  and that is to agree to forgive one another.”

Anthony: Yes. I suppose it would help me to remember that I am not so perfect either.

Lucas:  Once again Seneca has a good line “We have other people’s faults right before our eyes,  and  our own behind our backs.”

Anthony: I need to remember that. It would make thing to have on the front and back of a T Shirt!

Lucas:  Here’s another idea that would have helped on Father’s Day.  Are we here to help or harm each other?  As a father, how do you see your role, to help or harm?

Anthony: Definitely to help.

Lucas:  Seneca says in it’s useful to imagine your whole family as being an extension of yourself – like your own hands and feet. Would you want to harm your own limbs or help them?

Anthony: Help them

Lucas: So do the same to your family and indeed the whole of mankind. Treat them with the same care you would parts of your own body.

Anthony: So I need to imagine that when I shout at them I feel the pain that they do?

Lucas: Yes, that’s  a good way of putting it. The final idea you might find helpful – and I’ve left it till last because it’s rather left-field – is best introduced by telling you about a story about Socrates.

Anthony: Sounds intriguing…

Lucas: One day Socrates was going for  a walk and was suddenly struck by someone he had offended. Do you know how he responded?

Anthony: I’m assuming he didn’t get angry. But how did he manage that, surely his Fight and Flight response would have kicked in?

Lucas: I’m sure it did, but Socrates was famous behaving in an exemplary manner even under provocation. Socrates just laughed off the whole thing, saying that it was a pity a man could not tell when he ought to wear his helmet when out walking!

Anthony: That’s not the first response that would have come to me…

Lucas:  But with practice most things can be turned into jest, and then anger is diffused into something more gentle. How could you have made light of your computer being incapacitated?

Anthony (after a moment’s thought):  I could have said “That’s one way of stopping me from working today!”

Lucas: And if you had, what would have been the impact?

Anthony: Everyone would have had a much better day.

Lucas:  Exactly. So your task this work  is to learn all these Stoic rebuttals to angry thoughts so they can be ready to hand next time you need them

Anthony: Does Seneca have any tips about what to do when I get to stage 3 of anger?

Lucas: Seneca says that the greatest remedy for full-blown, stage 3 anger is delay. There’s not much reasoning with yourself when in a rage – the best you can hope to do postpone doing anything too harmful.

Anthony: So I should have bit my tongue, counted to 10 before saying anything and then damage limitation …

Lucas: Yes. But remember the best answer is to make sure you don’t get to stage 3. That’s the priority. I’m going to give you a list of unhelpful thoughts and their rebuttals. I’d like you to learn them – there may a short test!

Secondly, keep a log of when there has been an anger trigger and note down how you reacted, using our framework about the 3 stages.

Anthony: OK, is there a particular way you want me to record things.?

Lucas: Yes, here’s a template:-

Lucas: Now let’s fill it in together  for Father’s Day.

(10 minutes later, they have produced the following by Lucas asking Anthony a series of questions)

Stage What Happened What I would do differently next time (if anything)
Trigger: Event that triggers anger Father’s Day, Robbie spilt coffee over my computer Accept that I don’t have control over events. Lower my expectations about things going my way.
Stage 1 of anger First movements towards anger Fight or flight reaction and starting to think angry thoughts I felt surprised, an adrenalin rush, an urge to hit him Be on guard for these signs and put myself on red alert for further angry thoughts
Stage 2 of anger: Response to the first movements. Can resist or intensify initial angry thoughts I intensified anger by labelling Robbie as stupid and clumsy. Assumed that anger was appropriate so I could teach him a lesson and he wouldn’t do it again Remind myself that anger is not the answer. He didn’t intend to damage my computer. He isn’t stupid. We all do silly things sometimes. Try to act more like a loving father than Caligula or Vedius Pollio!   Say to myself “At least I wont have to work today!”
Stage 3 of anger Thinking and behaving and feeling, depending on what happened at stage 2 Shouted and him, ruined the day Hopefully don’t get to this stage, but if I do count to 10 (or more) and delay my response. Probably best to leave the room.

Lucas: What do you think about that?

Anthony: Great – but it’s going to be harder to put it into practice.

