It happened again. You know you shouldn’t yell, slam the door, or get into a scuffle with your partner. But your buttons got pushed, and BAM, there you were, behaving in a way that you are trying to stop. Even though these responses feel automatic, it is possible to learn how to stop abusive reactions.

In my own experience and in talking to others, stopping these seemingly instant reactions is really hard. We know we shouldn’t use hurtful words or violence. Still, that’s what seems to come out of us before we can block it. In the process, we hurt our loved one, damage our relationship with them, and get into trouble.

How to stop abusive reactions by changing our thoughts

The good news is there is a process that will take our reaction off of automatic and give us more control over our response. It’s not necessarily a fast process, but it works. I can tell you, it’s worth the effort.

This process does not involve anyone else changing. That’s good news, because it means that we control the outcome. Trying to get others to act differently is an exhausting and impossible battle.

Trying to get others to act differently is an exhausting and impossible battle.

The starting point for learning how to stop abusive reactions is learning a basic principle about how our brains work. Here it is: our thoughts determine our emotions, which affect our actions. Those regrettable actions that “just slipped out” started with a thought.

We’re usually not even aware of this thought. It happens in a split second in our subconscious mind. It often takes some reflection to figure out, “What was I thinking?”

Some thoughts generate powerful emotions. Others create more neutral feelings.

Here’s why this relationship between thoughts and actions matters: if we have a different thought, it leads to a different response. Some thoughts generate powerful emotions that drive us into self-protecting actions. Others create more neutral feelings and we don’t feel that same need to respond.

Those #*%& tailgaters

Let me give you a simple example. I don’t like tailgaters. When someone follows me too closely, I have bad thoughts about the their character and motives. In the process, I usually assume the worst about them and their intent.

I might think the driver is rude. If fact, they think they are better than everyone else. They think they are too good to have to wait in traffic like the rest of us. They don’t care about my safety or the well being of anyone else on the road.

See what I did there? I just added a whole bunch of negative beliefs about the driver. I don’t actually have any evidence to support my thoughts—I made all of that up in my mind. My assumptions cause me to feel anger and disgust.

I react by flipping them off, honking or yelling at them from inside my car, or tailgating them after they pass. I rationalize my actions by thinking a taste of their own medicine will be good for them. After all, that rude, entitled, dangerous driver deserves it, right?

Rethinking tailgaters

What if I had different thoughts when I noticed the person following too closely? What if I wondered if that car is headed for the hospital with a pregnant woman in labor? Now I understand why the driver seems to be in such a hurry and I have no problem with getting out of their way.

I could imagine that person is late for work and worried they are going to lose their job. Or maybe they learned to drive in Boston and following that closely seems normal to them. I’m still a bit annoyed, but I’m also more likely to be understanding and less likely to be angry.

Now I’m on my way to discovering how to stop abusive reactions.

Creative storytelling

Use your creativity to think of better stories to tell yourself about the situation. One way is to assume the person has a good reason, like the woman in labor story. Make a game out of it.

Assume the other person has a good reason for what they are doing.

It doesn’t matter if your generous assumptions are right. I made up the bad story, I can just as easily make up a good one. It’s a better story if it leads you to a more neutral emotion and a more constructive response.

If assuming the best about the other person seems too unbelievable, consider assuming ignorance. We all have gaps in our understanding, so maybe they just don’t know better. Maybe their parents did not do a good job of teaching them the social rules that they are lacking.

The benefit of this perspective is their actions have nothing to do with us. They may be rude or obnoxious, but it reflects only on them and not on us personally. Rather than being angry, we can now feel bad for them that they didn’t learn better life skills.

The more it hurts, the more we react

Handling tailgaters is one thing. But what about responding well to bigger and more personal challenges? This is where learning how to stop abusive reactions really matters, because the more it hurts, the more we react.

One of my sore spots was when someone, especially my partner, yelled at me. If she was upset and raised her voice, I’d automatically start yelling back. When she didn’t back down, I’d escalate my intensity, trying to get her to stop.

Unfortunately, my reactions went too far. In trying to control the situation, I would say and do things that hurt her and damaged our relationship. This is where I crossed the line and my reaction became abusive.

What thoughts started me down this path of defending myself at all costs? I interpreted my wife’s yelling to mean that she didn’t respect me. I also thought she didn’t like me and was ending our relationship.

It seemed like she was being very unfair and hurtful. I fought like both my honor and my future were at risk. You can already see how I assumed the worst about her motives and character in the moment.

It wasn’t a catastrophe like I thought

How could I think about the situation differently?  What thoughts would lead to less threatening emotions? A better story would allow me to respond in a different, more constructive way.

Maybe she was yelling because she was upset. Her actions were about her and not about me. Even though yelling is not a good way to communicate, I reminded myself that she learned that pattern from her family.

One way I thought about her yelling led to vigorously defending myself. The other led to working through the annoyance. The second set of thoughts was her real reason for yelling. It makes more sense to respond to the not-so-awful truth than to the distorted catastrophe I made up in my mind.

Making time to think differently

Now comes the hard part on your journey to discovering how to stop abusive reactions. Like I said earlier, our actions seem to spill out in an instant. The thoughts behind what we do happen a split second earlier, and mostly without us being aware of them.

Our actions seem to spill out in an instant.

When we encounter a certain situation and our brain has that distorted thought, we create a habit. The more we connect our circumstances to our bad thinking, the better and faster we get at reacting in the same old way. How can we have different, more constructive thoughts when our brain naturally jumps to negative ones?

Breaking this habit takes training. The good news is that we don’t have to actually be in the situation to practice. By remembering an incident from the past, then thinking about it differently, we start to form a new thinking habit.

Journaling about bad reactions from the past helps. Write down what happened and how you could or should have thought about it differently. A mental simulator where you imagine being in the circumstances, then visualize thinking and responding differently, also works well.

What happens when we practice is our brain is creating a new neural pathway. The more we practice, the more well-worn that path becomes. Then, when our challenging situation happens again, we don’t automatically think about in a way that causes us to react.

The next time our partner yells, our brain will have a couple of different ways of thinking. The more we practice, the more likely we are to think thoughts that lead to a good response. With lots of practice, we become less likely to react, or at least we react less strongly.

This is how to stop abusive reactions.

Faith note

Another way to think differently about hurtful people and unjust situations is what I call the crazy people in a mixed up world assumption. There are broken people (like me) everywhere. We should not be surprised when we encounter one.

The same is true for injustice. No one said that life was fair, even though we’d like it to be. When we stop assuming order, we no longer feel as upset when we see chaos. We should expect that things will be mixed up.

This is one area where a relationship with God really helps. God does not promise that our lives will be easy. In fact, Jesus said, “In this world you will have trouble” (John 16:33).

However, a shortcut in our quest to learn how to stop abusive reactions is to trust God and follow his son Jesus. As we trust God to be our provider and protector, we are released from fighting to get those things ourselves. The crazy people in our mixed up world no longer pose such a threat.

When we decide to follow Jesus, it means that we begin to think and act like him.

When we decide to follow Jesus, it means that we begin to think and act like him. We see annoying people as God’s imperfect yet beloved children, just like he does. Adopting his thinking leads us to have compassion for them. That gives us peace and frees us from defensiveness and anger.