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The pandemic still isn’t over. Life still isn’t back to normal. And that means a lot of us are still on edge. Frustrated. Disgruntled. At times, we’re downright angry. And that saps our resilience. Our ability to cope and live a good life.
Dealing with anger is difficult because, frankly, we get terrible advice about handling it. People say you should “get your anger out.” Wrong. Research shows venting just makes it worse. Sure, developing self-control and using time-outs can help but neither fix the underlying problem. You and your anger are still stuck together. (Facebook relationship status: “It’s complicated”.) So what do we do?
Have no fear. Your favorite cognitive arms dealer has the weapons we need to effectively fight anger and win. And, believe it or not, it’s as simple as “ABCD.”
We’re going to get help from the groundbreaking work of Albert Ellis. According to an APA survey of psychologists he was the 2nd most influential psychotherapist ever. Sigmund Freud came in third. Drawing on Stoic philosophy, Ellis developed a powerful system called REBT. Here’s what Wikipedia says about it:
In general REBT is arguably one of the most investigated theories in the field of psychotherapy and a large amount of clinical experience and a substantial body of modern psychological research have validated and substantiated many of REBTs theoretical assumptions on personality and psychotherapy.
This stuff works. His book is “How To Control Your Anger Before It Controls You.”
Let’s get to it…
Eleanor Roosevelt said, “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” Guess what? That’s true for anger too. Anger isn’t caused by pandemics or traffic or anything external. Anger is our own fault.
Yeah, I said it. But this is a good thing because if it weren’t under our control, we wouldn’t be able to do anything about it.
Ellis said it comes down to ABC. A is Adversity. The external thing that happens to you like traffic. C is the Consequences. Your feeling of anger. But A doesn’t directly cause C. We got B in the middle there. And B is your Beliefs. What do beliefs have to do with it?
Say I stick a gun in your face. (That definitely qualifies as Adversity.) You think you’re about to die. (Beliefs.) You’re terrified. (Consequences.) But hold on. You take a second look and realize I’m actually holding a water pistol. Still scared? Nope. What changed? Only your beliefs.
Events don’t upset you. You upset yourself because of your beliefs about events. And when your beliefs change, your feelings change.
So what kind of beliefs cause anger? We create anger through absolutist, command-oriented thinking and expectations about the world. More importantly, we get angry due to irrational beliefs.
Let’s say I tell you solving this crossword puzzle is going to be difficult. You try it. It’s difficult. Would you get angry? No. You had a rational belief.
But often when things don’t go your way in life you do get angry. Do you believe that life must always be easy, simple and convenient?
Or someone is mean and you fly off the handle. Do you really believe people are obligated by the laws of the universe to always be nice to you?
You may want to answer “no” but if that was really the case would you react with anger? You knew the crossword puzzle was going to be hard, it was hard, and you didn’t get angry. You also know life doesn’t always go your way and that people can be jerks. But for some reason when these things happen it surprises and angers you. What gives?
It’s due to irrational beliefs. Underneath it all, we often do expect everything to go our way, even though our conscious minds know that’s ridiculous. We do expect everyone to be polite all the time and that’s why we’re surprised when they’re not. And we act like none of this has any right to happen to us. That we should never be inconvenienced. You don’t need to live at 221B Baker Street to realize this isn’t very rational.
Anger doesn’t come from the external world, it comes from these impossible, irrational expectations we often have. When we think we are in control of reality and life reminds us we’re not, we get angry. Ellis says that often our beliefs are:
“The world (and the people in it) must be arranged so that I get practically everything that I really want when I want it. And further, conditions must be arranged so that I don’t get what I don’t want. Moreover, I usually must get what I want quickly and easily.”
Some people immediately push back when I explain this. They say that others “should” behave nicely, and so their anger is justified. (These people make me want to use my secret agent cyanide tooth.)
Anytime you find yourself using the words “should”, “must” or “supposed to” you’re headed for anger. All of those words are clever ways of implying other people “cannot” behave badly. But people can and do behave badly at times and you know that. You can certainly prefer they behave better but “should” is a one-way path to frustration because you’re denying reality.
Until somebody builds a bug zapper for jerks “should” is not going to get you any closer to happiness. “Should” is denial. Like some metaphysical trump card you can play to alter the universe. Sorry, not gonna happen. (If you want to stay angry head over to Twitter. You’ll fit right in.)
I’m not saying it’s good or right that people are mean and I’m not saying you should put up with it. But once you start down the road of “should” you’re implying you can control their behavior and you can’t. That’s an irrational belief. It’s not going to result in the universe suddenly setting them straight; it’s going to result in you upping the dose on your blood pressure medication.
(To learn more about how you can lead a successful life, check out my bestselling book here.)
You cannot control everything that happens but you can control your beliefs. When beliefs are rational, we’re good but when they’re irrational – oopsie – we get angry.
So how do we make our irrational beliefs more rational?
As the old joke goes: How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice. And unconsciously we have been practicing our irrational beliefs for a very long time. We may not be aware of them but they become clear when we get angry at things that are totally unsurprising.
Traffic is bad on a Monday morning. You get angry. What’s the belief? “Traffic should not occur when I am in the car.” Or maybe, “I must never be inconvenienced.” How rational are those?
