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Forewarned is Forearmed
by Mark Sichel, LCSW

Many of us get into trouble by overreacting to certain people and certain situations. We all have "hot spots:" people or situations that time and again cause us to react irrationally, with anger or out of control. It's very difficult to effect healthy change in our lives if we succumb to our hot spots at the slightest provocation. Learning to identify your hot spots can enable you to avoid losing control.

Each of us has our own unique hot spots, as these danger zones are nasty side effects of each of our personal histories. We have found through our clinical experience that if people can become aware of their specific hot spots, they have an easier time staying out of trouble with themselves and with others.

"Trouble" can mean anything from inappropriate overreactions to plummeting self-esteem to depression to disorganization to anxiety to confusion. When our hot spot feelings, people or situations cause us to run into trouble, we are left feeling powerless and ineffectual, victims of happenstance. If however, we learn to manage our hot spots, we gain tremendous personal power and strength.

Let's take Peter*, a client who came to talk with me because he had chronic problems at family celebrations and holidays. Peter is a successful professional, happily married with two children, yet found himself getting into fights with his family at almost every holiday event.

Peter reported that while he usually got along fine with his family, the holidays would get completely out of control. After we explored the history of these events, it became clear that everyone in Peter's family liked to have a few drinks before the holiday meal, and that was when the fights usually began.

When I pointed this fact out, Peter quickly reacted and said, "I'm not an alcoholic. This only happens around my family." He was surprised when I agreed with him and told him that while he is not an alcoholic, he is selectively a problem drinker around his family, particularly during holiday time. Peter's hot spots include alcohol, the holidays, his mother and his sister. The combination of all four was leading to the blow out fights at holiday time.

Encouraged, Peter explored additional hot spots in his life. He noted that he often had a hard time controlling what he said around female authority figures and made a conscious effort to abstain from alcohol at work events as a result. He reflected that he should have a similar policy around his family during the holidays.

Being aware of your hot spots can forearm you against problems, particularly during the holiday season when tensions run high in general.

Check off the people or situations that make YOU feel irrationally angry or out of control. Keep the list as your personal tool for empowerment and strength:

My mother

My father

My sister

My brother

My husband

My wife

My in-laws

My step-mother

My step-father

My aunt

My uncle

Feeling like I'm being controlled

Having unstructured time






Depressed people

Being bored


Being taken by surprise

People who are drunk

Male authority figures

Female authority figures

Wealthy people

Unsuccessful people

Sleep deprivation



Being criticized

Being praised

People who invade my boundaries and personal space

Silent or withholding people

Hysterical over-reactive people

Needy people

Dramatic people


People who don't work hard

Being asked for monetary loans

Being asked to lend things

Grandiose people

Self-effacing people

Careless people

Anal people


Religious people

Athiests and agnostics

Judgmental people




Mean people

Click submit and print out your results. Keep your Hot Spots List in a safe and convenient place. Prevent emotional wear and tear by using this list to remind yourself what to avoid during critical times. Add to it if there are other hot spots you can think of that create problems in your life.

This is a great tool for personal empowerment and emotional strength. Use it freely and liberally.

*The names of all clients have been changed to protect their identities.

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