Cut The Fuse

The Trick To Keeping A Short Temper In Check

Even if it never leads to violence or shouting, a short temper still affects your relationships — not to mention the mental health of everyone in your family. 

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Blustering, short-tempered dads are a tried-and-true TV sitcom trope, but the tendency to anger quickly and easily isn’t a harmless personality quirk in real life. If you have a short temper, it can make your family tense and on edge, bracing for an outburst every time something goes wrong. Even if you stop yourself from say, kicking the toys left strewn around the living room out of your way, and even if your anger never leads to violence or shouting, chronic grumpiness nevertheless affects your relationships, not to mention the mental health of everyone in your family.

A short temper can be described as a quick reaction with anger to any situation, says New York psychologist Ernesto Lira de la Rosa, media advisor for the Hope for Depression Research Foundation.

“This can entail an increase in aggressive thoughts, emotions, and physiological responses that leads someone to behave in an aggressive or angry manner,” Lira de la Rosa says. “The reaction is usually quick and can lead to people not recognizing their behavior and actions until after the anger subsides.”

“Short temper” isn’t an official psychological diagnosis, but it is similar to Intermittent Explosive Disorder, or IED, Lira de la Rosa says.

“IED is more severe and consists of repeated patterns of aggressive behavior that are out of proportion to the situation at hand,” he continues.

There’s nothing wrong with experiencing anger, Lira de la Rosa clarifies. Feeling angry is normal, but it’s the behavior accompanying the emotion that can be problematic: “There are both healthy and unhealthy ways of expressing anger,” he says.

Why Short-Tempered Men Are The Way They Are

It’s possible that short tempers run in families and can be part of our genes, Lira de la Rosa says. Other mental health concerns, such as depression, anxiety, stress, and trauma, can contribute as well, especially if people haven’t been able to express or process them.

Anger tends to directly relate, however, to specific thought patterns triggered when someone perceives a situation as unfair, unjust, or simply “wrong,” says clinical psychologist Steven M. Sultanoff, Ph.D., a professor at Pepperdine University. Someone who sees behavior as unfair and who also perceives that unfairness as a personal attack might get angry in a particular situation whereas someone who doesn’t share that tendency would not, he says.

Feeling angry is normal, but it’s the behavior accompanying the emotion that can be problematic

For example, when a kid isn’t behaving in a way he or she “should,” someone with a short temper might, deep down, see it as a reflection on him, Sultanoff says. A man who thinks it’s unfair that his child is misbehaving will think, “If things aren’t fair, then I’m not good enough to be treated fairly.”

“It’s a core, or absolute, belief about oneself,” Sultanoff says. “Does your child wailing mean you’re inadequate, or not okay? No, but it can feel that way. When the child doesn’t behave, the negative core belief kicks in, and he thinks, I’m not good enough, not loved enough, so I have to be angry and control the outside world.”

Anger in such a situation can be empowering, he continues: “If someone’s belief system centers around the world being fair, it energizes them to correct the wrong, or whatever it is they perceive as unjust or unfair.”

Other things also can contribute to men being short-tempered or irritable, says licensed marriage and family therapist Nick Bognar: “Most of them boil down to not having the emotional literacy to know what’s going on within themselves, and a lack of knowledge about how to care for themselves.”

A classic example of a counterproductive anger response is a dad who can’t stand to see his child suffer, Bognar says. If the child is in pain, scared or crying, the dad finds himself angry, and some dads might even yell at their kids or punish them for this.

Although we’re making strides toward men feeling comfortable expressing emotions, there are still plenty of dads who see themselves as someone who’s never allowed to be in distress.

“Once we step back and examine that, the truth was the dad just didn’t know how to tolerate seeing his child suffer, and handled it in a way that may have felt appropriate at the time,” Bognar says. “He might think to himself, They need to learn to toughen up, like I had to, but the truth is that the toughening-up process was the thing that left the dad without the resources to understand what his own fear and pain feel like, and without strategies for caring for himself when he’s in distress.”

Irritability continues to be culturally more “appropriate” for men than other emotions, such as sadness, says Stephen Benning, a psychology professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

“Both men and women can be high in negative emotion, but women tend to [make] themselves the objects of that negative emotion, such as anxiety or self-consciousness, whereas men tend to be more irritable and hostile,” Benning says. “Thus, women may be more likely to withdraw when they feel badly, but men may tend to approach the objects of their negative emotion.”

In addition, although we’re making strides toward men feeling comfortable expressing emotions, there are still plenty of dads who see themselves as someone who’s never allowed to be in distress, Bognar notes.

“That’s a lonely and painful place to be,” he says. “And of course, when we bottle things up, eventually the bottle gets full — and full bottles rarely leak. More often, they burst.”