Well, we have ABC and now we need to add D. You’re going to face Adversity. You’ll have Beliefs about it. Those will determine the Consequences. And when the consequences are anger, we need to Dispute our beliefs. You want to challenge their accuracy or usefulness to see if they are irrational.
Say somebody cheats you. You get angry. What’s the belief? “People must treat me fairly.”
Time to dispute. Is this rational? It would be nice if people treated you fairly but, no, they don’t have to. You can prefer they do but insisting that the world bend to your will is just going to make you lose your cool – and often lead to poor decision-making.
Now you can and should express dissatisfaction. Nobody’s saying you need to roll over and take it. But when your “preferences” become “musts” you’re just going to drive yourself crazy because you’re implying this cannot happen. As if you had the power to control it. And you don’t.
Changing demands to desires eliminates anger. You can still do things to counter the adversity. In fact, you will usually do a better job of it because you’ll be able to think clearly and better problem solve. How many times have you made a stupid decision because you had a head full of steam? When you’re angry you have the brains of a King Charles Spaniel. Flying off the handle is not known to be a quality of top negotiators.
Any time you find anger rising, check your underlying belief. Is it some version of, “Life must be easy and people must be kind and fair”? Not terribly rational. Change “musts” to preferences, demands to desires. Then problem solve or negotiate with a cool head. This leads to a lot less time screaming into a cushion.
(To learn the two-word morning ritual that will make you happy all day, click here.)
Okay, we’re inching toward pragmatism. Problem is, if you only dispute your beliefs after you get angry, this is all going to take a loooong time to sink in. So how can we speed up the process? Carnegie Hall. Practice.
And how do we practice…?
Yes, literally. Ellis calls it “Rational Emotive Imagery.” (You can refer to it as “Beast Mode” if you like. Your call.) Sit down, close your eyes and imagine something that really gets your goat on a regular basis. Don’t just “think” about it, totally experience it in your mind.
Go full Dark Side of the Force here. Let the anger flow through you, Luke. Feel the “must” and “should” beliefs at their mightiest. They must not treat me this way! Life should be easy! Get the adrenaline flowing…
Feel it? Now just like you did with disputing, start questioning your underlying beliefs. Shift them toward something more rational: “I don’t like when they treat me this way, but people sometimes behave badly. I know that. I’d prefer they didn’t but it’s irrational to believe I can control them.” Feel the difference it makes when you stop trying to control what you cannot control.
Giving up your anger doesn’t mean you’re powerless or giving up hope. You’ll be able to handle the situation in a smarter way once you accept that the universe is not here to do your bidding.
You’ve done this little exercise before at times without realizing it. You dealt with that annoying person, they acted annoying, you got angry… but then you realized, “Seriously, what did I expect? This is how they are and I know that.” And then the anger dissipates. You’re not thrilled but you don’t lose your cool.
Shift your beliefs from irrational to rational and the anger evaporates. Practice this a few minutes a day and you’ll start to improve. (If you find meditation boring maybe making yourself furious every day is more your style.)
Seriously, this is a software update for your brain. Make a note of any insights you have. See what works for you, what helps you make the shift, and leverage that next time Adversity hits.
You’ll see results from Rational Emotive Imagery faster than you think. Practice long enough and your frustration tolerance will increase. You will no longer be stressed by difficult situations. “Injustices” will become “challenges” and you’ll make better decisions on how to deal with them. This is how you become an unflappable cool customer at the negotiation table of life.
(To learn the 5 secrets neuroscience says will make you emotionally intelligent, click here.)
Okay, it is my very rational belief that we have learned a lot. Let’s round it all up and find out how the above can not only eliminate anger but also lead to a very happy life…
This is how to deal with anger and be more resilient:
By now it’s quite clear that if you walk around with the underlying belief “Conditions must always be the way I want them to be” you’re going to make the Incredible Hulk seem like Mary Poppins. But this post isn’t just about anger.
Albert Ellis found that irrational beliefs are the cause of nearly all of the emotional difficulties we face in life. Believe “I absolutely must perform well!” and you’re going to be anxious at work. Believe “I must have the success and happy family that my friends on Instagram seem to have” and you’re going to be depressed.
To make yourself feel needlessly angry, anxious, or depressed, you almost always escalate your desires into assumed needs, your preferences into demands and insistences, your relative wishes into absolute dictates.
When it comes to your emotions, your enemy is not traffic, or that person at work, or anything external. It’s your own irrational beliefs. And if you don’t change them, life is going to be an endless white-knuckle endurance test. But I don’t want to get preachy. (The day I start referring to these blog posts as “manifestos,” hooo-boy, look out.)
Think about it. If you think things “must” go exactly the way you demand, you are almost certainly wrong because there are so many ways to live a good life. A happy life. You did not expect to be exactly where you are now. That is true for the bad but also for the good. You have faced many adversities and overcome them. Those previous “musts” came and went. And they will again — but we always seem to forget that in the moment. (You made it through a pandemic, my friend. You can handle anything.)
Accept life as it comes. Accept that you cannot control everything in it.
Acceptance does not mean “giving up.” It means “not living in denial.” Acknowledge reality and you can avoid so many awful feelings. You’ll be more resilient. And then — with a cool head and a smile — you can endeavor to change those things you don’t like and make life better.
So dispute those irrational beliefs and live a happier life. But, hey, I can’t control what you do. I’m not going to say you “must” or even that you “should.”
But I’d prefer it.
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