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I am ambitious and hard-working, but every so often I lose my rag at work, and say and do things that I later regret.

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

I don't like myself for having been mean and I worry it may be damaging my career prospects. Is there anything I can do?

Losing one's temper and sounding off is by no means a rare occurrence at work, although nowadays, with the advent of e-mail, many explosions of anger are conveyed by computer, rather than verbalised out loud.

A friend of mine has a framed tomahawk on his wall, awarded by his colleagues in recognition of his occasionally vitriolic style in his e-mail correspondence. Having this visible reminder has modified his style of communication when he is angry, so that he has been known to pause for 10 minutes before hitting the send button on a message berating his staff for letting the side down.

The things that make him see red are carelessness and lack of foresight that could damage the reputation of the company he leads. Having identified these areas as triggers for his anger has helped him manage his emotions better, and I suggest that this would be a useful exercise for you too. There is often a pattern to what sends us into orbit, and if we can spot it we have a chance of reducing the frequency with which our hot buttons get pressed and the severity of our reactions when they are.

The most common triggers, in my experience, are when someone acts in a way that appears to disregard a value we hold dear. This may not be something we are even overtly aware of - usually our values are established in our early years and held deep. Not only are these core beliefs about what is right often unexamined, we may never have explained to our colleagues and staff how we feel and how that impacts on our expectations of them. I suggest you review your most recent outbursts to try to identify what your sensitive areas are.

Recent research into the ways in which our brains work has illuminated this phenomenon, where normally rational, logical people lash out with unfortunate consequences. Deep in our skulls lurks an ancient part of the brain, the amygdala. It is the first part of the brain to develop in the foetus, well before the cerebral cortex, or grey matter. One of its prime functions is to respond to the stimulus of threat with the decision to fight or flee, and it reacts a split second before the more rational frontal lobes kick in. Normally, these upper, problem-solving parts of the brain override the amygdala so we neither attack nor run away. But sometimes the primal trigger is so strong that it causes what's called an 'amygdala hijack' and we respond in a basic, unthinking way.

This explains why, when we are steamed up about something, we are often advised to count to 10, to give ourselves time to respond rather than to react. This is indeed a useful start to coping with the problem, but by no means all we can do. Developing emotional competence involves being able to identify our emotions and to manage them.

If we can do this we are much more likely to be able to understand other people's emotions and to work with them effectively. Some of the most successful people in business and public life are those who have got to grips with their own emotions. Notice I don't say eliminate emotions: we all have them and they are often very useful to us, and if we don't acknowledge them they can cause us problems.

Having identified what sets us off, it is possible in calmer moments to explain to the usual perpetrators what they have done that has upset us, and how they can avoid doing it again. They may or may not take up your avoidance offer, but at least they will know your likely reaction and can make a choice as to whether they want to provoke you or not.

As well as examining the external triggers that send us into orbit, it is often fruitful to consider our internal environment, which may make us more susceptible. For example, we are more liable to react negatively if we are physically below par - tired, hung over, stressed, dehydrated or premenstrual. We can reduce most of these factors, one way or another.

Lastly, we can be honest with ourselves about whether the cause of our anger was really defensible, or whether it was sparked by some past injustice, or personal prejudice, not really relevant to the current situation. Although, as the saying has it, 'The angry man always believes his anger is justified', on reflection you may just be able to identify that from another's point of view, your stance and resulting anger may not have been reasonable. Meantime, don't forget that a genuine apology works wonders.

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