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The Anger Habit

Why do we automatically make bad matters worse?

If you’re afflicted with chronic anger, you’ve probably tried to free yourself of it, without much luck. Maybe you’ve been to anger management classes, where you learned to trade one form of anger for a less noticeable form, like resentment, annoyance, agitation, sarcasm, and so on.

I’m talking about problem anger. Anger that makes you act against your best interests or keeps you from acting in your best interests. Anger management tends to trade the former for the latter, where you put up a chilly wall or a veil of criticism between you and loved ones. That won’t get you arrested like aggressive anger might, but it will just as surely ruin your life.

Problem anger is so hard to control because, by the time we’re adults, it’s habituated — the product of entrenched conditioned responses.

A conditioned response occurs with a repeated association of A with B, so that, when A occurs, B occurs automatically. The bell rings, the dogs salivate. Your phone buzzes, you reach for your pocket. They run on autopilot, bypassing the regulatory part of the brain — the prefrontal cortex.

Conditioned Responses of Anger

  • A (sudden, drop in energy, confidence, or self-value — you feel insulted, devalued) causes: B (blame someone to get adrenaline).
  • A (sudden vulnerable state — guilt, shame, anxiety, sadness, physical pain, powerlessness — you feel accused, threatened, or exposed) causes: B (blame someone).

Each time these conditioned responses occur, it’s like exercising a muscle. The habit of anger becomes stronger and more automatic. Eventually, you interpret continual insult, threat, exposure.

Traditional psychotherapy, while beneficial for many conditions, tends to make anger and resentment worse. Traditional therapy relies on insight. Once a habit is formed, insight into how it started will not change it. Insight can change what the habit means to you, but will not reduce the recurrence of the habit.

Because habits are processed in the brain thousands of times faster than conscious thought, anger management techniques, like insight, are usually too little, too late. That’s why Mr. Hyde can’t remember what Dr. Jekyll learned in anger management class.

Once a habit is formed, only new conditioned responses will change it. That means A must cause a different B. Instead of blaming, we must practice improving, appreciating, connecting, or protecting.

It’s not rocket science. When we experience declines in self-value, usually caused by guilt, shame, anxiety, or sadness, we need to do something that will make us feel more valuable, such as improve, appreciate, connect, or protect. Anger makes us feel temporarily more powerful, but not more valuable. Directed at loved ones, it lowers self-value still further. It’s hard to like yourself when resentful or angry at loved ones.

And it’s hard to love someone who is angry and resentful.

In other words, habitually maintaining genuine self-value (not narcissistic ego-inflation), tends to make us compassionate and kind, which, in turn, makes it easier for people to love us. Protecting low core values with habits of anger and resentment makes it hard.

More from Steven Stosny, Ph.D.
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More from Steven Stosny, Ph.D.
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