“Anger issues” is how Ben explained why he was in my office looking for help. Ben’s wife had passed away four years earlier, leaving him to raise their two sons on his own. Lately, he said, he had become “very short” and “lacked patience” with his teenage sons. He connected his current difficulties to a much longer term “problem with anger” and was eager to get a better understanding of his anger and develop some strategies for dealing with it.
In our first session he named his preference for how he’d like to handle difficult, frustrating situations with his sons: with “patience,” taking “time out” before responding, and seeking to “understand the situation better before judging.” Ben connected these preferences to skills he was already using at work – being calm, listening, asking for an explanation, and explaining his own perspective – and by identifying them, the skills seemed to become more accessible to him as a father.
Ben worked hard and started reporting progress right away. By our fourth session he described several strategies that he was finding helpful when he would start to feel angry with his sons. He described these as follows:
“Keeping it on my side” – was Ben’s way of reminding himself not to immediately see the other person as the one with the problem; instead, he was trying to understand how he, too, contributed to the difficulties.
“Thinking it through” – instead of reacting immediately, Ben would take some time to try to understand how he felt “crossed,” and to respond to the other only when he had a better understanding of this.
“Taking a deep breath” and “chilling” – were both parts of a larger collection of actions aimed at getting himself to “relax more” and “take time.”
“Listen, don’t speak” – was Ben’s reminder to himself at those times when he thought “this is a potential blow-up situation.” He said this reminder helped to keep him from “rolling his eyes” and saying to himself “here we go again.”
“Stepping outside of the role of ‘Dad’” – described Ben’s strategy for not subjecting himself to some impersonal set of standards about how a dad should be doing things, or about what should be happening between a son and a father. Instead, he tried to observe, listen, and “think things through with his boys,” focusing on what is rather than what should be.
Along the way, Ben reflected on the demands he felt as a single-parent. Those demands often left him feeling less patient when things “mounted up” and when he had a lot of “balls in the air,” making it difficult for him to “find consistency.” These observations helped him to notice when the demands were having too much of an influence on his life, and improved his ability to establish a calmer way of being at those times. In stepping back, Ben was also was able to reflect in a different way about how much his sons had been through with the loss of their mother, and how all of them had been affected by not having two parents around who could work together “as a team” to create a “safe haven.”
I was inspired and impressed by Ben’s progress and was touched by Ben’s description of how he was becoming more of the father he wanted to be.
A Different Description of the Challenge
In our final session I asked Ben for his take on how he was able to make progress. In response, Ben mentioned several of the strategies described above and said these had really helped him manage his “anger issue,” his original reason for seeking therapy. As he said the words, “anger issue,” it occurred to me that it might be helpful for Ben to have a more specific description of this particular challenge. I didn’t doubt that Ben felt angry at the difficult moments he had described. But I thought the phrasing, “anger issue,” seemed abstract and somewhat removed from his actual experience. I thought it might be useful to him to come up with a new name or description of the problem that more closely matched his experience.
So I asked Ben to describe what he was doing differently now with his sons than he had a few weeks earlier. He said he was “dealing with things that bug me,” and that he was “trying to understand how important” a particular issue was before reacting. It was about “prioritization,” he said, about where the particular difficulty with his son fit in his perspective of what’s important and what’s not so important.
I asked if it might be more accurate and more helpful to describe this problem as a “prioritization issue” rather than an “anger issue.” Ben said it would, and then commented that in the past he had been treating every difficult interaction with his sons as a high priority, when most of them were not really that important.
A Picture of “Prioritization”
In our conversation we started playing with images a little to paint a more vivid picture of Ben’s prioritization challenge: to paint a picture of “prioritization.”
Our first image was of a priority list. What kinds of things were high on that list and what were low?
That led to talk of the familiar threat-level color scheme, in which red is the highest level of threat, then orange, and so on. Ben observed that he had been treating everything as a “red” level of alert. He was responding to every difficulty as if it were the highest priority, as a crisis-to-be-headed-off or met head-on, so he found himself always on high alert – not a posture that was very conducive to the kind of calm he had described as his preference.
The imagery became more tangible as we switched to the familiar red-yellow-green of traffic lights. I observed that during Ben’s difficult interactions with his sons there seemed to be two sets of traffic lights, side-by-side. On one side was Ben’s “emotions light” – the light that turned red when Ben felt “worked up,” “stressed,” or started to get “angry” with his sons. Next to it was Ben’s “priority light,” with red flashing for the highest priority issues and green for less significant ones and non-crises.
Up until recently, when the emotion light flashed red, the priority light automatically turned red. But with Ben’s recent work he was able to separate these lights and make a distinction between them such that being worked up did not automatically make something a high priority: A red emotion light did not automatically trigger a red priority light. The imagery described an important process that Ben was already practicing: being worked up, agitated, or angry, was now serving as an indicator that there was something to pay attention to, but not necessarily something to get “worked up” about. Ben was using the flashing emotion light as an indicator to pay attention to his priorities.
The discussion led to one final development. I was thinking of traffic lights, but Ben was taken back to memories of drag racing, and the “Christmas Tree” lights used to count down to the start of the race. He regaled me with his own experience of drag racing and the excitement of anticipating the start of the race. The lights would flash through their sequence, down the Christmas Tree, until they reached green and he could, literally, push the button to unleash the enormous power of his dragster. We ended our session buoyed by that rich imagery, and its connection to important distinctions Ben was making, and the changes he was enjoying as a father.