How to Avoid Responding Defensively During a Challenging Conversation

Healthy communication about a difficult subject doesn’t have to end in agreement.

In fact, one benefit of regular conversation with someone who doesn’t agree with you is the discovery that your disagreement can actually be stimulating to both of you. But open-mindedness is essential. Each of you must be willing to listen to what the other is saying. 

When you find yourself in a conversation with someone else about a sensitive and potentially explosive subject, do you make any of the following common mistakes?

• Talking too much. When you need to talk with someone about a difficult personal problem between the two of you, it’s possible that you’ll begin by talking around the subject—being vague, trying to be polite, and hop- ing that your listener will somehow pick up your meaning. There’s also the risk that as you talk and talk, you’ll say something that the listener will react to defensively. But the fewer words you use to open the conversation and explain the problem as you see it, the better off you both will be.

• Assuming that you have all the facts. When you feel strongly about something, you’re usually convinced that you have all the facts and know exactly what’s what. You’re also quite sure that you know who’s right (you) and who’s wrong (the other person), so you go into the conversation primarily to get the other person to agree with you. Then, the more the other person resists (perhaps in an effort to offer his or her own viewpoint), the harder you push to get your way. But you rarely, if ever, know all the facts, and you can’t always be right. 

Go into the conversation prepared to listen to and consider the other person’s point of view. And show that you’re listening by nodding, saying “I see,” and rephrasing the other person’s key points (“So what you’re saying is . . .”). The purpose of repeating what the other person has said in your own words is not to be a parrot but to cre- ate communication and dialogue, not to mention to give yourself a way to remember what the two of you talked about. 

• Not seeing your own role in the problem. It’s tempting to see every problem as someone else’s fault. But if you’re involved in the situation, then you’re part of the problem in some way, and you need to remember that your role is at least as great as the other person’s.

• Jumping right into action. When a problem is difficult, it’s tempting to offer an immediate solution so the conversation can end quickly. But slow down. You need to hear the other person’s side of the story, and the other person needs to know that his or her opinions and feelings have been heard. If you push too quickly for your own solution, the other person probably won’t be committed to it, and the outcome will show that disen- gagement. You’ll think you’ve solved the problem, only to find that nothing has changed and you’re quickly back to square one.

• Not understanding the importance of how you sound. The feeling conveyed in your voice will have more of an impact and be remembered longer than the words you actually speak. If you yell, you may think you’re forcing the other person to listen, but what’s more likely is that he or she is waiting for you to pause so they can lash out with a defense against your verbal attack. Raising your voice creates the kind of stress and tension that provoke anger. The louder your voice, the more intense the anger, and the greater the risk of a physical confrontation. Be sure to modulate your voice so that its volume and tone don’t deliver a message of aggression or dominance.

• Being oblivious to personal space. You can make the other person uneasy if you stand or sit too close. But if you stand or sit too far away, you can come off as cold and uncaring. Watch the other person’s movement toward you, and especially away from you, for clues to getting the distance right. If you see that you’re too close, pull back a little.

• Not understanding your purpose in communicating. Ask yourself what you hope to achieve by talking with someone else about a difficult problem between the two of you. Do you see the conversation as your chance to win an argument? Or is it about finding a solution and deeper understanding? If all you want to do is prove something, get even, or make yourself look good, then that’s not communication—it’s grandstanding.

The antidote to feeling defensive is to understand that you’re in control of your choices in the present. To take positive control over these choices, you have to make an active effort. For example, the next time you’re angry, remind yourself that you have choices now that you didn’t have as a child. As a child, you sought to get control in the wrong way—by losing your temper or suppressing your anger. But now, as an adult, you can choose to express your anger by simply and clearly saying how you’re feeling rather than arguing, shouting, or defending yourself. You can respond from a place of self-respect instead of reacting from a place of rage and defensiveness.

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Yelling in Relationships and Raging On the Road

When you take someone’s anger-provoking behavior personally, you feel offended and disrespected.

Your reaction to your uncomfortable feelings is either to defend yourself or to submit passively to what the other person seems to think of you. Either way, you view the other person’s behavior as a literal, serious, personal threat to your well-being:

• In traffic, your blood pressure shoots up as you fume about the sloppiness of other drivers and about how their recklessness is putting you personally at risk.

