In 1974, Daniel Casriel released a book titled, “A Scream Away From Happiness.” The thesis was that by “scream therapy” you could release tension and anger and become a happier person.
No, this doesn’t work and you should not buy that book unless you’re a big fan of unintentional humor. Research shows venting anger is not good. In fact, it’s better to do nothing than to scream and yell or throw things.
But sometimes screaming, yelling, and throwing things sounds like a great idea, despite how ineffective it is. Whether you’re a rageaholic or you just have everyday moments of frustration, we all get there. (Yes, some people are lucky enough to have Dalai-Lama-minds that rarely get angry at all and always turn toward kindness and compassion. I have the other type of mind.)
Things go sideways, the blood boils and hoooo-boy… You are really caught in anger’s teeth now. If only there was a way to reach inside your skull and turn off the spigot.
Anger is natural and normal. Doesn’t mean it’s usually the best option and chronic anger can be a threat to your health. Anger may not always have a good purpose but it definitely has consequences. And when we let it get out of hand it can be a roller coaster ride that ruins relationships and destroys happiness, just like alcoholism or social media.
What we need to learn is how to defuse anger. Preferably before it begins. And that means understanding it. Because anger is usually about your thoughts, and beliefs – things almost always under your control.
So how do we do that? We’re going to turn to Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, the gold standard for brain-fixin’. Our guide will be William J. Knaus. His book is “The Cognitive Behavioral Workbook for Anger.”
You don’t have to do everything below, but one of these techniques will definitely help next time you lose your cool.
Let’s get to it…
While venting doesn’t work, some of the advice you’ve likely gotten in the past is scientifically validated. So let’s get the yawn-tier evidence out of the way.
The most powerful things need to be done in advance, before that awful thing comes along and pulls apart your joy like cotton candy. Yes, get enough sleep. Being “hangry” is quite real. Engage in “proactive coping”, which is a fancy way of saying if you know something is coming that is gonna drive you nuts, don’t be surprised but be prepared.
And, in the moment, when anger hits and you want to tear the wallpaper off the inside of your skull, calming imagery, progressive muscle relaxation or exercise, and deep breathing are all validated, effective responses. And, again, venting doesn’t work — but distracting yourself does.
The single most important thing to do when anger rises is to notice it and pause. This is the most underrated idiocy prevention measure.
Okay, we got the obvious stuff out of the way. If that doesn’t work, we need to dig into the prescription-strength psychology…
You want an easy “magic pill” solution? Here you go: Next time you feel angry, sit back at a thirty-degree angle for five minutes. A simple, research-validated way to decaffeinate your anger a bit. (And people say there are no more miracles in this world.)
For extra points, say, “I’m feeling angry.” May sound silly but naming feelings shifts them from your chaotic emotional brain and puts them under the legal jurisdiction of your thinky brain. This can better slam the brakes on them, preventing the feelings from reaching their full demonic potential.
I am well aware that at the office and during a shouting match with your partner, immediately laying down may not be a realistic option and might get you strange looks. And even if you’re alone it might not always lower the voltage meter enough to restore sanity. So we have other options…
Not suffering fools gladly might be a respected trait but it still tends to upset fools a great deal. So it’s important to make sure you’re correct before you even consider getting angry. We’ve all had moments where we blew our stack and realized it wasn’t at all justified.
Consider what assumptions you’re making. Often there are a few: 1) it’s their fault, 2) they did it on purpose, 3) they should not have done this, 4) I am now totally justified in no longer being Bruce Banner and taking my far greener and less tolerant form.
Are all these true? If not, well, you might not suffer fools gladly but now you’re the fool. Best to ask questions and find out before you become a very funny story people tell at parties.
It’s good to remind yourself that the goal is not to get angry. Yes, there’s an issue and something may need to be done, but that anger is probably just going to make a stressful situation more stressful.
You can assume your anger is “justified” – but is it helping? In the moment, everyone assumes their anger is justified. (And if you walk around with that attitude all the time don’t be surprised if people start preemptively filing restraining orders as you approach.)
Another common assumption for people who frequently deal with anger is, “Well, I can’t help it.” Okay, sure. So if it was your boss, would you be unable to help it? What if it was a scary man with a gun? Would you be unable to contain your anger then?
Whaddya know, you can help it. Check your assumptions.
So we got the fundamentals out of the way. But what cuts to the core of anger and stops it cold before you lose your mind and evacuate your soul?
The vast majority of the time our emotions come from our beliefs about the situation, not from the events themselves. This idea dates back to ancient Stoics and was subsequently refined by the great psychologist Albert Ellis.
I stick a gun in your face. You get afraid. But you realize it’s actually a water gun. The fear immediately recedes. What changed? Nothing but your underlying belief.
Someone acts like a jerk. You believe “No one should ever behave in a way I do not like and I should never be inconvenienced.” So you get angry. But what if your belief was, “I’d like it if things went my way but that’s unrealistic. We all have bad days. Maybe I should give them a second chance.” Not angry.
