Recognizing similar experiences in your past can be illuminating, Dr. Chu-Peralta adds. For example, if the last time you experienced chronic headaches and self-recrimination was when you were a kid with a hypercritical parent, it may be that feeling angry at yourself at work is a response to an equally fault-finding boss. Identifying these connections can help you begin to see the anger for what it is: a maladaptive coping mechanism that it’s time to let go of. If you try to dismiss the rage or white-knuckle your way through it, on the other hand, “it will often come back twice as strong,” Dr. Chu-Peralta says.
If you can’t stop dwelling, try temporarily distracting yourself.
While ignoring your feelings can be disastrous in the long-term, in the short-term, shifting your focus may help you get some perspective—and give yourself a break. Martin suggests harnessing the power of distraction, since merely interrupting a self-critical thought can often shut it down. “If you’re ruminating, try going for a walk, doing a crossword puzzle, or listening to your favorite playlist or podcast,” she suggests. It sounds simple, but it’s often enough to make a real difference, according to Martin, since rumination—the act of replaying negative thoughts on a loop—typically yields diminishing returns. The more you mull, the less helpful your thoughts become.
Once you’ve halted the negative thought and have enough distance to look at your anger objectively, Martin advises that you then ask yourself a simple question: “Is it possible that I’m exaggerating my misdeeds or inadequacies?” Often, the answer will be yes, it is indeed possible. Another helpful question: “Even if I did really screw up, does beating myself up right now teach me anything new about the experience?” Nearly always, the answer will be a resounding no. This exercise is another way to put your self-directed anger in perspective.
Resist the urge to keep score.
“Try not to search for whatever the ‘ultimate truth’ of the situation is,” Dr. Chu-Peralta says. “Don’t try to determine who was right and who was wrong, including yourself.” You may think that identifying the rightful source of blame will finally adjudicate the issue, “solving” it somehow and allowing you to move on. You may also think that somehow if you dig deep enough into that long-ago occurrence, you’ll find the objective evidence that you are, in fact, a terrible person. But all this incessant judgment does is keep you pinned to that long-gone situation you can no longer change.
Say you’re stuck on a friend breakup from several years ago. You said some things you regret. She said some things you hope she regrets. Either way, you have convinced yourself the friendship’s downfall lies on your shoulders. You ask yourself: Who was really at fault? Who was the villain? Who was the wronged party?
But here’s what’s actually important, according to Dr. Chu-Peralta: Even if you could answer these questions definitively, which you can’t, the answers would likely have little impact on how you feel. Who cares if she said three unkind things and you said four? Either way, the net result is the same. What matters, then, is how you move forward—not how you interpret (and reinterpret, and keep reinterpreting) the past.
Acknowledge your mistakes—to yourself or the person you hurt.
Martin puts it succinctly: “If you’ve actually harmed someone else, make amends if you can.” Of course, there’s a difference between true misdeeds and those you’ve inflated or even imagined. But for all practical purposes, that difference may not matter. If you think apologizing might help you to stop engaging in self-directed anger, and if you think you really did cause harm, it’s worth the effort, Martin says. It may mean more to that person than you anticipate.