• At the office, you take a colleague’s disagreement with you as personal disrespect or hostility.

• Closer to home, your girlfriend goes off the deep end over some silly joke you told at a party, and you feel personally attacked and hurt.

In reality, however, reckless drivers drive recklessly whether you’re on the road or not. Your colleagues at the office can disagree with you for reasons of their own that have nothing to do with you. And maybe your girlfriend is upset because the way you told that joke brought back some painful memory that you know nothing about. In each case, what you’re taking personally isn’t personal at all.

Let me give you another kind of example. A client of mine was deeply in love with a woman who wasn’t emotionally available. She would draw him in and then do something to push him away. (This is what’s commonly called sabotaging the relationship.) At first he took her behavior personally because he had behaved badly toward her a few times and felt guilty. But as he and I talked and as he looked at his past behavior, he expressed deep sorrow. 

He worked on forgiving himself, and he apologized to the woman he loved. She accepted his apology, but soon enough she was pushing him away again. He was finally able to see that she had major issues around emotional intimacy, and that her pushing him away wasn’t any type of personal statement about him. She’d had a pretty tough life, and the way she protected herself whenever she felt unsafe with someone was to go on the attack or withdraw. And her protective technique was highly effective!

You may never know the real reasons why people in your life have attacked you or withdrawn from you. They may have been suffering from the effects of past abuse, or other problems of their own may have played a role. What you can know is that their provocative behavior was almost certainly not personal, and so it would be a mistake for you to take it personally.

• Don’t defend yourself against insults or other hurtful behavior. Your attackers aren’t interested in your point of view. They’re focused on relieving their own emotional pain, at your expense. Others’ antagonism is no reflection of your worth as a person, and you require no defense.

• Don’t worry about looking or sounding stupid. If someone asks you a question and you don’t know the answer, you can say, “I need to think about that and get back to you.” Remind yourself that you’re an imperfect human being, you’re allowed to make mistakes, and you do many things quite well. You will never be superior or inferior, but equal.

• Put less focus on yourself. Instead, think about your goals and the steps needed to meet them. In a social interaction, think about how to make the experience itself enjoyable, and ask yourself what you can do to feel more comfortable.

• When someone attacks you, muster up the courage to risk doing something new. For example, you can simply say, “I don’t know what you’re trying to accomplish.” That’s not a counterattack. It’s just the truth. And if you feel good afterward, savor that feeling—you will have earned it.

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Anger, Anxiety and Control

Anger is an instinctual emotional response from a real or imagined threat.

Anger is painful and we need to get relief. We almost always feel something else first before we get angry: afraid, hopeless, hurt, disrespected, disappointed, or guilty.

We use anger to protect/cover up these other vulnerable feelings. We learned to deny and suppress our feelings so we will not be in emotional pain anymore. However, when something happens in the present, it reminds us of unfinished business in the past and compounds it.

When we suffer an intensely painful feeling, the body releases hormones into the bloodstream as part of the fight or flight response. These hormones turn our experience of the intensely painful emotional event into strong memories. These memories are strong to ensure we do not forget such an episode and promote our survival.

This makes sense for our hunter gatherer ancestors who had to remember the constant threats to their survival. However in our modern world, threats to our physical safety are rare, but threats to our emotional safety are omnipresent.

Threat and safety detection has been linked to the amygdala, and emotion regulation seems to be the domain of the prefrontal cortex. These regions of the brain release hormones that tell our body something potentially painful just occurred, so don’t forget it or let it happen again. So the hormones give a heightened significance to these emotional memories. As we grow, these emotional memories play a disproportionate role in shaping our personality, and makes us think, act and feel in certain ways.

However when we feel the same emotion in the present, it triggers our emotional memories for the past experiences when that feeling occurred. The problem is that we have lost sight of the original anger-provoking event that stimulated the secretion of these hormones in the first place. In counseling, our task is to restore the connection between the past and the present so that the anger will be relieved properly, and the “pumping” can stop.

We cannot be happy when we keep turning our thoughts around and around in our head. This is called obsessive thinking.

People obsess when they have a problem that they cannot solve. For people who feel inadequate to solve problems, life is one obsessive thought after another.

Some people are very good at solving problems. When they finally run into a problem that they cannot solve, they too, fall into the trap of obsessive thinking.