Lucas: Indeed. Do you ski?

Anthony: Yes, I go down black runs, the rest of the family usually take the easier blue runs ….

Lucas: Right, well what we have done is like going on a blue run. It takes skill, but it’s not the hardest challenge.

Anthony: And I suppose doing it in real time is more like a red or black run?

Lucas: Precisely.  So for now, you need more blue run practice. Read the list of rebuttals every day and keep a log of when you’ve got angry and how you could have resisted anger better, in the same format as the table above.

Anthony: OK, see you next week, coach!

Meeting 4.  Becoming a virtuoso in the Art of Living

Lucas: Good to see you again, Anthony. How did you get on with the anger log?

Anthony: Good, only one instance to report, and I think I handled that fairly well.

Anthony gets out his anger log

Stage What Happened Stoic Advice (and whether I took it!)
Trigger: Event that triggers anger Very busy at work.  People kept interrupting me.  My wife rang me saying that the internet at home wasn’t working Accept that I don’t have control over events. Lower my expectations about things going my way. Not sure I have quite internalised this yet.
Stage 1 of anger First movements towards anger Fight or flight reaction and starting to think angry thoughts I felt irritated and tense First thoughts “Why is she ringing me now?” Be on guard for these signs and put myself on red alert for further angry thoughts I think I probably need to develop more Stoic Mindfulness as I didn’t catch this very early  
Stage 2 of anger: Response to the first movements. Can resist or intensify initial angry thoughts Intensifying anger thoughts 1)I shouldn’t be interrupted         2)She should know I’m busy       3)She should know these things herself         4) I need to get angry to stop her doing this       Alternatives that resist anger 1)Remind myself to lower my expectations – the universe doesn’t always behave as I want it to! 2) Case for the defence! How can she know I am particularly busy now?   3) I remembered the talk about other people being like parts of our body. We are here to help each other. Why not help her?     4) If I get angry she will get angry back. I need to rise above being angry.   I managed some of these at the time, enough for me to end up resisting angry.
Stage 3 of anger Thinking and behaving and feeling, depending on what happened at stage 2 I didn’t fall off the precipice. I talked my anger down, realising that although I couldn’t control people interrupting me, I could control my reaction. I helped her – turned out she had to reboot the wifi router at home – and was proud I did it calmly. At other times I would still have ended up giving the same advice, but we would both have got upset.  

Lucas: Great work, Anthony. So what do you think we can learn from that?

Anthony: That I can control my anger if I try. That I still have work to do to lower my expectations and notice that I am starting to get angry. That if I do rise above anger then things work out better.

Lucas: Excellent. I think you are ready for the next lesson, which is  the long-awaited, much heralded  “How to be a virtuoso at living, how to develop the virtues”

Anthony: Becoming a virtuoso at living, I like the sound of that.

Lucas: The basic idea is the virtues are qualities we need to live well, given the human condition. We have desires, which can sometimes lead us  into temptation. We have fears, which can sometimes lead us to cowardice and we live in communities which means that we have to decide how to treat others well. But we also have reason, our ability to think and act rationally  – and also to think and act foolishly. The qualities we need to cultivate to live well given our capacity for temptation, fear, selfishness and folly are self-control, courage, justice and wisdom respectively. There are the four main or cardinal virtues – there are also many other important virtues all of which are related to these main four virtues – for example compassion is part of justice, patience part of self-control and discretion is part of wisdom. Does that make sense?

Anthony: Yes, but what has all this got to do with anger?

Lucas:  The virtues provide a much better alternative to anger. The more you cultivate the virtues, the less you will need anger and the less attractive it will be as an option.

Anthony: How?

Lucas: You recall  saying  that you  didn’t want to be a doormat? Well, if you develop virtues, you certainly won’t be  a doormat. What virtues can help you stand up for yourself?

Anthony: Courage? Wisdom?

Lucas: And you want to fight  injustices – what virtues do you need there?

Anthony: Justice of course. Courage and wisdom as well.

Lucas: And if you need to overcome first movements towards anger and a wish to punish others, what virtues do you need then?

