Relationship Tips

3 Tips to Fix Your Short Fuse With People, According to an Empathy Expert

Photo: Getty Images / Igor Ustynskyy
As much as you’d probably like to keep your cool when in the middle of a heated argument, maintaining tolerance and patience isn't always easy. When all you want to do is get all your frustrations out, those pent-up emotions can often explode. If you're quick to snap, you just might have a short fuse.

Having a short fuse can affect your relationships, your well-being, and your stress levels—leaving you with negative energy and a deflated mood. That’s why it’s smart to work on fighting the urge to blow up and to instead focus on thinking before speaking. (Bonus: It'll help you avoid saying anything you might regret later.)

Luckily, with the right habits in place, you can tame your short fuse and fiery temper as well as higher tolerance levels. Michael Tennant, an empathy expert and the founder and CEO of Curiosity Lab and Actually Curious, has insights and advice for teaching you how to fix your short fuse and better manage your emotions. With practice, you can calmly communicate in a clear-minded, collected, and kind manner to avoid hurting others out of haste and frustration.

What causes a short fuse?

People can develop a short fuse for various reasons, but many of them date back to childhood and the habits you formed while growing up. “The one that sticks out most to me is that thoughtful and non-violent communication was not modeled for [people with short fuses] in their homes growing up,” Tennant says. “I speak from deeply personal experience in that I grew up in a home with a lot of love, but we didn't always prioritize speaking lovingly to one another,” he adds. Habits are tricky to break without dedication and patience, especially when they've been present for years.

Plus, if you have had to deal with addressing conflicts with people who have short fuses themselves, it’s more likely that you’ll start to adopt the same style of communication and their temperament. It can be harder to address conflicts with composure and respect, especially for those who have experienced past trauma. According to Tennant, this might include “prolonged neglect, subtle or overt emotional abuse, and actual instances of past trauma or physical abuse.”

People may develop a short fuse because they have experienced long stretches of time of being ignored or treated unfairly, and they were only able to feel safe or stand up for themselves by using anger and aggression. If you’re cranky and sleep-deprived, that’ll exacerbate a tendency for a short fuse, too. “Fatigue leads to lower self-control and resilience and can result in a person having a short fuse," Tennant says. "So if a person is experiencing frequent and chronic fatigue, this could be indicative of a larger issue."

Usually, a short fuse develops out of rage and frustration, which can quickly heighten conflict. “On the surface level, when we think of someone losing it often, we see anger,” Tennant says. “Anger is one of the more difficult and least socialized of the five core emotions—joy, fear, anger, sadness, shame—because it often arises out of a need of protection or creates the need to escape or protect in others."

How a short fuse can impact your relationships

The aftermath of a short fuse can negatively impact relationships, especially if the habit becomes more prevalent and frequent. “At its most benign, it can create a distance that is damaging for interpersonal and even professional relationships," Tennant explains. "At its worst, it can cause long-term harm to individuals and relationships and adversely affect mental health for all parties involved."

Speaking to a therapist and confiding in others for emotional support can help with managing short-fuse symptoms and decreasing the frequency of occurrences. "If a person has become prone to random and frequent outbursts of anger, it's likely that they need help addressing something immediate or underlying that might be happening in their lives,” Tennant says.

He stresses the importance of personal growth and the development of empathy, with a set of skills that can make it easier to gain perspective when aroused mid-argument and to settle down. Empathy on both ends is most effective, where both parties communicate with compassion and thoughtfulness. And by addressing your own temper, you’re encouraging others to speak and behave with empathy and respect in return. Here are Tennant’s three tips to promote enhanced empathy, learning, and success.

3 tips for stifling a short fuse

1. Establish boundaries for mutual respect

The first step to deal with a short fuse is to recognize it—and acknowledge its adverse effects. “Whether you are encountering a person with a short fuse or you are the person that is acting out, curbing this behavior starts with a choice and clear communication that this behavior is damaging,” Tennant says.

From there, determine the level of respect you feel you deserve and would like to receive from others, but take note: the respect should go both ways and be mutual. Establishing expectations of mutual respect will help you work on being more mindful in moments where your lack of tolerance and emotions are stirred up.

“As a person who has both experienced short-tempered people, as well as lost my cool on occasions, my biggest personal shift came from learning a better sense of right from wrong,” Tennant says. Shifting patterns of short-fused behavior starts with setting personal boundaries around how we treat one another and allow ourselves to be treated—then following through with them.

Write your thoughts down in a journal and create solid action steps to focus on stifling your immediate, aggressive reaction in favor of one that fits nicely into the boundaries you’ve set on paper. Keep track of progress and write down any accomplishments, which you can look back upon during times of trouble and setbacks.

2. Develop your sense of compassion

Tennant says that to calm a short fuse, seek compassion. “The antidote to anger is deep understanding and the restoration of safety, though this can feel near impossible when caught in an anger spiral or when finding yourself on the receiving end,” Tennant says. Remember, practice makes perfect. Each time you experience a short fuse, ask yourself the question, "What is the anger trying to protect?" Take a moment to reflect on the answer.

Direct the cause back to yourself and figure out the root. Write it down in the journal, if that seems to help. By removing the blame off of the recipients, you’re able to be more compassionate towards them and tame a short-fuse that’s been triggered. It's a matter of shifting perspective and then taking time to work on the direct source of your troubles or fears.

3. Fill others in and explain that you’re striving to be better

While you might think you’re showing weakness by being vulnerable, you’re actually showing strength, empathy, and more potential for growth and results. Share your goals with close friends and family—and all of those with whom you interact with often or tend to have short fuses with.

Explain that you’re aware of this habit, and you’re taking action to communicate and process emotions more efficiently and respectfully to resolve conflict without resorting to violence or harsh words. In turn, ask for empathy and patience, which will also help instill more positive communication skills, with their role as both partner and behavior model.

Give them the opportunity to teach you, based on their own knowledge and experiences. Channel empathy for others and yourself, remembering you’re human too and deserve patience and compassion. Don’t be your own worst critic, since negative self-talk and esteem will backfire and slow progress.

And take a breather if you need it to cool off and are struggling to use empathy as a source for resolution. “Starting with compassion for self, the easiest way to remain safe in a situation with heightened anger is to stop and walk away,” Tennant says. “Healing the trauma inflicted or trauma that is underlying requires patience and grace,” he adds. Use positive self-talk and give yourself time.

There are tools, books, and free literature, as well as professionals out there—all of which can help. “Books on non-violent communication and exercises and games on living with empathy can help you strengthen the tools to support healing and facilitate tense situations in your day-to-day life,” Tennant says.

All emotions—anger, fear, shame, sadness, and joy included—are part of the human experience. "All emotions are good, once we attune ourselves to deeply listening to them," says Tennant. Strive to simply notice emotions as they arise and to gently acknowledge and release judgment, whether good or bad. “Almost immediately, whether in ourselves or in others, we will begin to see the deeper emotions that short fuse is protecting,” he says.

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