For some people, control means “preventing bad things from happening.”  But, this belief toward control, breeds endless stress because:

•           It requires you to know what is going to happen before it happens.

•           It requires you to solve the problem before it arises. It sets you up to feel inadequate to cope with life because you cannot possibly predict the future with perfect accuracy.

•           It requires that you prevent the disaster perfectly.  Nothing less will do.

•           If the “disaster” happens, you blame yourself for “failing” to prevent it:  “I should have seen it coming.”

•           You blame yourselves for “failing” to know what the other person was thinking and planning to do to you:  “I should have known.”

In an ambiguous or unpredictable situation, the brain is going to look for clues in the environment, things it knows from past experience are associated with threat or safety. If this is unsuccessful, and the brain can’t tell what is dangerous and what isn’t, then anything could seem like a threat.

To add another arrow into the mix, despite a general human preference for certainty, the unknown isn’t always anxiety-inducing. Uncertainty has its upside, especially regarding temporary uncertainties or unknowns. We don’t want to know the endings of all the books we’re going to read, the movies we’ll ever watch, or all our future birthday  presents. We like a sense of mystery and suspense as it fuels desire, anticipation and hope.

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Coping with Health Anxiety

Healthy human bodies produce all sorts of physical symptoms that might be uncomfortable, unexpected, and unwanted.

With health anxiety there is a misinterpretation of discomfort and normal bodily sensations as dangerous. This typically leads to excessive checking behaviors that are uncontrollable, physically draining, and significantly impacts our quality of life.

Normal sensations in the body that can produce fear and worry include changes in visual acuity, heart rate, blood pressure, saliva levels, depth of breathing, balance, and muscle tone,  just to name a few.  These are typically harmless bodily changes, but when a person believes they are symptoms of a terrible disease, it causes anxiety.  

Anxiety is a protective mechanism and scanning the body for an illness seems like the right thing to do to keep ourselves safe. However, when we are preoccupied with something, we tend to notice it. Looking for symptoms makes us notice subtle sensations we might otherwise ignore and when we become preoccupied with bodily sensations, those sensations become amplified and last longer.

For those with health anxiety, a scan of the body can produce uncertainty and doubt, giving the imagination opportunity to create stories.  As we imagine the worst, our body’s alarm system sounds off in the form of anxiety (racing heart, tightness in the chest, difficulty breathing, jitters, tingling, lightheadedness, nausea, stomach discomfort, sweating, headaches, etc.) giving our imagination additional fuel to create great works of fiction.  The symptoms are real, but conclusions we jump to are inaccurate.

Thoughts are not facts, they are just associations and ideas, but we don’t have to believe everything we think! The problem is not that we are in danger, the problem is that we THINK we are at risk of some threat occurring. That’s a big difference! 

So let’s say, we are not seriously ill, but just think we are. It stands to reason that constantly worrying and thinking about our health isn’t going to be helpful, but it can still have an adverse affect on us. Thinking we’re ill when we’re not is stressful, which can lower our immune system and make us more likely to get ill.

What can we do to manage health anxiety?

It helps to challenge our pessimistic, anxiety provoking thoughts: 

Do we know for certain that we have this serious illness?

Do we want to spend the rest of our life worrying about illness, or do we want to get the most out of life as it is?

We can look for facts that tell us we are not seriously ill, so that when the thoughts about being ill come back, we can be better prepared and challenge them. The more we challenge them, the weaker and less powerful the thoughts become.

We might repeatedly ask our family and friends, or visit our doctor often, in order to hear the words “everything is ok – there’s nothing wrong”. This seems helpful….for a short while…until the worrying thoughts come back again, then we start all over again. So the reassurance seeking helps to keep the anxiety going, in the long term. 

We can aim to reduce visiting the doctor or asking others for reassurance. If we usually ask our partner 30 times a day, then aim to reduce over the period of a few days, as much as we can. We might write down the number of times we ask, because writing it down helps us notice, and also helps us think twice about doing it! We can also notice our success at reducing the reassurance over time.

We can use the same reducing approach to looking up information (internet, books etc) about the health problem. In seeking more information, we will worry more and feel more anxious, so we need to reduce it in the same way as we reduce the checking behavior.

Use STOPP skill to incorporate all these strategies

Stop and just pause for a moment

Take a few slow deep breaths

Observe that the health worry is there again. Our minds are reacting to a body sensation and we feel anxious. 

