10 Tips for Reducing Anger
A cheat sheet outlining cutting edge strategies in anger-management.
Posted Jan 15, 2015
The following is a partial distillation of ideas my colleague and I have more fully exposed in The Anger Fallacy. They're in no special order, except perhaps in as much as the first should probably come first. Some, admittedly only touched on here, may require some unpacking (in particular 6, 7 and 8); but for those of you who cannot access the book, I'm happy to answer questions and to respond to comments.
1. Understand that anger is a problem.
If you’re not convinced of this, then anger management tips will go right over your head, like sex tips aimed at Tibetan monks. How is anger a problem, you ask? Surely it’s healthy, or useful to some degree?
Anger is unhelpful in a number of ways, but there are a lot of commonly used arguments that I won’t bother with:
- "Chronic anger will give you a heart attack." Yeah, OK, whatever. So will smoking, and stress, but it’s years down the track.
- "Anger’s not nice; people don’t like it." "Um... that's the whole point," you might respond. You may not want to be a "nice" person, and you definitely don’t want people to like your anger.
- "Anger doesn’t feel good, it makes you unhappy"—sure, but presumably you already know how it feels, and it hasn’t stopped you yet.
Instead, I'll argue that anger is a problem first and foremost because it is an ineffective way of operating in the (social) world, can occasionally backfire, and ultimately ruins relationships. At its core, anger is an evolved intimidation strategy. The most publicized instances of anger occur in war zones, in traffic, and in hotel lobbies. But surveys tell us that approximately 80 percent of day-to-day anger actually occurs with family and loved ones whom you care about. These aren’t necessarily people you wish to bully and intimidate.
Actually, anger is much less effective in getting people around you to behave "correctly" than, say, heart-to-hearts, cajoling, incentives, or calmly stated assertiveness. And even when anger does have the odd pay-off—your husband remembers to put down the toilet seat or your housemate turns the music down—it comes at the cost of warmth and intimacy, and tends to come back to bite you (in the form of defensiveness or escalation mostly). Just about every bit of research out there suggests that having warm (non-angry) relationships is the key to human happiness and emotional wellbeing. So this is no small cost.
2. Monitor your anger.
I strongly recommend keeping an anger log over at least two or three weeks. You may be surprised at what it reveals. As well as raising insight, it can help you to take a detached "observer stance" with regard to your anger. Monitor any and every episode of anger, from fleeting moments of frustration or impatience to extreme rage. For each one, note down the facts of what went down (neighbor’s dog still barking despite our asking them to deal with it); the intensity of your anger 0-10 (where 0 = no anger, and 10 = maximum rage); any thoughts or images you were aware of during the scene (wringing the dog’s neck, keying the neighbor’s car, memories of the conversation you’d had with him the week before, etc.); any other feelings you may have experienced in the scene (e.g. anxiety, dread); and what you actually did (ranted to wife). This habit of systematically describing your angry outbursts is often all someone needs in order to gain a little perspective. Give it a whirl.
3. Feel the anger—but don't act on it.
Anger interferes with problem-solving and good judgment, and makes you rash and rigid in your thinking. This is why even the most articulate person you know can be reduced to repetitious expletives when enraged. Ambrose Bierce, the American satirist, wisely remarked, “speak when you are angry and you will make the best speech you will ever regret.” While fear drives us to flee, anger drives us to aggress and confront. Anger motivates revenge and retaliation. Unfortunately, the best revenge is not, as a rule, to live well. Anger is a poor guide to happiness. Hence my counterintuitive advice to "Feel the anger and not do it anyway"—the flip side to the pop-psychology slogan.
I would recommend you go to bed angry (despite your grandmother’s advice); sit on the angry email for a day or two before sending it; walk away from a fight where possible; and seek advice from a (non-angry) third party before taking any hostile action. If you still wish to carry out the angry actions when you’re calmer, then go ahead. They may coincide with self-interest. But, chances are you won’t want to. In the heat of anger you’re likely to make decisions you’ll regret.
4. Watch yourself angry: the Federer cure.
The angry are often proud of their anger. Even if they leave a scene having achieved nothing (such as giving the finger to a car that pulls in front of them), they often experience a warm inner glow of self-satisfaction as a result of their actions. They appear to believe they’ve just accomplished something tough, powerful, and righteous. This is not, of course, how they are perceived by their victims, spouses, or onlookers.
