Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Overcoming Anger When Caught Off Guard

Three steps to think fast on your feet

When troublesome events come unexpectedly, you may feel caught off guard, stressed, and angered. You go to a pricey restaurant and find long hair in your soup. The waiter says the hair came from your head. Your cousin borrows $100 from you and doesn't return it, then claims you gave the money as a gift. You didn't expect any of this. You feel stressed and angry.

So, what do you do? We'll start with a background on anger, and then we'll explore three ways you can prepare yourself to defuse anger before the emotion gets out of hand.

Rain Drops, Hailstorms, and Blame

The American poet, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, said it well: "Into each life, some rain must fall."

Some events feel more like a hailstorm than a raindrop. For example, a rival steals your mate. You may also magnify raindrops and make them into hailstorms or make hailstorms into floods. After finding that hair in your soup, you go ballistic and demand retribution. What happened? You defaulted to an angry line of thinking. Now you have the original problem and an additional one as well.

For some, blame tops the list of the reasons why raindrops turn to hailstorms. As practically everyone knows, blame often goes beyond holding someone accountable. You believe that your cousin cheated you out of the $100. You view this as wrong. You hear yourself say "unfair." You think your cousin deserves punishment. You imagine your cousin sinking slowly in quicksand.

When blaming leads to anger, you’ll often find these extensions of blame:

  • You declare something unfair. You may have reasonable justification, and others may agree with you.
  • You condemn the person when you might better have denounced the act.
  • You feel justified in subjecting the person to an atrocity of your choosing.

This sample extension of blame sequence suggests how blame stokes excess anger and how a droplet can turn into a flood of anger. This is like a big double trouble. Life brought the droplet, maybe even the hailstone. Now you feel flooded with rage. Who bears the responsibility? (Let’s hope you don’t act rashly on the anger – triple trouble!)

When the unexpected happens, you may not have time to think things out. Like a mental reflex, blame may automatically come as the answer. Can you act without reflexive blame? You can if you prepare yourself for that. We’ll explore three ways.

Three Ways to Prepare for Unexpected Conflicts

A martial artist hones many skills. Developing these skills takes hundreds of hours of practice. Likewise, mental preparation to cope with anger takes time and practice. Often, lots of it. This practice, too, rarely happens. Too bad. Anger patterns repeat themselves, usually for that reason.

We’ll suggest sample ways to build mental karate skills to combat automatic anger thinking. Here you learn to think clearly and respond effectively.

Sadly, you can’t prepare for all possible raindrops and hailstones. Too many exist. You can, however, learn to neutralize a few core anger-thinking patterns that cut across conditions. You can start by thinking about your thinking.

Listen to Your Inner Voice

Most people don't want hair in their soup. You have reason to complain when you unexpectedly find one. However, whether you then have rain, hail, or a flood of rage, depends on what you believe. For example, if you tell yourself, "That shouldn't happen (to me). I'll fix that SOB's wagon," few would think you have warm fuzzy feelings toward the agent of your dislike.

Your anger thinking may have a factual base. Your feelings may reflect the facts. However, what if you hold to misleading assumptions and don't see the harm in them? By listening in on your inner anger voice, you may find fallacies, such as "Situations, make me feel angry." or "I can't control how I feel." Does that mean that a fickle universe will forever control how you feel?

If you find yourself in this victim trap, figure out how you might stir up your anger feelings. Get a handle on that, and you open opportunities to spare yourself from double trouble anguish. However, most people skip this thinking about thinking step and go on to disadvantage themselves by repeating anger patterns.

Look for the Patterns

From time to time, you'll get caught off guard in a situation you don't want. Sometimes you'll default to anger thinking. You can change this thinking to a rational form of reflective thought and get a broader perspective.

How do you go about thinking reflectively, and not reflexively? Keep an eye out for your extension of blame thinking. Early recognition gives you a chance to do something different. If you recognize this thinking, you can take steps to prevent your anger from building up.

Anger arises for other reasons. You may have a low frustration tolerance (LFT). Like just about everyone else, you'll tend to feel frustrated following an unwanted event where you face impediments to your happiness. However, if you anger yourself over frustrations and inconveniences too often, you interfere with your happiness. Suppose this sounds like you, consider building frustration tolerance skills. Start with awareness. What LFT thought patterns do you see? Do you think life should go smoothly for you? Do you believe you can't stand what you don't like? Then, to discharge tension, do you strike out?

You can start building frustration tolerance with a shift in focus. You show yourself that you can stand what you don't like. You act assertively (not aggressively) to bring about the changes you want. In this way, you put yourself on the path to acquiring critical mental karate skills.

Both extensions of blame and LFT thinking may surface when you feel caught off guard. Lessen one, and you may curb the other too. In that way, you build resilience to nasty surprises.

Practice E-prime Thinking

General Semantics expert D. David Bourland calls writing without the verb to be E-Prime. We wrote this blog without the use of "is," "was," etc. We did this to reduce is of identity and character generalization/assassination issues that so often merge with anger. The is of identity problem may unfold this way: "George is a louse." "Karen is a nutcase." People don't always act like their labels.

Blame-labeling people with is of identity labels can both evoke and justify angry feelings. For example, if you thought, "The waiter is a moron who deserves to fry," you could accelerate and justify your anger at the same time. You've added double trouble to the problem of getting a new bowl of soup. You may prime yourself for a war of words with the waiter in that way. You might win the battle and get fresh soup. But at what added cost?

Condemning and then trying to change people rarely turns out well.

If you thought the waiter acted poorly, you'd likely feel displeased with the waiter's style. You might better accept (not like) that the waiter stepped over the line. You might project a calm and forceful intention to correct the problem. For example, you assertively tell the waiter to get you a new bowl of soup, ask the restaurant manager to get you a new waiter, or other. By focusing on the problem, without adding mental and emotional distress to yourself, you've avoided double trouble. You might better enjoy your meal. More importantly, you've taken a mental karate step in asserting command over your actions to promote a result that you want.

When you attend more to a person's actions, you may find it easier to get cooperation to correct what you don't like.

For more on how to combat excessive anger, see Protect Yourself from Anger.

Dr. Bill Knaus & Dr. Irwin Altrows, a psychologist in private practice in Kingston, Ontario Canada

(C) Bill Knaus Ed.D. and Irwin Altrows Ph.D. All Rights Reserved. August 2018


Bourland, D. David; Johnston, Paul Dennithorne, eds. (1997). E-Prime III! : a third anthology. Concord, California: International Society for General Semantics.

Knaus, W. (2000). Take Charge Now: Powerful techniques for breaking the Blame habit. New York: John Wiley and Sons.