Pull back and let’s not believe everything we think! Let’s stick with the facts – these thoughts are just opinions. We don’t have to react right now. There’s another explanation for this…(normal body sensation etc).  We are ok right now.

Practice / Proceed – What can we do right now? We don’t need to check or seek reassurance. What will make us happy?

While our doctor can do tests and tell us that we don’t have a particular illness, we have to accept that, we can never be certain that we will never have a serious illness. The odds are more likely that we are giving urgency and excessive significance to things that are ordinary, normal and natural.

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Self Soothing Mindfulness

We all have a running inner dialogue of thoughts.

Sometime this inner self talk is pessimistic, critical or blaming. By attending to your inner self talk, you will notice critical thoughts intruding, and that’s ok. The aim of a mindful activity is to continually bring your attention back to the activity, noticing these messages from outside and within. 

You can begin by spending 15 minutes every day capturing your thought process on paper. Looking at your thoughts on paper helps you to identify the exaggerated pessimistic thoughts you have. After identifying your negative thoughts, write several positive statements for each negative one.

First, focus on what you can do about the problem. Replace unfulfilled longing with realistic goals or plans for change. When you can’t do anything to change a problematic situation, work toward acceptance.

Keep a list of your most common negative thought habits and positive alternatives for each. Refer to this list whenever negative thoughts arise, until you can substitute helpful alternatives from memory or immediately make up new thought alternatives to counter the negative thoughts.

It helps to counter the negative attention with some positive self affirmation by saying kind statements to yourself as if you were talking to a friend:

“You are a good person going through a hard time.

”You will get through this.”

“You can handle this,”

“This feeling will pass.”

Below a mindful meditation script that can be incorporated into your daily routine.

Trust Mantra

And think of a peaceful word, perhaps the word trust

Let this word go over and over in your mind like an echo

Repeat the word to yourself over and over and over

Simply attend to the word in your mind at your own speed

Repeat it to yourself at your own pace and volume

There is nothing you have to do

No effect you have to achieve

Just attend to your word as it goes over and over in your mind

Whenever your attention wanders or you are distracted

Simply return to the word trust and let it echo in your mind

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Arguing with Your Spouse: Don’t Take the Bait

Mike and Joan were fighting about the mess in the kitchen.

Mike perceived his wife’s criticisms as if they were attacks and he was defending himself against her. Joan felt threatened and was protecting herself against his defenses. She was feeling unappreciated and unloved. They were both repeating the behavior that they saw growing in their own parents’ marriages and they hated it. Joan saw she was getting nowhere with her attempts to get Mike to see the error of his ways. She was fed up trying to get him to learn the niceties of a happy couple. He was not willing to be her pupil. So she decided to try another approach.

In the past, she had tried to end these arguments with a playful remark, such as, “you look so cute when you are all tense and upset.” But Mike was not soothed by these peaceful gestures. Instead he took them as further evidence that his wife did not take what he was saying seriously. Joan chose to stop trying to lighten Mike up, which she had no control over anyways. Instead she decided it was time to take control of herself. She was able to break down her underlying thoughts into small manageable components so that she could work on them over time:

1) “Here I am, just like my mother being judgmental of my husband. Who am I to judge another person? I don’t really know what is best for him. I have even trouble figuring out what is best for me. I can choose to stop doing it.”

2) “Why am I trying to improve my husband against his will? I can choose to accept him as he is, in spite of the fact that he has a long way to go. I love him anyways, he will improve himself when he is ready.”

3) “I am saying negative, hurtful things to the man I love. How can I have a supportive marriage that way? I can choose to say something constructive instead like: I feel hurt when we yell at each other. Let’s take a deep breath and talk calmly.”

4) “I am defending myself from a threat that doesn’t exist. I am not in court and there is not judge or jury, I am not required to attack or defend. I can stop anytime I want.”

5) “I am not a helpless victim and I do not have to prove my value by pleasing others. I have the power of choice. I can choose to stop doing what displeases me, like arguing and start doing what pleases me, like walking away.”

6) “I am trying to prevent Mike from following his parent’s horrible example of marriage. I cannot do that by screaming at him. It may be more helpful to act as a role model by setting an example of self respect for him to follow if he chooses. If I don’t show him that there is another way, then he doesn’t know that there are other choices available to him.”