And more interestingly, it’s not necessarily what they themselves might think if they could watch themselves from the outside while not angry. It's worth seeing or hearing yourself genuinely angry at least once in your life. If it’s difficult to catch yourself in a spontaneous fit of rage, it’s worth replaying an angry scene in front of the mirror. According to tennis great Roger Federer, who was a racket-smashing brat in his junior years, it was watching himself throwing tantrums on TV that put him off it for life.
5. Look after yourself.
All other things being equal, the state you’re in as you enter an anger-provoking scene will influence the severity of an anger episode. If you are stressed, tired, sick, hungover, agitated, or in any kind of emotionally compromised state when you encounter an annoyance or provocation, then your response will be magnified well out of proportion. So it's worth being on the lookout for such factors. I’ll unpack a few of the most common culprits:
Alcohol abuse is the most common co-morbid condition of patients presenting with anger problems. The king-hit murders (or "sucker punch murders") attest to how vicious a combination of alcohol and aggression can be.
Fatigue and stress would have to come next: 96 percent of Aussies wake up tired, according to a recent sleep survey conducted in my hometown. Fatigue shortens the fuse. Get some rest!
Other known anger exacerbators include unmet needs or drives (hunger, thirst, lust, etc.); sickness; pain; and PMS.
Reducing background variables is a good, easy start in the fight against anger. Get some sleep; take some time off; streamline your week; delegate; relax; improve your diet and so on. In short, look after yourself.
When these things are unavoidable, then I believe awareness that you’re in a compromised state can be half the battle. Being stressed and tired might make you more irritable when the kids are fighting in the back seat; but insight that your state is a factor might help you realize they’re not entirely to blame. It might also be a reason to put off that phone call to your father until after you’ve had a nap and some alone time.
6. Understand the ultimate source of your anger: SHOULDING.
Most people believe that it’s other people’s behavior that makes them angry. Your son is texting at the dinner table; that just is irritating; and anger ensues. End of story. The problem with this oversimplified model is that it doesn’t explain why the other people at the dinner table aren’t irritated by your son’s behavior (your son first and foremost, of course). It doesn’t explain why something can annoy you one day, and not another. I can remember in my twenties being genuinely irritated by people who used the word "disinterested" when they meant "uninterested"; I now think this is a ridiculous and snobbish reaction.
There’s no single event that reliably angers everyone all the time. And there’s no single event that never angers anyone any of the time. Insisting on paying the bill might insult a date; but letting them pay might be an even graver offense. Then again, depending on the person, they could be fine either way. A cartoon depicting the prophet Muhammad may infuriate some individuals, and amuse others, depending on their position on the matter. I was sharply upbraided by an old man the other day for eating a mandarin near him on the bus. I remember thinking, "Now there’s a first." But it shouldn’t have surprised me.
You don’t get angry because of external events alone, but because of how you appraise those events. Anger always involves framing behavior as "wrong"—not-as-it-should-be. The man on the bus thought my eating a mandarin was inappropriate—disrespectful, perhaps. Of course, most wouldn’t have this appraisal, but he did. If your son’s phone use at the table annoys you, it’s because you hold that family members "should" engage socially at the dinner table. Your spouse mightn’t necessarily have that expectation, and nor might the boy’s siblings, quietly watching TV out of the corner of their eye. Anger is shoulding.
7. Become less judgmental.
If anger is driven by internal rules of how others ought to behave, this makes it a very "self-righteous" emotion. But if you can see some of your rules for what they are—"just the way I was brought up" or "my way of doing things"—then it will naturally seem silly to judge others for not following them. It helps to remind yourself of the many different ways in which humans around the world operate. In many parts of Asia, for instance, it is considered rude to enter a restaurant with your shoes on; in most Western restaurants, it is considered rude to take them off. Who’s right and who’s wrong here? We’d say there’s no answer to this question: they’re just two different sets of rules. You may believe it is wrong to smoke marijuana; many others would disagree. You may object to lovers kissing on public benches; there will almost always be someone who agrees with you, and others who staunchly oppose you. That’s because these things are matters of opinion, not fact. Must people work hard and strive to reach their fullest potential, or is a breezier, more spiritual life acceptable too? You probably have opinions on these things, which is fine. But if you walk around convinced your opinions on how people must behave are right and universal, you’ll live a restricted life—as well as an angry one.