More importantly, which belief is more rational? Any time you’re feeling angry and your brain becomes a rupturing cluster of sparking neurotransmitter malfunctions, examine your underlying belief and ask if that’s reasonable. “No one should ever behave in a way I do not like and I should never be inconvenienced” does not pass the sniff test. Yes, some things are wrong but believing you will not have to deal with these things is an unrealistic expectation that is at the heart of your anger. If you believed “I don’t like this but I know it happens sometimes” you’d be less frustrated.
Make that change and you’ll kill 99% of anger. Throwing around the word “should” in a universe that you do not control is like clinging to a dream when it’s time to wake up. Change your expectations and you change your reactions. Believe the world “should” behave the way you want it to all the time and you’re not just angry, you’re delusional.
The key is acceptance. No, not passive acquiescence. When you’re treated poorly, you don’t need to give in. But being surprised that this sometimes happens on planet earth is not realistic. You can push for what is right and fair but don’t be surprised if it takes a little effort.
Take a second to be honest with yourself when you’re angry and you’ll often find one of three beliefs is beneath your thinking:
What do they all have in common? Yes, they’re all unrealistic. They all also contain the word “must.” It’s just as bad as “should.” Every “must”, “should”, and “ought” is a landmine waiting to be tread upon.
They all imply you have control over things you don’t have control over. I greatly appreciate you feeling responsible for maintaining justice in the universe but you haven’t been granted the power to enforce it and that fact is now driving you insane. Do you have an enemy here? Yes. Yourself.
Change “must”, “should”, and “ought” to “want”, “like” or “prefer” and it’s like pouring Miracle-Gro on your happiness.
Alright, we’ve dealt with those pesky irrational beliefs. Now it’s time to weave a different story…
Even if you address the beliefs beneath your anger it can still be difficult to pull out of its tractor beam. You might still be consumed by the ninety bazillion reasons why it’s okay for you to meltdown. That’s normal. Anger narrows your thinking – which keeps you angry. That’s useful when you’re in a fistfight but not so helpful when you’re trying to fix a broken toilet.
So we need to expand your thinking a bit. Search the blighted horizon for a new perspective to replace the old one we proved wrong by addressing your irrational beliefs. You need to explore alternatives. This is why politics involves so much anger – everyone is so certain they’re right. (I’d say more but I’m not sure I’m correct.)
That’s why we need to use the CBT technique of “reappraisal.” Seeing the same situation from another perspective. A more useful one. You don’t want to lie to yourself but you want to be more humble about how much you may not know here and be a bit more generous in terms of your interpretation.
That person is being a jerk? What if you found out their mother had died yesterday? Would you be a little more patient with them? I bet the answer is yes. And would this whole conflagration go better if you saw it that way? Again, yes. Being a jerk back would just escalate things. You’re regifting the anger.
So take a step back and reappraise: “If a wise friend was in the situation representing my interests, how might that friend see and do things differently?”
Again, it doesn’t have to necessarily be true, it just has to be more constructive. You’re not going to cave to their demands; you’re just trying to reduce this negative, unhelpful, stroke-inducing emotion.
Could they be having a bad day? Could you have done something mean to them before that you weren’t even aware of? Definite possibilities you can’t immediately rule out. So take that belief and dodge the rage train.
If that doesn’t help, reappraise by altering time and space. (No, you don’t need to be Doctor Strange.) Ask yourself how you’d handle this if it was your best friend. Or ask how much this will matter in 10 years and how you will wish you’d handled it then.
Okay, time to round it all up and learn how changing just one word can kill anger when you’re dealing with other people…
Here’s how to overcome anger:
Yes, sometimes you meet someone and from that first moment you know you want to spend your whole life without them. It’s hate-at-first-sight. And they’re causing you 57 flavors of grief.
You only have to change one word in those thoughts streaming through your head: substitute “act” for “is.”
Normally when people mention “semantics” they’re being dismissive. But here it actually matters. I’m not going to take you down a Wittgenstein rabbit hole but words do matter. They affect how you think and see the world.
Point is, you don’t want to overgeneralize actions to identity. Make sure your statements address the problematic actions instead of their character.
“Larry is a total moron” vs “When Larry insults his boss, he acts foolishly.”
Semanticists D. David Bourland and Paul Johnston found that disliking actions causes a lot less anger than disliking people. And it’s usually more accurate. Not to mention that telling someone you don’t like what they did is a lot less likely to cause a fight than telling them they are fundamentally, at their core, a blithering idiot.
You don’t want people completely judging your character by your worst behavior on your worst day, so don’t do it to them. This is true for new people you meet, but also for loved ones, co-workers, and bloggers who make jokes you find tasteless and appalling.
Anger is a tricky emotion to deal with because it’s so energizing. A fast-acting injection of self-righteous confidence. Anger tells us what we so often want to hear: “I am totally right; they are totally wrong — and nothing is my fault.” We don’t have to feel blame or sadness. There’s an easy-mode decadence to this perspective that, upon reflection, should make us all a little skeptical.
Okay, the post is over. Back to the occasionally frustrating world. And I recommend you keep your beliefs about it rational and realistic. Me?
I’m gonna try and find a good deal on a recliner.