Joan said, “I don’t want to fight with you. I regret I made you so angry, I am sorry. I’d prefer to take a break now and I am going to make some coffee.” Mike yelled, “Come back here, I’m not through with you.” Joan replied, “Well you have a problem I don’t know what to tell you, maybe you can keep going without me.” And after a few moments, Mike got out some mugs and grabbed a bag of marshmallows. He cleared some space on the table and tried to remember why he overreacted to Joan’s comment about his messiness.

He realized that he was feeling like a victim, just as he did when his mother yelled at him for his sloppy room twenty years ago. “At least I’m consistent”, he mused. “Its hard to lighten up when you are being blamed and attacked. But I’m not a victim, I’m just a slob. I can live with that, but it certainly is not worth defending or attacking Joan over.”

Arguing couple image available from Shutterstock.

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Mindfulness: How Does Your Body Feel

Think of the last time you felt caught up in a distressing emotion.

Your body may have felt tense, your mind may have been dwelling on the past or anticipating problems in the future and there is an intensity or urgency in the moment . Many  have developed unhealthy strategies to escape emotions such as binge eating, drinking or other addictions, sleeping, dissociating.

Mindfulness is useful when we feel physically distressed, emotionally overwhelmed, environmentally triggered or mentally detached from the present moment. When we are overwhelmed, we can get caught up ruminating, whether on a past difficult experience, a recent stressful interaction or the fear of a future situation. 

Mindfulness encourages you to focus on some aspect of the physical world, rather than on your internal thoughts and feelings. To experience mindfulness, designate a specific time for concentrating your full attention. Start initially for 3 minutes twice a day, then gradually increase the frequency and duration. 

For example, when doing the dishes or taking a shower, you can practice using your senses to shift your focus and notice:

  • the temperature of the water and how it feels on your skin
  • the texture of the bubbles
  • the light reflecting off of the bubbles as they softly pop
  • the sound of the water as you move the dishes or yourself about
  • the smoothness of the dishes or soap
  • the texture of the sponge
  • the smell of the washing liquid or soap 

Below a mindful meditation script that can be incorporated into your daily routine.

Rocking Movements

Thinking of all the times in life you have encountered the gentle movement of rocking

Perhaps swaying in a hammock or sitting in a rocking chair

Perhaps floating with the tide or bobbing through waves

Or even as a small child rocking in your mother’s arms

At this time let yourself begin to rock back and forth in your chair

Let each movement become more and more gentle and easy

Let yourself sway effortlessly

Feel your body rocking on its own, in its own way , at its own speed

Let each movement become more and more subtle

All you have to do is quietly attend to the repetitive back and forth movement

And every time your mind wanders or is distracted by thought

Gently return to your subtle rocking motion

For the next minute or let your rocking be barely noticeably and quietly attend

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Mindfulness & Mindful Activities

Mindfulness is a state of awareness.

It is cultivated by systematically focusing attention on bodily sensations, emotions, thoughts, or the surrounding environment.

Mindfulness can help you detach from emotional pain (e.g., anxiety, anger, sadness, self-harm). It is basically a way to distract yourself by focusing on something other than the difficult emotions you are experiencing. You may also think of mindfulness as grounding, centering, distracting, creating a safe place, or healthy detachment.

Although mindfulness does not solve the problem that is contributing to your unpleasant emotions, it does provide a temporary way to gain control over your feelings and prevent things from getting worse.

Mindfulness anchors you, gives you a chance to calm down, and allows you to eventually return and address the problem that is triggering the unpleasant emotions to begin with. And mindfulness can be done anytime, anywhere, and no one has to know.

Mental Mindfulness:

1. Describe your environment in detail, using all of your senses – for example, “The walls are white, there are five blue chairs, there is a wooden bookshelf against the wall…” Describe objects, sounds, textures, colors, smells, shapes, numbers, and temperature. You can do this anywhere.

2. Play a “categories” game with yourself. Try to think of types of dogs, jazz musicians, animals or famous people that begin with each letter of the alphabet, cars, TV shows, writers, sports, songs, cities.

3. Describe an everyday activity in great detail. For example, describe a meal that you cook (e.g., “First, I peel the potatoes and cut them into quarters; then I boil the water; then I make an herb marinade of oregano, basil, garlic, and olive oil…”).

