Names, and details of people and organisations have been changed to maintain their privacy. The case studies below will will go into details of how these transformations occurred.
Tim (not client’s real name) was an unusual client in that from the very first contact they were clear that anger was the issue (typically clients have a few sessions with me before they start opening up on the topic).
Tim was having serious staff trouble. Workers were all incompetent; there were lots of customer complaints; they had to repeatedly find new suppliers for their business. Tim’s romantic relationship was struggling and family members seemed to avoid them. Now, if somebody’s got to the point where they themselves realise that anger is an issue, we know there’s a lot more going on.
They had previously tried the obvious solutions of more relaxation, letting it all out and so on, although clearly to no avail.
When I worked with this client there was a collection of issues that needed dealing with, which I’ve outlined below, but even after the very first session together we began to see changes. For practical reasons they were only able to come and see me every four or six weeks, so we made the most of our sessions. Now, after working together for a while I cannot say that he is an icon of peace and calm; however staff suddenly seem to be more competent and just getting on with the job; no more customer complaints; they’ve not had to find a new supplier; their home life is less stressful.
In addition to these changes my client reports that they have a lot more energy for their business and for their life outside work. This is often reported when people start dealing with their inner anger.
What we did together
Past highly stressful threatening events
We all have stressful events from the past stored in our brains. Our brain has a mechanism for this, and will routinely remind us of them if it believes that we are approaching a similar situation to one which caused distress before. However, with this client there were rather a lot of experiences where they had been in some way violated, ripped off or otherwise threatened, recollection of which was being brought to mind multiple times a day.
We now know that while you can talk about such memories forever, very little changes in our brains. However, we do now have mechanisms which enable us to update these memories to take the emotional charge away from them so they are far less invasive. When they do invade they are now just an ordinary memory rather than a huge source of anger as it was with this client. My tool of choice for this work is Havening – a breakthrough in the understanding of how this type of memory can be updated by our brains.
Havening has an advantage over some of the other approaches, which are loosely called memory re-consolidation, in that my client could take a self-help tool away with him, so whenever he felt the anger arising, even if the specific memory did not come to mind, he could use self-Havening to calm the brain. This was often enough to stop him being triggered into an outburst, either a clear outburst of anger or, as often happens, falling into passive-aggressive behaviour. Naturally, my client had to practice the self-Havening many times before it became their first choice reaction.
Although the term mindfulness is very common, here I’m referring to a person’s ability to be aware of what is happening to them in their thoughts, feelings, and sensations in real time, no matter what it is. They can be aware in such a manner that they can make informed choices about what to do next rather than act in a default manner such as an outburst of anger or passive-aggressive behaviour as was the case with this client.
We practised some techniques whilst we were together and then Tim put in some additional home experimentation with the techniques. Like anything that requires a fundamental change in how the brain works, T had to put in some effort in order to become aware of what was happening whilst it was happening, rather than reflecting back later and feeling guilty and ashamed for their behaviour.
With Tim mindfulness was used as a way to put them back into control of their behaviour. We had previously explored more productive and useful ways in which they could behave in a variety of situations. By becoming more aware of when they were stumbling into the old anger patterns, they could choose one of the new patterns we had developed together.
It would be great if we could take on a new habit immediately. Unfortunately, that’s not how our brains work. Habits require a lot of repetition to become established.
With Tim what we had to do was establish a collection of new “micro-habits”. Very simple things, such as what they could say to somebody who had interrupted them. We developed a collection that was relevant to their own life. I then got Tim to practise saying these short sentences to themselves, looking into a mirror, into their own eyes, and saying it out loud. It might have felt a bit weird, but this is a much faster way of burning it into the brain.
They were only able to see me infrequently, but this gave them plenty of opportunity for them to develop and practise new habits of thinking, behaving and speaking. The old habits of passive-aggressive outbursts were still there somewhere, however because they learned to take just a moment before reacting, they were able to actively choose one of the new habits which had started to become established. This made life easier for staff, clients, suppliers, loved ones and family alike.
Identifying the triggers
We don’t get angry about something that is not important to us. It’s as simple as that.
We all have beliefs, values, and standards that we believe are the right way of doing things. They are just our views; they are not absolute truths. If you start talking about politics, religion, football (or an endless list of topics), you will always find somebody with a radically different view to yours.
What Tim and I did together was identify those buttons that could be pressed – each time we identified a particular trigger, such as how my client thought people should behave in a certain situation, we could put together some strategies that were helpful for them. After we had done this over a few sessions Tim learned to create their own strategies for the future. They could spot their own triggers, and put in place new ways of thinking and behaving. Of course a twinge of anger came up from time to time, but that anger never led to Tim being pushed around by it.
Time to think time to create
My client had inherited the business. He’d had to take on roles that were not aligned to his strengths; the very process of running the business – the analysing, thinking, rationalising and planning, or the creative tasks associated with marketing.
I equipped Tim with some basic understanding of how human brains work, and we put some simple plans together to put it into action.
All human brains work differently at different times of day. Typically between two and four hours after we wake our brains are more equipped for analytical and rational thinking; we usually have a window of about two hours for this. If we can focus primarily on that style of thinking during that time then we will achieve much more.
We have a second window of heightened brain potential, this time more creative. Typically mid- to late afternoon. Even though sometimes we can be feeling a little dopey and sleepy then, it turns out the creative part of the brain can be more active.
Equipped with this understanding Tim and I put together a plan. We needed to minimise distractions so they could maximise their effectiveness on these tasks in a limited amount of time, freeing them up to get on with those parts of the business they really enjoyed doing. For both of these productive times Tim relocated to a nearby coffee shop. They could be reached by email or phone but it was not practical for people to just walk into their office. He also made sure to stop working after about two hours, even though there was always more to be done (if you run a business you understand there’s always more that can be done)! Tim would then deliberately put themselves back into the business, engaging with people, which they loved, and doing aspects of the business that fed them.
My client is a very bright and capable person. They’ve achieved a lot in their life. However it would be unreasonable to expect him to understand everything about their own brain and mind and do the work themselves. I was brought in to help them quickly cut through their perceived chaos and give them just the items they needed to focus on so they could get on with their life. It is fair to say that it is the combination of all these different aspects that gave Tim the freedom from their anger. It is unlikely that any one area would have been enough for them.