In the Heat of the Moment: Why we lose our cool with those we love most

February 22, 2019

By Isabella Markert

The other day as we got out of the car and started walking toward the front door, my husband threw a snowball at me. (In his defense, and as he described later, it really was more of a soft “snow cluster,” and it wasn’t that cold outside.) He laughed at the shock on my face, but I must have been in a bad mood, because I immediately shut my mouth into a frown and gave him the silent treatment for, like, 10 minutes.

After I got over my petty crankiness, I apologized and let him know I understood that he was just trying to be playful, and if I could do it all again, I would have laughed and thrown a snowball right back at him.

Have you ever wondered why we often lose our cool when annoyed by our loved ones, but seldom do when frustrated by others? If a coworker had playfully thrown a snowball at me, you can bet I would have laughed it off.

There are several possible explanations, but here is the simplest one: we lose our cool because we choose to.

As a wise old Reader’s Digest article explains, “Aggression, . . . suppressing the anger, talking about it, screaming and yelling” are learned strategies for handling the emotion of anger. “We choose the one that has proved effective for us in the past.” (“The New Obscenity,” Reader’s Digest, Dec. 1988, 24).

Do you find yourself choosing to deal with anger at your spouse or kids by using the silent treatment, raising your voice, grumbling under your breath, or flinging sarcastic comments? If so, the good news is there are ways to choose not to be angry. It may be a difficult change to make, but by evaluating the underlying emotion, practicing fair thoughts, and choosing anger management strategies ahead of time, we can keep our cool and protect our most important relationships.


Evaluate the Underlying Emotion

“Anger is almost never a primary emotion in that even when anger seems like an instantaneous, knee-jerk reaction to provocation, there’s always some other feeling that gave rise to it,” says Leon Seltzer, PhD. “And this particular feeling is precisely what the anger has contrived to camouflage or control.

Imagine, for example, that your teenager is out way too late, you haven’t heard from him, and you’ve been sitting at home, feeling intensely worried. As soon as he walks through the door, rather than feeling relieved, you’re as angry as can be. But what feelings came first? Fear. Then the anger arrived, “camouflag[ing] or control[ing]” the fear. It happens so fast that being angry feels automatic and doesn’t feel like a choice at all.

“Symptomatic anger covers up . . .  key distressful emotions,” Seltzer continues, “[including] feeling ignored, unimportant, accused, guilty, untrustworthy, devalued, rejected, powerless, unlovable—or even unfit for human contact.”

Can you think of a time when you may have camouflaged or controlled these emotions by choosing to be angry? Maybe your 18-month-old bites your finger with her razor-sharp teeth, and you can’t help but feel peeved (but you really feel hurt). Maybe your mom won’t stop criticizing a parenting choice you’ve made, and that makes you angry (but you really feel undervalued). By recognizing the emotion underlying our anger, we can work out the heart of the matter and solve our anger from the inside out.


Practice Fair Thoughts

“Behind every disturbing emotional state lurks a triggering negative thought,” says Jeffrey S. Nevid, PhD. So between the “camouflaged” emotion and the anger, there is at least a fleeting thought that triggers the anger.

How do you catch those thoughts before they happen?

The next time my husband decides to throw snow at me, I’ll be armed with these fair thoughts to help me (and a snow cluster of my own).

“Developing a much more favorable (i.e., less “fault-finding”) image of your partner is precisely what must happen in any relationship if it’s not to be hijacked by anger. And it’s just not possible to let go of your anger through any simple act of will or determination. Rather. you need—benevolently—to change the way you think about your partner,” Seltzer says.

When you have the time and space to think, practice thinking fair thoughts about your loved ones. For example, when I’m feeling calm, I can make a mental (or maybe even physical) list of my husband’s positive traits that I sometimes characterize unfairly when I’m annoyed: play is really important to him, he doesn’t take things personally, and he is good at spontaneity.

The next time my husband decides to throw snow at me, I’ll be armed with these fair thoughts to help me (and a snow cluster of my own).


When You’re Not Angry, Choose a Strategy Other Than Anger

What do you do when anger catches you unexpectedly, without your having the chance to identify underlying emotions and practice fair thoughts?

Here are some general tips to help you:

  1. Step away for a moment and use a relaxation technique, like deep breathing, imagining a peaceful scene in nature, or progressive muscle relaxation.
  2. Be logical and avoid using absolute words like never or always.
  3. Use “I” statements to let the other person know how you feel, rather than making demands.

Practice these techniques when you feel calm and select one to use. Making a choice will help you gain command of your emotions in the heat of the moment.

If you find yourself losing your temper with your loved ones, you can learn to keep your cool by evaluating the underlying emotion, practicing fair thoughts, and choosing an anger management strategy ahead of time. Following these practices will empower you to have a happier, calmer family life.


Isabella Markert is a freelance writer, editor, and language educator. Isabella graduated from Brigham Young University, where she majored in English language and minored in editing. She is experienced in social media and web content and enjoys writing practical and fun pieces that make her readers’ lives better. When she’s not writing or editing, Isabella likes to play games with her husband and family, follow watercolor tutorials from Pinterest, and eat the snobbiest chocolate she can find.

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