The Camel's Back: How to Never Explode With Anger - Goodlife Zen

The Camel’s Back: How to Never Explode With Anger


Do you sometimes erupt in anger? The trigger can be a passing remark. And yet that small remark can trigger a major eruption. What is it that brings us to the tipping point where resentment turns into fury?

I was recently reading Malcolm  Gladwell’s book The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference. In it he describes how ideas can behave like social epidemics.

I was reflecting on how the fact that little things can make a bit difference applies in everyday life. There are some sayings that reflect that. For example, we talk about the straw that breaks the camels back. This implies that there is a personal tipping point. We can stand so much. But if the tiniest load is added, there is a big change.

Let’s take a look at resentment.

Imagine that your loved one niggles at you. Maybe the meal you’ve cooked is too salty. You are able to bear that with a grin.

Next day he or she points out that you have shrunk their best Tshirt. You are able to aplogize politely – even though your hackles are rising because you are thinking, “Why the heck is it always you who does the washing?!”

Next day he or she says that you’ve bought the wrong peanut butter. Suddenly you erupt like Vesuvius. You yell, “Do your own bloody shopping next time!”

Is this a scenario you are familiar with? Maybe not. Then are you a saint. Congratulations!

Non-saints, please read on.

What happened was that we reached a tipping point. In my example this lead to some reasonably harmless yelling. Harmless, because we can repair the harm with a heartfelt apology and some straight talking. But some people respond with physical violence when their anger reaches a tipping point. So we need to understand what brings us to the tipping point.

What happened was that resentment built up. Until a minor occasion triggers a massive explosion. The final trigger didn’t actually warrant such a big explosion. That’s why our loved one will be shocked and feel that you treated him or her unjustly.  But what they can’t see is that within us resentment has built up, and our fuse has got shorter and shorter – until the last straw broke the camel’s back.

Angry explosions can be very harmful for a relationship. Because there is such a discrepancy between the trigger and the result. Our partner feels that we are unreasonable. And they feel hurt.

I’ve talked to many couples who have been on the verge of divorce. The trigger for the rift is often quite insignificant. Or it seems insignificant. That’s because little things can make a big difference.

Let’s say that you have ‘lost your rag’ and have exploded over an insignificant event. How do you repair it?

Here are some steps you can follow:

  • Take time out
  • Let go of resentful thoughts
  • Apologize to your partner. You don’t need to apologize for what you said straight away, just apologize for how you said it. You might want to say something like, “I’m sorry for yelling at you just now.” That will defuse some of the tension.
  • Explain why you responded to the minor occasion in such a major way. Say what has been bugging you in the last while, and how it has come to a head.
  • Use “I” statements, instead of “you” statements. You are trying to get across what your experience is, instead of trying to change the other person.
  • Describe emotions, not thoughts. If you say, “I feel…” and follow on with a word that describes the feeling, such as ‘sad’, ‘frustrated’, ‘angry’ – you are on safe ground. If you say, “I feel, that…”, you are actually stating a thought, not a feeling and the conflict will get worse and not better.
  • Use language of peace, not of war. For example, avoid the word ‘but’ because it wipes out all the positive things you may say. If you partner hears somethings like, “I really love you, but I hate the way you always…”, they will only hear the second part of the sentence. Whereas, if you say, “I love you, and, at the same time, I don’t like the way you….”, both parts of the sentence remain valid.

How can we avoid exploding in anger?

In a volcano the pressure mounts because the outlet is blocked. Then, finally there is a massive eruption.
What we need to do is to let the pressure off and not wait for it to build.

  • Speak up when you feel resentful.
  • Exercise regularly to let go of some of the tension.
  • Say what you like, as well as what you don’t like about a person’s behavior.
  • Be a loving, trustworthy, honest partner.

What’s your experience of erupting in anger? What are your special tips to defuse the situation?

Here are three good books on how to handle anger:

About the author

Mary Jaksch

Mary is passionate about helping people create a happy, purposeful, and fulfilling life. She is the founder of GoodlifeZEN and also the brains behind, one of the biggest blogs for writers on the Net. Mary is also a Zen Master, a mother, and a 5th Degree Black Belt.

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