The HALT method is one of the most useful tools I have ever come across as a therapist. Whenever you find yourself heading towards a fight with your spouse/coworker/etc., ask yourself: Am I feeling hungry, angry, lonely or tired?
This simple question has the power to radically transform those conversations. The power of the question is in how it changes our thinking. By taking a quick inventory of ourselves before a fight, we become more aware of other – often unrelated – things we bring with us into the conversation. This is the third part in a five part series.
Your boss chewed you out at the office in front of a bunch of your coworkers earlier today. He was completely out of line, but instead of talking to him about it, you just walked back to your desk. It happened at the end of the day, so it was fresh on your mind the whole drive home. You replay the conversation over and over in your head as you’re sitting in rush hour traffic. The more you think about it, the angrier you get. By the time you pull into the driveway at home you are absolutely fuming. As you open the front door, you trip over one of your child’s toys. You scream at your child about how many times you have told them not to leave their toys laying around the house as you storm up to your room. As you see the tears welling up in your 4-year old’s eyes you suddenly wonder, “What in the world just happened?”
The above example might be a bit extreme or cliche, but we’ve all been there. The technical term is “displacement.” Some people know it as the “kick-the-dog effect.” It’s when we take our anger from one thing out on something else. And we all do it from time to time.
Displacement can be a healthy thing. For example, there may be times when we need to “block out” certain emotions so that we can think clearly. A surgeon may need to block out fear or anxiety if a complication arises during surgery. A business professional may need to block out frustration when dealing with a difficult client. A CEO may need to block out personal defensiveness during a professional negotiation.
The only problem is that whenever we block out or bury an emotion, it doesn’t go away. It just goes underground. And just like the geysers at Yellowstone, all of that content builds pressure under the surface until it eventually finds a way out. That’s why something small can sometimes set us off, because we feel a little bit of anger and its like our body says, “Oh, its ok to feel that now? In that case, I’ve also got all this other anger we’ve been storing up. Let’s let all that out, too.”
The trick isn’t necessarily to stop blocking our emotions. There are lots of times when we are going to feel things and it isn’t appropriate to respond at the moment. Instead, the goal is to grow in our awareness of when we are doing this. That way, we can proactively find better ways of letting out our emotions and not let them hijack our conversations.
The next time you find yourself descending into an argument with your partner, ask yourself, “Am I feeling angry?” If the answer is yes, stop and think about the last 24 hours. Has anything else happened that might be contributing to your anger? If so, it might not be a bad idea to bring that up with your partner.
It might sound something like this: “I’m recognizing that I’m getting really out of shape about this. The truth is, I’m really mad at my boss right now, and I think that might be effecting our conversation right now.” Who knows… talking about the other stressors in your life might actually take what would have been a fight and turn it into an opportunity for you to bond and connect with your partner instead.
Two Final Notes:
1. If you find yourself constantly struggling to control your anger, talk to your therapist. They can work with you to help you notice your triggers as well as develop healthy coping mechanisms.
2. This doesn’t just apply to anger. We can take out all sorts of emotions on each other. This can also apply to frustration, sadness or many other emotions.
Eric McClerren, MS, CIT
emcclerren @ growcounseling.com