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Mastering Irrational Anger—Yours and Others'

Understand the roots of anger and learn to defuse difficult conversations.

Key points

  • Anger often impacts our everyday interactions.
  • Our beliefs lead to irrational, unhealthy anger.
  • Help distressed individuals with empathy, attention, and respect.
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The middle school's physical education teacher felt like a human punching bag. Once again, an angry parent had called the school, yelling about the "horrible teacher" who made her son participate in gym class when he felt tired and did not want to.

According to a recent study by the American Psychological Association, 29% of teachers and 42% of school administrators report incidences of parent aggression. Not surprisingly, 49% of teachers were considering a new line of work.

We all have stories of experiencing angry people in stores, cars, workplaces, hospitals, hotels, airports, and meetings. A recent Gallop Global Emotions Report revealed that up to 23% of respondents felt angry every single day. If that includes you, know that you are not alone.

We typically believe our anger results from the events that happen around us. Bad drivers and customers make us mad, or so we think.

Source: Fizkes/Shutterstock

However, the real reason we experience anger is because of what we believe about ourselves and others. We feel the world ought to be as we would like it and that people should treat us fairly. According to the principles of rational emotive behavior therapy (REBT), our unhealthy anger is fueled not by life events but by our inflexible, demanding beliefs.

How to Handle Anger

Managing anger effectively starts with recognizing the difference between healthy and unhealthy negative emotions.

Anger is our response to injustice and boundary violations. If you hear a story of a child being abused, you will likely feel anger. In this instance, anger is a healthy response to the injustice of abuse. Your strong emotion motivates you to protect the innocent.

Unhealthy negative emotions do not help us deal with problems of reality—they keep us stuck in self-defeating behaviors, interfere with our ability to reach our goals, distort reality, and make us miserable. In contrast to healthy anger, unhealthy anger is about our blocked personal goals. We want something and get angry when we don't get it.

According to Albert Ellis, founder of REBT, there are three core irrational beliefs, each insisting that life must be a certain way.

  • Personal Perfection: I must do well and win others' approval, and I am inadequate and undeserving when I don't do as well as I must.
  • Social Acceptance: Other people should treat me fairly and kindly. If they don't, they are no good and deserve punishment.
  • Comfort and Fairness: I ought to get what I want and not get what I don't want from life. It is terrible if I don't get what I want, and I will be miserable.

When these beliefs control our thinking as we experience difficulty, we will be angry with ourselves when we don't measure up and angry with others when they don't give us the recognition and respect we feel we deserve.

What makes a belief irrational? An irrational belief does not correspond with how life actually works. Given that all people are fallible and life is unpredictable, no rules state we or others should be a certain way. We act well at times and poorly at other times. Healthy, rational beliefs express our preference that we perform well and that others treat us well. We do not demand that life be a certain way or insist it is awful when life is not as we would like it to be.

How to Handle Angry People

We can help our friend who is angry about their latest work assignment, but we struggle to deal with the stranger who explodes for seemingly no reason.

The chronically angry person shares the same irrational beliefs as others, but their core beliefs about themselves are different.

A chronically angry person may have experienced adverse childhood events where they did not feel safe, accepted, or loved. Belonging and safety are cornerstone developmental experiences and necessary for developing a healthy self-concept and attachment with others.

Lack of safety and belonging can leave a person feeling vulnerable to being hurt physically and emotionally. Due to the underlying vulnerability, there can be constant vigilance for the potential threat of rejection, disapproval, or physical harm.

The constant feeling of vulnerability creates a perceptual filter that colors how people see the world around them. When a relatively neutral event occurs, such as a receptionist not noticing a new person is standing in line, there is a mistaken assessment of danger (MAD) that is followed by behavior that is aggressive and defensive (BAD).

The chronically angry person will immediately assume the receptionist is disrespecting them. Their irrational belief will tell them that others should respect them and that it is terrible that they are being disrespected. As their anger builds, they will behave in ways that make things worse, not better.

This defensive behavior then leads directly to negative feedback from the receptionist, which intensifies the mistaken assessment of danger and amplifies the behavior that is aggressive and defensive.

If you are in this challenging situation, Bill Eddy, LCSW, suggests three tools for connecting with a distressed, angry person.

  1. Empathy: Empathize with the distress the upset person is experiencing. You might say, “I can see how frustrated you are. I want to help.”
  2. Attention: Pay attention to the distressed person by making and keeping eye contact, turning toward them, putting down anything in your hands, and nodding your head while you listen. Invite them to talk: “Can you tell me more about what is happening?”
  3. Respect: Respect them as a person with concerns. At the core of their distress is a desire to be respected. Point out their strengths: “You have worked hard to solve this problem, and I respect your persistence in seeking answers and solutions.”

When that challenging conversation is over, take a deep breath and remind yourself that while you would like to be treated with respect, there is no rule that people will or should treat you well. It is not terrible when you aren’t respected, but it is disappointing—okay, really disappointing.

You can learn more about handling difficult thoughts and emotions here.

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