The Trouble With Short Tempers

Unhealthy expressions of anger affect you and your family. Bottling up anger tends to lead to health issues later on, specifically heart disease, says Thomas DiBlasi, Ph.D., clinical psychologist and an assistant professor at St. Joseph’s College who studies anger, domestic violence, and revenge. Bottling emotions also can lead to being short-tempered and irritable, he says, or it could lead to explosions and impulsive, heat-of-the-moment reactions.

A short temper can become a problem if you see that it’s interfering with your relationships, work or other aspects of your life, Lira de la Rosa says. Or maybe you’re — understandably — worried if your partner or children seem afraid of upsetting you.

A short temper can become a problem if you see that it’s interfering with your relationships, work, or other aspects of your life.

It can be helpful to imagine the roles were switched during one of your temper episodes and to honestly answer some tough questions, Sultanoff suggests, such as, If you were a child, how would you react to you being angry? What impact might that have, if the child, or your partner, is scared? And if you’re angry at your child or your partner, what is the function of being angry? How is being angry helping you?

Some men with short tempers aren’t particularly motivated to change because anger can be empowering and even useful, Sultanoff says. If a father’s temper flares and his wife collects the kids and leaves the room because he’s scaring everyone, for example, it achieves the result of getting everyone to stop bothering him. But at what cost? Considering how your temper might be hurting those around you can provide an incentive to change.

“If your wife backs off when you’re angry, your anger is pushing her away, in a sense,” Sultanoff says. Once men realize their children are growing fearful and they’re creating emotional distance between themselves and their partners, they’re likely to be more motivated to change the behavior.

These strategies can help you get some control over your short temper.

Connor Robinson for Fatherly

5 Strategies to Manage Your Short Temper

  1. Listen to Your Body. Many people don’t notice that their bodies tense up when they’re angry or irritable, but becoming more aware of it and relaxing those muscles can be calming, DiBlasi says. A helpful tool is progressive muscle relaxation (PMR). Consistent practice helps increase awareness of your body’s reactions, he says, and recommends a short video to learn how.Also helpful is to try to catch yourself thinking “demanding” thoughts, such as “They should have done this,” “This must be this way,” or “I need this to happen,” he says.“Over 90 percent of anger episodes include thoughts of demandingness, so learning to be aware of these thoughts can be beneficial in the long run,” DiBlasi says.
  2. Take Steps to Change Your Outlook. A perceived “wrong” is too often out of your control, so the anger stemming from it can fester. Resolution strategies such as changing the thought patterns that fuel the anger can help, Sultanoff says. Instead of dwelling on a perception that things are wrong or unfair, acknowledge that an event — perhaps a merger affecting your job, a fight with your spouse, or your child falling ill — is happening for a reason over which you have no control. Changing a core belief that the unfairness you encounter in life is a personal affront is easier said than done, certainly. But learning to approach the world with more zen does a world of good for your health, your family’s health, and the health of your relationships.“That would be most effective for someone who is quick to anger and who gets emotionally flooded,” Sultanoff says. “Because in the long term for the chronically irritable, the cure is in a change in cognition, not in behavior. Ultimately, changing behavior is fine, but it doesn’t change how a person feels.”
  3. Resolve Rather Than Ignore. Men might be quicker to anger over time if they bury conflict and anger rather than work toward a resolution, Sultanoff says. Say a couple is fighting, and it ends with each of them retreating to separate corners; what results is what Sultanoff calls unresolved emotional debris.“The result is that the baseline of emotional tension is raised,” he explains. “With each argument, that baseline goes up. As debris collects, this baseline goes up, so smaller and smaller things might set him off, making him more and more irritable.”It’s worth the time and energy, therefore, to come to a resolution together rather than shelving problems.
  4. Practice Empathy. Before getting angry because your wife should have called the repair guy earlier like she said she would or because your kids should take a bath without complaining and crying, ask yourself if your rule or expectation is important enough to get irritated about, Sultanoff suggests.“Another strategy is to be empathic to the world,” he continues. “That means trying to understand why the world or another person sees things that way when you do not. As a father, that can mean embracing that kids will be kids and that is part of growing up even if their behavior is ‘wrong.’”Compromise, he adds, is “totally ineffective.”Compromise means no one gets what they want, so it often results in both people feeling cheated and unsatisfied. More helpful is giving thought to whether what you want is more important than what your partner wants, Sultanoff says.“It’s not giving up what you want because it’s not that important, it’s that you want to give your partner what they want because you love and care about them,” he says.
  5. Find Humor Where You Can. Everyone’s family lore includes a story in which one or more family member was furious about something dumb that everyone saw the humor in later. Do your best to appreciate those funny incidents while they’re happening, Sultanoff says, because they’re great for reducing anger and irritation.“Great research shows people who are chronically angry don’t engage in humor and that people who engage in humor are less angry,” Sultanoff says. “A father who can increase his ‘comic vision’ and see the world from a more humorous perspective will, over time, be less and less irritated.”

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