Anthony: Self-control, justice and wisdom again.

Lucas: Finally we spoke about  how we set ourselves up for anger by failing to realise that we can’t control other people or events, by having too idealistic expectations. What virtue do we call this understanding?

Anthony: Wisdom?

Lucas: Spot on. You may have noticed that wisdom was required in every single example. For Stoics, wisdom is the most important virtue. Some Stoics even argued that wisdom and virtue were the same thing.

Anthony: So was I being fully virtuous in the office when my wife rang me this week?

Lucas: Let’s think about it together. Did you have the wisdom to lower your expectations and not expect everything to go your way?

Anthony: No, that’s something I need to work on.

Lucas: Did you have the self-control to manage your first movements towards anger?

Anthony: Yes, just about.

Lucas: So I will ask you to develop Stoic Mindfulness by being on the look-out for feeling tense and starting to think angry thoughts. Did you show justice?

Anthony: Yes, I helped her.

Lucas: How did you manage that?

Anthony: I think by putting myself in her shoes and asking how I would like to be treated – a bit like you were saying about imagining my family as part of my own body.

Lucas: Good  – and was courage relevant in this case?

Anthony: Not in this case – but I would have needed it to apologise if I had lost my temper!

Lucas: Fantastic. Here’s this week’s crib sheet summarising the Stoic VirtuesA

Lucas:  So here’s what I would like you to do this week.  As well as looking at the crib sheet,  every morning, carry out a rehearsal of how you might deal with potential adversities. Think of what might go wrong, what might be the early signs of anger, and how you might refute the angry thoughts and then apply the virtues. For example,  next time you could imagine yourself starting to get angry when someone disagrees with you, remember which rebuttals apply and then think about how to practice self-control. wisdom, courage and  justice. You might glance in your diary before you start and envisage potential problems, such as trains being late or encountering difficult people.

Anthony: So I need to approach life like boxers sparring before a  fight.

Lucas: Yes, and  if you feel that it’s unnecessary, remember that even emperor’s did exactly this. This is the passage from Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations  I was telling you about.

“When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: the people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous and surly. They are like this because they can’t tell good from evil. But I have seen the beauty of good, and the ugliness of evil, and have recognized that the wrongdoer has a nature related to my own – not of the same blood and birth, but the same mind, and possessing a share of the divine. And so none of them can hurt me. No one can implicate me in ugliness. Nor can I feel angry at my relative, or hate him. We were born to work together like feet, hands and eyes, like the two rows of teeth, upper and lower. To obstruct each other is unnatural. To feel anger at someone, to turn your back on him: these are unnatural.”

Anthony: That will raise a smile on my morning commute.

Lucas: Good. Then during the day time look out for first movements to anger – developing Stoic Mindfulness and logging any examples of you getting  angry or overcoming anger in the anger log like you did this week. Actually, please you add to the log ideas about how you would exhibit the virtues in each situation as well?

Anthony: OK

Lucas: Then in the  evening meditation, review your day and think about how you have responded to possible anger triggers, again thinking about whether you responded with wisdom, self-control, courage and justice.  Praise yourself when you have done well. If you have done less well, then reflect on what you can learn to help you do better next time

Anthony: Just like chess-player analyse their games afterwards.

Lucas: Exactly. We are approaching this enterprise as if you were entering the Olympic Games for anger management.

Anthony: Let’s see if I win a gold medal! See you next week.

Meeting 5  A Stoic Daily Regimen

Lucas: Good afternoon, Anthony, how has your week been?

Anthony: Great – no angry outbursts and my wife told me that I am a changed man. I even shared my joke about being a reformed Caligula with her. So I think this may be our last meeting.

Lucas: That’s fantastic news. We will conclude today then with a Stoic Daily Regimen – what you need to do to keep up the progress and become a gold medallist at beating anger. But there’s one important part of Seneca’s On Anger that we haven’t covered -what we might call lifestyle advice. Interested?

Anthony: Most of what Seneca  said has proved useful, so let’s hear it.