4. Imagine. Use a pleasant or comforting mental image. Again, use all of your senses to make it as real and vid as possible.

5. Read something, saying each word to yourself. Or read each letter backwards so that you focus on the letters and not the meaning of words.

6. Use humor. Think of something funny to jolt yourself out of your mood.

7. Count to 10 or say the alphabet, very s . . . l . . . o . . . w . . . l . . . y.

Physical Mindfulness:

1. Run cool or warm water over your hands.

2. Grab tightly onto your chair as hard as you can; notice the sensations and the experience.

3. Touch various objects around you: a pen, your clothing, the table, the walls. Notice textures, colors, weight, temperature. Compare the objects you touch.

4. Carry an object in your pocket – a small object (a small rock, ring, piece of cloth) that you can touch whenever you feel unpleasant emotions rising.

5. Notice your body: the weight of your body in the chair; wiggling your toes in your socks; the feel of your back against the chair.

6. Stretch. Extend your fingers, arms, legs as far as you can; slowly and gently roll your head around.

7. Clench and release your firsts.

8. Jump up and down.

9. Eat something in a savoring way; fully experience the food; describe the sights, aromas, textures, flavors, and the experience in detail to yourself.

10. Focus on your breathing, noticing each inhale and exhale. Repeat a pleasant word to yourself on each exhale.

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Anger and Personality Style

What situations make you angry for no apparent reason, especially when others handle the same situation calmly?

Is there a particular word that irritates you? Do you get annoyed when people only drive 70 on a 55mph road? Is it situations that leave you feeling disrespected? Ignored? Like you have no control? Personality type plays a big role in your pet peeves and trigger issues. Dr. Aimee Daramus shares her insight and expertise in this guest blog.

There are 10 basic personality types, some more prone to anger than others, each with slightly different things that make them mad. Some of the types that are particularly prone to anger are the paranoid, borderline, narcissistic, and antisocial or sociopathic types, and obsessive-compulsive types. When a personality type is taken to an extreme in which youre experiencing multiple losses in life, such as losing jobs or relationships, or getting in trouble with authority figures a lot, its called a a personality disorder. Even for those of us with a fairly healthy personality, though, our type can influence what makes us angry, according to Neil Bockian, Ph.D., a Chicago therapist ( who has written or co-written 3 books on personality disorders.

Someone with a paranoid type is always concerned that someone might be out to get them or take advantage of them. The healthy version of this type is realistically cautious. Theyll get angry when they feel taken advantage of. Anger management skills might include making sure that you actually are being taken advantage of before reacting, and learning some negotiating skills to be more effective at looking out for yourself.

People with narcissistic styles (the healthy version of this is someone with a lot of confidence) get angry when they feel inferior to someone else. According to Dr. Bockian, it might feel like unfairness or injustice. If this is your style, you might respond to anger by trying to prove youre better than someone else or by ridiculing someone. It might help to focus on improving skills in order to feel less inferior, rather than focusing on your place in the hierarchy.

People with an antisocial type (at an extreme, they can be sociopaths or psychopaths), might get angry when they feel controlled or have to obey rules that seem arbitrary. And to someone with antisocial personality disorder, most rules seem arbitrary. healthy people with this type are adventurous and see rules as flexible. Some people with this type also use instrumental aggression: you may not actually be that angry, but you act like it in order to achieve a goal. Bullying is a form of instrumental aggression.

People with a borderline style often have unstable relationships and have unusually strong emotional reactions. Theyre going to get angry when they feel rejected or abandoned. People with this style often turn their anger on themselves, but can also explode at others very suddenly. Emotion management skills (like those in Dialectical Behavior Therapy) and skills for healthy relationships might be useful along with specific anger management techniques.

While many people with domestic abuse issues are seen as sociopaths (and therefore the antisocial personality type), Dr. Bockian believes that many domestic abusers have a borderline style or disorder. He explains that since people with borderline style have unstable relationships and their anger is triggered by a sense of abandonment, this can lead to rejection or abusive behavior. This is followed by the classic abusive pattern of apologizing and trying to make amends before starting the cycle again.

