When—without warning—something provokes your anger, you may struggle not to succumb to it. Since what typically makes you mad is feeling powerless in the face of what seems unfair, your anger is mostly an attempt at a “quick fix” to right the balance. It’s as though you’re raising a fist in protest, proclaiming that you’re not going to capitulate to such injustice.
There are, however, a multitude of problems related to this immediate, push-back reaction of anger. And probably the key one is that almost never does it resolve the issue that gave rise to it. Such reactive anger is probably best understood as self-defeating. As David Burns, the author of the seminal self-help book Feeling Good, observes: if, realistically, acting on your anger is to make any sense, it needs to meet two criteria—which, in almost every case, is frankly impossible. That is, your anger must:
- be directed toward a person who has intentionally (and needlessly) behaved in a hurtful way toward you; and
- be beneficial or advantageous to you (i.e., assist you in achieving a desired goal).
I think you’ll agree that only rarely can you claim that your anger is both warranted and helpful, whether to yourself or the relationship.
So let me offer you a two-step alternative to abandoning your better judgment and giving in to the temptation of anger—one that should neutralize your anger in seconds. Or, when you’re really angry, in minutes.
But keep in mind that you must really want to execute these steps, be sufficiently motivated to perform them. Which means overcoming more unconscious resistance than you might ever have imagined. Because there are many immediate “advantages” of anger that can interfere with your resolve, I’ll suggest a few of them that might interfere with your employing this powerful method to rid yourself of counter-productive anger. That is, in the short-term, anger:
- can offer you the instant “reward” of feeling morally superior to whomever, or whatever, you’re angry at—and this “justified” sense of righteousness (or self-righteousness) can actually bolster a somewhat shaky self-image;
- can help you defend against an underlying anxiety, or general sense of vulnerability—for the adrenaline rush of anger (however superficially) may help you feel empowered;
- can protect you from experiencing an underlying depression, or deep sense of loneliness or alienation—for, after all, your anger does enable you to stay “engaged” with the other person);
- can restore in you some semblance of control when, in your momentary frustration, you may suddenly feel out of control; and
- can help you, through intimidating the other person(s), get your way with them (and here, I won’t even begin to enumerate anger’s negative longer-term effects on relationships!).
If you struggle implementing the two-step process described below, these immediate “advantages” are probably what are getting in the way, and precisely what you may need to better realize—and work through.
So much for caveats. Here are the two steps—call them my “double-R technique for anger control”:
(1) RELAX Inasmuch as anger is the emotion that prepares your entire body for fight (vs. fear-inspired flight), you must find a way of discharging this non-productive “fighting energy” before you do anything else. You need to know that, to “do battle,” experiencing significant anger automatically activates every muscle group and organ in your body. Broadly defined, all anger is a reaction to some perceived threat, so it naturally serves as the body’s evolutionary cue to ready itself for combat. Thus mobilized for immediate—and impulsive—action, any “stalling” reflectiveness would be a handicap. So anger affects your thinking quite as powerfully as it does your body.
Given the legal and ethical constraints of modern civilization, it’s extremely unlikely that when you get mad you’ll go in for the kill and physically assault your boss, wife, husband, etc. But since anger readies your mind (not just your body) for battle, once the emotion overcomes you and you’ve lost the ability to objectively assess the situation, it’s quite likely that you’ll verbally attack the other person. For at this point, your thinking is no longer driven by your more evolved, rational neocortex (or “new brain”), but your much more primitive, survival-oriented, simple-minded midbrain (as in, “Me right, you wrong!”or “Me good, you bad!”). In this childlike, regressed mental state, all you can think of is having been disregarded, falsely accused, disrespected, distrusted, devalued, cheated, discriminated against, violated, and so on. And—self-righteously—feeling so wronged, what you crave is revenge. Instant revenge. It’s as though, moralistically speaking, only through attacking the other person can you bring them “to justice.”
Because your thinking is now exaggerated or distorted, if you’re to retrieve any emotional equilibrium—–so you can re-evaluate the situation from a more reasonable, adult perspective—you’ll need first to find some way of settling yourself down. That is, the initial step in this 2-step protocol is to calm your upset body. Only then can you focus on the second step of calming your upset mind.
Hopefully, you’ve already discovered a way to relax yourself—whether through deep, rhythmic, diaphragmatic breathing; some form of meditation; listening to tranquilizing music; visualization or guided imagery; self-hypnosis; acupressure; yoga; or any of the many other relaxation techniques available. But if you don’ t have a ready way of calming yourself, it’s essential that you learn one. For instance, you might look up breathing exercises on the Web, and teach yourself the one that feels most appropriate for you. Then practice it diligently till you can use it to relax at will.
