Why You Shut Down When You’re Angry — And How To Stop

It’s a hard habit to fight, especially if it’s one you’ve had for a long time. Here’s where to start.

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You don’t want to, but sometimes you get angry. The reason? Pick one. You don’t feel heard or respected. You’re seeing bad decisions, i.e., not how you would do things, be made. You’re really tired. It might be more honest to cry or say that you’re scared, but you go with yelling, because that comes off as strong. But it’s rarely a winning move and it’s never what anyone aspires to.

“Who wants to deal with an angry person?,” says Lesli Doares, licensed marriage and family therapist and author of Hero Husband: Building a Super Marriage with Truth, Confidence, and Authentic Leadership. “We don’t get angry for the fun of it,” she says.

The problem is often what comes next: shutting down. Instead of talking, you sigh, stare, pace around, thinking that people will just…get that something is wrong. You may shut down because you’re overwhelmed and feeling incapable of dealing with the issue. It may also be a defense mechanism you’ve acquired over the years.

Or it may be because you’ve found that “stonewalling” or the silent treatment has worked in the past. But that’s another of those not-winning-moves, and it hinges on having empathetic people around you who are patient enough to bring you back. You realize that’s unfair. Ultimately, you don’t want to retreat and go into isolation. But it’s a difficult habit to break.

“We’re not tigers out wandering the terrain by ourselves,” Doares says. “We need others to survive.”

So the big question is when you feel the urge, how do you stop shutting down when you’re angry? There’s not one thing to do, but several. Here’s where to start.

1. Redefine “Shutting Down”

Here’s the thing: Shutting down is not entirely a bad thing to do. Anger is an emotion like any other, not positive or negative, Doares says. You might feel like you should never get mad, but that’s not being human. So shutting down can help if you a little time to take a beat. The essential thing is what you do with the anger, and pausing — where you take a deep breath, both literally and figuratively — can help.

Actually, take a few deep breaths. They can reset your system and get you out of reacting and into thinking. But you also should step out of the setting if it’s possible. Take a walk. Go to the bathroom. Look around the basement. Wherever you end up, you’re away from what’s overwhelming.

2. Examine Your Thoughts

You can’t just leave. This may be very hard but fight the instinct. You eventually have to return in a calmer state. But sometimes in the timeout, all you’re doing is turning the anger over and over. If so, interrogate the crap out of your worry. My kid is disrespectful. Is that actually true? How much of the time is it true? Why is it a problem? Because it goes against your belief system? No other kid seems to do it? They won’t have any friends? It makes you feel like the worst parent ever?

This requires probing tough subjects, but you can get at the real issue and put your fear into perspective. What feels like forever is actually not. You might get an idea of what to do and that gives a sense of control.

But even if you remain confused, the examination gives you a better chance of getting into your cognitive brain where you’re thinking, problem-solving and being creative.

“It’s about shifting the information,” Doares says.

3. Make Another Shift

When you’re angry, you only see threats, one being your spouse. It’s easy to get defensive and to think, If only they would … What helps is to take on a new mindset on who you’re actually “battling” because your opponent is not your partner. Instead?

“It’s us versus the problem,” says Carl Hindy, clinical psychologist in Newmarket, New Hampshire and author of If This is Love, Why Do I Feel So Insecure? “We’re a team.”

And as teammates, you need to talk regularly, which is not always done. Couples can think that one conversation should suffice or they only want to have one conversation, because they worry about saying the wrong thing or feel the need to address everything in a random three-minute window. It only creates more pressure.

“We’re trying to hit the home run,” says Carl Hindy.

But the reality is no discussion is ever finished. Issues always come back. Kids change. So do relationships.

The first step is to accept the never-ending nature of conversations. The next is to make time to have them. The when is less important than stating the importance of doing it, then committing to making it happen. When you know there will always be a “next time”, you don’t have to stress, rush, or try to silence your partner in the name of resolving something.

“You don’t need to hit the grand slam,” he says.

4. Reconnect With Your Partner

Yeah, have a date night, movie night, or sit reading books, because sometimes words aren’t what’s needed. You just want time to be adults, and what you’re trying to do is rediscover why you feel in love with your spouse, a feeling that can get buried once parenting takes over. If you want something structured, Hindy suggests 16Personalities. You can each take the free personality test and share the results. The findings might be a surprise, or it’s a reminder of who your partner is and how they show love, and “you look at each other in a benign light,” he says.

5. Do Something For Yourself

This is another suggestion that’s easy to push aside. You have responsibilities and kids, and if you do anything else, you’re a horrible parent, right? Wrong. That attitude makes you ignore the relationship with your spouse and your own well-being, and the result leaves you feeling like I have so many roles in my life and I’m failing with everything, Hindy notes.

The problem is not that you're empty, but that your tank is maxed out, and any slight or comment, however minor, causes a spillover. But you know the upside to taking some personal time. When you come home, no problem seems monumental. It might feel like a luxury, but when you find that escape you’ll find there’s less need to ever pull back. Anger, Hindy says, often happens because you don’t have the bandwidth.

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