8. Think like a scientist, not a lawyer.
The angry speak a lot about the bad "choices" people make, and what people "should" or "shouldn’t have" done. Logically speaking, if you believe someone should have acted differently, you must believe they could have acted differently at the moment of performing the (mis)deed. But being the person they were and seeing things as they did, there’s only one thing they ever could or would have done. To do something else they would have had to have a different brain and held different beliefs. If you can get your head around this, and make a habit of explaining people’s behavior rather than simply condemning it, then you will be a good deal wiser, as well as calmer.
We strongly suggest replacing ideas of "responsibility" and "blame" with those of causes and solutions. This is essentially what scientists do—they try to work out the causes behind events. You may shake your head rather unsympathetically at your uncle’s gambling problem. But a scientist asks, "What causes this person to gamble?" The answer to this question will be complex, and will potentially involve factors from his personality, beliefs, knowledge base, mood states, physiology, as well as from his upbringing, environment and culture. This is very different, mind you, from saying it’s right or good to gamble, or from resigning yourself to someone’s behavior. Taking a scientific explaining approach rather than a moralistic blaming one makes people’s behavior more understandable and as a consequence easier to influence. And once you understand the causes of a behavior, there’s nothing left to get angry about. You see its inevitability. And all that remains is a problem to solve.
Empathy overlaps somewhat with "thinking scientifically," except that it’s more intuitive. Empathizing means living in the skin of someone else. It is an antidote to anger, because it’s hard to condemn someone if you really understand where they’re coming from.
Anger almost always involves an inability to get the person you’re angry at. It stems from a failure to understand them. This is why so much anger is expressed verbally in statements of apparent astonishment or perplexity:
- Why the hell would you do something like that?
- What’s gotten into you?
- How could you ... ?
- I can’t believe this!
- What was she thinking?
These, incidentally, are actually very good questions to ask yourself in earnest when you're angry, but people only ever intend them rhetorically (and pejoratively). Often, interestingly, the people we profess to find the most perplexing are those closest to us, whom we'd be best placed to empathize with. A couple I saw recently was fighting over domestic chores. As it turned out, the husband liked things to be clean and hygienic, but was relatively oblivious to tidiness; the wife needed things to look neat and orderly, but didn’t worry that much about dust or germs. Each thought that their own standpoint was sensible, and that the other person’s was entirely neurotic. The truth is: neither of these viewpoints is silly or hard to relate to. They simply reflect different concerns or priorities. Most of the time it’s not so much that individuals can’t relate to one another, it’s that they just don’t: they’re blinkered by their own point of view and place more importance on making their own points than on understanding others'.
Some of you may have seen the televised argument between Ben Affleck and Sam Harris on the heated topic of the dangers of Islam. Affleck blatantly misconstrues his opponent's point of view. Harris attempts to explain himself, but Affleck feels he's heard enough. He's too angry to listen. Interestingly, Harris, in a blog after the event, rather than retaliate, writes that he gets where Affleck was coming from: "If I were seated across the table from someone I 'knew' to be a racist and a warmonger, how would I behave?" This is another case where making the effort to understand the other person’s viewpoint can diffuse anger.
10. Get your facts straight.
Angry people often display a bias toward interpreting others’ behavior as hostile, deliberate, or nasty, even when they lack the information to really be sure. They’re occasionally right, of course, but very frequently they’ve gotten something wrong, or taken it the wrong way.
The simplest first step in reducing your anger is to take a moment and make sure you’ve got all your facts straight. Are you sure the acquaintance who passed you by really snubbed you and didn’t just not see you? Can you be certain that your wife’s forgetting to pick up the milk was really a personal sign of disrespect, and not just an oversight? Are you positive your neighbor is playing that music just to spite you? Is it really fair to say that so-and-so is always late, or that she never does anything nice for you? Are you sure you've understood your opponent's position? If you aren’t positive beyond a reasonable doubt, why not suspend your judgment, pending further evidence? Innocent until proven guilty. This little habit alone can save you a lot of unnecessary grief (or should I say grievance).
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