Lucas: Seneca’s first lifestyle tip is to make sure you don’t take on too much. These days we would talk about a good life-work balance and about the importance of delegating tasks. Seneca says “In order, therefore, that the mind may be at peace, it ought not to be hurried hither and thither, nor, as I said before, wearied by labour at great matters, or matters whose attainment is beyond its strength.”

Anthony: I could probably do with more holidays and less late nights at the office. Oh, and my wife is always telling me to stop using my phone for work in the evening and weekends.

Lucas: So what can you change?

Anthony: No phone on Sundays or after 1000pm.

Lucas:  Seneca also advises us to find ways to relax and to pay attention to our diet. He says. “Pythagoras used to calm his troubled spirit by playing upon the lyre … Green is good for wearied eyes.”

Anthony: I’m not sure about the lyre, but I find going for a run in the evening relaxes me

Lucas: How often could you go for a run each week?

Anthony: Maybe 3 times – better than the once every 2 weeks I do now.

Lucas:  Seneca also advises us to choose our company wisely. He says “We should live with the quietest and easiest-tempered persons, not with anxious or with sullen ones: for our own habits are copied from those with whom we associate”

Anthony: Sounds like we should have had him on the panel when we were recruiting!

Lucas: These days many people find social media very unrelaxing too.

Anthony: You are right but in my case its more reading the news that stresses me out . I think I will limit my reading the news to early in the morning and when I come home.

Lucas:  Great.  Let’s finish our work by producing a Stoic Daily Regimen for anger management

Stoic Anger Management                        Meeting 5            A Stoic Daily Regimen

  • 5 minutes reading of Stoic material for example
    • Reasons for not getting angry  (crib sheet 1)
    • The three stages of anger (crib sheet 2)
    • Unhelpful Thoughts and their Rebuttals  (crib sheet 3)
    • How to be a Virtuoso at living (crib sheet 4)
    • The Daily Stoic Regimen (this list)
    • You might like to write up a list of relevant maxims such as:-

“We are affected not by events but our interpretation of them”

 “Remember that you can’t control other people or the past”

“Expect the worst, hope for the best”

 “The sword of justice is ill-placed in the hands of the angry person”

When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: the people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous and surly”

  • Morning Meditation –Rehearsal of dealing with potential triggers for anger with wisdom, courage, self-control and justice
  • During the day
    • Stoic Mindfulness of first movements towards anger
    • Ask yourself “What would the ideal Stoic person approach this situation”? (such as Socrates)
    • Think about what virtues are called for in this situation.
    • Find some time for relaxation, especially when stressed
    • Choose your company wisely, including social media and the internet
    • Don’t take on too much
    • Write your Stoic anger log for the day
  • Evening review. Reviewing your day, with an emphasis on any how you have dealt with triggers of potential anger.  Reflect on what you have done well, what you could have done better. 

Anthony: Can you email me that?

Lucas: Sure. Shall we set a date for a follow-up in a month?

Anthony: Yes – but if I’m doing well, can we cancel it? I will drop you an email telling you of my progress. Thank you very much, it’s been really helpful – and interesting too.

Lucas: Thank you for all your work – the gold medal will be in the post!

Postscript:                                                         

There was no need for a final session.  Anthony sent Lucas this email.

Dear Lucas.

I am writing to cancel our final planned session next week, because I really don’t think I need it. I’ve adopted the lifestyle changes and haven’t got angry for 3 weeks. I’ve made the 4 crib sheets and the daily regimen into acetates and put them in the bathroom for me to read every day.  I’d really like to thank you  for helping me and so would my wife!  You’ll be pleased to know that I’ve even bought a copy of On Anger and have started to go through it. I hope that you are paying Seneca some royalties – I now see that  you stole all of your best lines directly from him! Seriously though, many thanks and if we meet again it may be to discuss how I can apply Seneca and  Stoicism  to other aspects of my life. I’ll be in touch if and when I need your help again.

With thanks,

Anthony

Tim LeBon is the author of Wise Therapy and Achieve Your Potential with Positive Psychology. He is a philosophical life coach with a private practice in London and also an accredited CBT psychotherapist working in the NHS. He is a founder member of the Modern Stoicism team.

Author: Gregory Sadler

Editor of Stoicism Today

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