The Psychology of Anger (Part 2 of 4)

Continued from yesterday’s Daily Dose of Reason

What are some antidotes to irrational anger?

The most effective, but also the most difficult at times, is simply changing the way you think. Use your irrational angry outbursts—or the threat of one—as an opportunity to change yourself. Believe it or not, we all have more control over our emotions than we realize. When the anger is coming on, you can say to yourself, ‘I have a choice. I can choose how angry I’m going to get about this. I can yell and scream and stew to no avail. Or I can try to stay calm, think rationally about this and find effective alternatives.’ If you take this approach, it will almost certainly help. The hard part, if you have anger problems, is making yourself adopt this choice approach. But be patient with yourself, work at it and you’ll eventually master it.

Anger as Injustice

Another technique is to think more about the nature of anger and what it means. Anger really means, at the core, a reaction against injustice. Many times irrationally angry people feel anger when there is little or no objective injustice.

In traffic, for example, there’s no injustice against you personally. It’s not as if these other people, in their cars, are sitting on your private property without your consent. If they were, that would be a basis for rational anger. There is no basis for feeling angry in traffic, however. The real issue is frustration.

The way to take responsibility for your frustration is to do as many things as possible to avoid the frustrating situation (e.g., traffic) in the future: take a different route; leave earlier; find books on tape or music or talk radio to enjoy in the car; make cell phone calls to save time later; develop a long-range plan to work from home a couple of days a week or even ultimately become self-employed and make your own hours, and so forth. It’s not that there’s any one magic solution here. It’s the attitude that counts. Either you can remain angry over something that isn’t an injustice against you personally, or you can take a solution-oriented approach.

Acceptance Is Not Endorsement

Another key cognitive factor in fighting anger involves the distinction between acceptance and endorsement. Many angry people are principled individuals who themselves try to act with integrity and become upset when they see so many others failing to act with integrity or competence. These can be valid emotions. However, it’s not valid to let the lack of integrity or competence in the world bring you down. It’s OK to disapprove of others when it’s warranted, but not to make yourself miserable in the process.

People who become angry over the inadequacies of others (real or alleged) need to accept that many others don’t share their high standards without endorsing them for their weakness. A mentally healthy but still principled person thinks and feels this way: ‘I know what’s right and I seek to live my life that way. I won’t compromise on honesty, excellence and competence. I expect the same of others and will feel happy when I find it. When I don’t find it, then I’m unhappy for a short period but I accept that this still is the way that it is. I move on and try to find better people and not dwell on it.’

It’s a great idea to be a person of integrity and to value excellence. An analogy is living in a house that you keep well maintained. You love your house and you take pride in it. You can’t let the fact that another house owner around the corner doesn’t keep his house as well maintained ruin your enjoyment of your own house. There’s nothing you can do about your neighbor’s choices. You certainly can choose to stew in anger and rage over the fact that the neighbor should take better care of his house. It’s often true that people or things should not be the way that they are; but they still are the way that they are, and unless you can do something about it, you have to accept that this is so. Overly angry people have a real hard time wrapping their minds around this principle. Their focus on ‘should’ undercuts their focus on ‘is.’

Continued in Part 3 tomorrow.