People with an obsessive-obsessive-compulsive personality type value control and are often perfectionistic, so they might get angry over minor imperfections in themselves or others. They might also get angry when they feel disobeyed (even when theres no logical reason for them to expect obedience in that situation). People with this type get angry at themselves as much as at others because of their very high standards. It can be useful to work on the idea of good enoughinstead of perfect, and to explore how much control youre really entitled to in a situation.

It helps to know a little bit about how your anger triggers are affected by your basic personality type. If youre concerned that you might have a personality disorder, a psychologist can help you figure that out. Even if your personality is healthy, knowing your style can help you manage irrational anger and draw on your personality strengths to manage tough situations.

Aimee Daramus, Psy. D., lives and works in downtown Chicago and can be reached at or She specializes in serious mental illness, such as anxiety disorders, depression, bipolar disorder, psychotic disorders, and PTSD.

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Avoiding the Good Intentions that Pave the Way to Hell

 I have recently found myself thinking a lot about good intentions. 

Inherently, they seem positive, right? However, they have a deeper negative impact that many do not fully appreciate. Good intentions are nothing more then idyllic dreams masquerading as concrete goals.

Good intentions are often things we say we want to do, we intend to do, yet there is not a clear plan in place to put them into action. They are the behaviors that we are preaching and projecting on to some undefinable, unclear ‘later’ date. 

Good intentions speak to life as we imagine it in our hopes, dreams, fears, wants, wishes, attitudes, expectations and perceptions. Yet promoting our good intentions do not seem to protect us from bad — or at least unexpected — outcomes.

This often happens because we haven’t fully thought out all the potential consequences of acting on our good intentions. Even the simplest actions undertaken for the best reasons, can produce results we didn’t anticipate.

Life is complicated. A spontaneous gift for one of our children can lead to hurt and resentful feelings from our children, who then takes the resentment out on the “privileged” sibling. Other times our intentions may be adequate, but our ability to follow through is lacking. We might want to really surprise our spouse by balancing the checkbook, only to make an even bigger mess of it because we just aren’t very good at it.

Good intentions are ultimately self indulgent, counter productive and often lead to destructive choices. Beneath our wishful hopes, the motivation that compels us to act is rooted in antagonism, masked as altruism. These are acts based in paternal protection exhibited by controlling behaviors that are used to prove our worth and hide our inadequacy to cope with uncertainty. 

Good intentions are only good for ourselves and most of the time they are very bad in relation to someone else. It turns out that even when we are seemingly doing ‘good things’, we can be almost certain that we are doing ‘bad things’ from the viewpoint of others. 

Good intensions can be understood in terms of four motivations that were modeled during childhood.


The first type of good intention is over-ambitious person, which applies to those who decide what others should be.  Until the person becomes what other want, they feel worthless and inadequate. An over-ambitious good intention sets others up to fail by living in the future and feeling incompetent in the meantime.

The second type of good intention is the over-critical person who finds fault with everything others do because they only want them to be their best, which means perfect.  This teaches others that they cannot do anything right and cannot trust their own judgment.

The third type of good intention is the over-indulgent person who gives others everything they want and more.  Because the others are not taught to work for anything, they become dependent on others and full of self–doubt when alone.

The fourth type of good intention is the over-protective person who teaches others that danger is lurking around the corner; something bad is bound to happen soon.  People end up feeling inadequate to cope and scared of everything. This is a recipe for anxiety.

What are real intentions? Real intentions involve acting in accordance with the demands of the present situation. Real intentions arise from: 

1) Perceiving reality and its demands clearly. 

2) Accurately assessing what the situation requires us to do. 

3) Deciding on an appropriate intervention. 

4) Implementing our decision in the reality that exists in the here and now.

Reality is the world as it is, not as we imagine it in our hopes, dream, fears, wants, wishes, attitudes, expectations and perceptions. We can do what reality requires and use real intentions to:

– Catch ourselves thinking, “this is what we should do” (Should is a preference)

– Catch ourselves trying to please others.  (We don’t know how they want to be pleased)

– Catch ourselves trying not to displease.  (We can live up to our own standards)

– Catch ourselves protecting others from consequences (They did not ask for our help)

– Catch ourselves trying to prevent disaster. (Live in the present, we can’t predict the future)

– Catch ourselves having high standards for self/others. (We don’t know what’s best)

– Catch ourselves trying to prove our worth to others. (Self worth comes from within)

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