Or, if you’ve got a good visual imagination, picture yourself lying on the beach, walking in the forest, floating on a cloud, leaning against a tree next to a serene lake—or whatever scene you associate with relaxation. And take the time to experience your body reacting to the calming cues “embodied” in the scene you choose. For example, on a private beach, you might fantasize seeing the panoramic beauty of your surroundings; smelling the fresh salt air; hearing the surf hit the shore, or the sea gulls squawking overhead; feeling (tactilely) the warmth of the sun and the mild breeze tickling your bare skin, and the grainy sand slipping through your fingers; etc. Be sure to bring as many of your senses into play as possible. For your body really can’t tell the difference between what’s actual and what’s well-imagined.
But keep in mind that any method you can successfully employ to cool yourself down and reduce your level of physiological arousal—even if it’s nothing more than taking a deep breath (preferably, with eyes closed) and slowly, slowly letting it out—will do just fine. The main thing is that rather than vehemently ventilating your frustrations, you buy yourself some time and engage in a form of self-soothing that, indirectly, will significantly reduce the intensity of your anger.
And if, finally, you’re unable to relax yourself through any of the many “body-quieting” methods available, try vigorous exercise to (non-violently) release the physical tension resulting from your charged-up, angry feelings. Such efforts should allow you to loosen up—both in body and mind—so that you’ll feel calmer and be able to think more clearly.
2. RE-ASSESS By which I mean get yourself to look at the situation that provoked you from a different, more positive, perspective. I can hardly overemphasize that your anger primarily derives from your negative appraisal of what happened. Alter that outlook and the emotion tied to it must change also. So ask yourself questions like:
- Did he (or she) really mean what I think I heard them say? Am I assuming something that needs to be verified?
- Is this situation as terrible as it feels right now? Am I possibly exaggerating its significance? taking it too seriously?
- Is my notion of this person’s being unfair to me more a reflection of my self-interested bias than the other person’s trying to take advantage of me? Are their interests or concerns maybe just as important, and legitimate, to them as mine are to me [i.e., do all you can to challenge your possible self-righteousness in the matter]?
- Can I re-focus my attention on what I actually like about this person—and stop focusing exclusively on this particular behavior, which clearly I don’t like?
- What’s the concrete evidence that he (or she) intentionally wanted to antagonize, hurt, or humiliate me? Am I taking this more personally than warranted?
- Can I see this situation from the other person’s point of view (i.e., try to understand their motives more empathically)?
- Might this person’s hard-to-take criticism have some rational basis to it? Is there something I can learn from it that, ultimately, might help me?
- Is it possible I was misunderstood? Is it maybe my fault that the person failed to “get” what I was trying to communicate, and so reacted negatively to me? And if they’re just “dense,” do I really want to blame them for this?
- Am I maybe taking what this person said too literally? Might they simply be kidding around—and it’s really my own insecurities or self-doubt that’s making me upset?
- If this person really is being inconsiderate, mean, or nasty to me, have I also seen them act this way toward others? Can I remind myself that basically this is their problem, not mine—and that I’m much better off simply not taking what they say to heart?
I could probably list another 50 (or 500!) questions to ask yourself when your vulnerability buttons are getting pushed. But hopefully, these self-talk examples will suffice. Since your anger didn’t stem from the situation itself, but the negative meaning, interpretation, or evaluation you ascribed to it, you need to consider alternate ways of perceiving whatever provoked you. In almost every case I think you’ll find that a more level-headed, “measured” assessment of what triggered your anger will help eliminate it.
And with less anger in your life, you’re likely to feel far more relaxed, and happier too. Just don’t ever forget that external events are just that—something external to you—until, that is, you decide, internally, to react to them. Constantly remind yourself that no one other than yourself has the power to make you angry. For, in the end, this “warlike” emotion is something that’s created in your own mind.
NOTE 1: I've published a variety of articles on anger on my PT blog. If you’re interested in further expanding your understanding of this troublesome emotion, here are the titles (and links):
"The Anger Thermostat—What's the "Temperature" of Your Upset?"
“Anger Always Makes Sense,”
"What Does Donald Duck Have to Do with Anger Control?",
“Anger—How We Transfer Feelings of Guilt, Hurt, and Fear,”
“What Your Anger May Be Hiding,”
“Mad =Angry + Crazy + Dumb” (Parts 1 & 2), and
"Afraid to Rage: The Origins of Passive-Aggressive Behavior."
NOTE 2: If you know anyone who might possibly benefit from this post, I hope you’ll consider passing it on.
© 2012 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.
----Join me on Facebook, and follow my psychological/philosophical musings on Twitter.