How to master anger instead of letting it control you
A quick search for anger management books turned up two lists of the top 100. That alone convinces me that there are plenty of books on this topic. Many people struggle with this problem.
This article will discuss answers to the following questions: What is anger? Why are some people more prone to anger than others? How does anger develop? And how can you and I learn to control our anger?
As with the definition of emotions in general, there is no single definition of anger. It is usually described as a feeling of strong displeasure. That doesn't really capture it very well, though, does it?
Other elements of anger include:
- A feeling of urgency in which something needs to be set right.
- The feeling that an important rule has been broken.
- An urge to react.
- Directed energy that builds up (often suddenly).
Anger is clearly preceded by a trigger or condition of some kind. But what other factors are involved?
At least four factors determine whether a trigger will lead to anger:
- Habitual responses
Let's examine each one individually.
A person's disposition toward anger is determined by both their personality characteristics and by other factors such as their level of physical or emotional stress.
Qualities that predispose a person to anger include:
- Low tolerance for frustration
Naturally, the opposite qualities will reduce a person's tendency to anger easily:
- Concern for others
- Cooperative spirit
Suppose you greet your coworker when you enter the office. They respond rudely. How would you feel? Would you feel the same if you knew they had lost a family member the day before? If you have the desirable qualities listed above, this knowledge would temper your view of the "injustice." The trigger is still there, but instead of feeling angry, you realize they are having a bad day and need your compassion.
Kevin N. Ochsner, the principal investigator on a study of the neural mechanisms involved in emotion control, explains, “Our emotional responses ultimately flow out of our appraisals of the world, and if we can shift those appraisals, we shift our emotional responses.”These findings support the hypothesis that prefrontal cortex is involved in constructing reappraisal strategies that can modulate activity in multiple emotion-processing systems. Ochsner, K. N., Bunge, S. A., Gross, J. J., & Gabrieli, J. D. E. (2002). Rethinking Feelings: An fMRI Study of the Cognitive Regulation of Emotion. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 14(8), 1215–1229. https://doi.org/10.1162/089892902760807212
The prefrontal cortex of the brain is where complex thought happens, while the amygdala handles strong emotions. If the amygdala detects a threat, it overtakes the prefrontal cortex, triggering a fight or flight response. But reappraisal can prevent this from happening, according to the Handbook of Emotion Regulation by James Gross.
Anger is a status-based emotion. A low-status person will rarely display anger because it is likely to be counterproductive. In Emotion Review, Jonathan H. Turner wrote,
If a person is at the same rank or at a higher rank than the other(s) with whom a disagreement arises, then this person will display mild annoyance and anger at the other.
When a disagreement between a higher- and lower-status person arises, the fault is presumed by expectation states to reside with the lower-status person, and this attribution is typically backed up by fellow lower-status persons, thus legitimating the anger and annoyance of the higher-status person.Turner, J. H. (2009). The Sociology of Emotions: Basic Theoretical Arguments. Emotion Review, 1(4), 340–354. https://doi.org/10.1177/1754073909338305
Our feelings of anger often arise when someone assumes a higher level of status than we think they deserve. This is one reason criticism can be difficult to take. Giving evaluative feedback implies acting as a judge, a position of higher status.
We may also experience unpleasant emotions when our self-conception is challenged. An undesirable future self role may be introduced, along with associated fears and anxieties.Markus, H., & Nurius, P. (1986). Possible selves. American Psychologist, 41(9), 954–969. doi:10.1037/0003-066x.41.9.954
When we feel rejected, we may react emotionally in ways we do not expect.
"Most researchers and theorists in the area of ostracism, social exclusion, and rejection acknowledge that these related aversive interpersonal behaviors threaten a fundamental need to belong," state the authors of a 2005 paper. "We believe that a threat to belonging, even to strangers, evokes a strong immediate warning."Williams, K. D., & Zadro, L. (2005). Ostracism: The indiscriminate early detection system. In K. D. Williams, J. P. Forgas, & W. von Hippel (Eds.), The social outcast: Ostracism, social exclusion, rejection, and bullying (pp. 19 –34). New York: Psychology Press.
Our emotional responses serve a protective purpose, according to such theorists. We are very sensitive to signs that others are developing a negative view of us, giving the impression they will withdraw their support.
According to another source, criticizing implies that an individual doesn't value the relationship with their target because people often refrain from strongly criticizing those they care about. They add:
Neither sadness nor anger is caused by perceived low relational value. Rather, sadness arises from perceived loss, and anger arises when people perceive that another agent (usually, but not always, a person) has unjustifiably behaved in an undesired fashion that threatens their desires or well-being. ... Anger may be designed to prevent, terminate, or punish specific behaviors that are perceived as an immediate threat.Leary, M. R., Koch, E., & Hechenbleikner, N. (2001). Emotional responses to interpersonal rejection. In M. R. Leary (Ed.), Interpersonal rejection (pp. 145–166). New York: Oxford University Press. doi: 10.31887/DCNS.2015.17.4/mleary.
We are especially sensitive to small changes in the approval of others, especially if they have been very accepting. After examining several possible reasons for this, a 1998 paper concludes, "Whatever the reason, people apparently experience neutral reactions from others as rejecting."Leary, M. R., Haupt, A. L., Strausser, K. S., & Chokel, J. T. (1998). Calibrating the sociometer: The relationship between interpersonal appraisals and the state self-esteem. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74(5), 1290–1299. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-35188.8.131.520
I have already written a series of articles about ego, but there is much more to learn and discuss on this subject. Ray Dalio, in his book Principles: Life and Work, defines an ego barrier as a "subliminal defense mechanism that makes it hard for you to accept your mistakes and weaknesses." In a sense, the ego is a connection between the conscious and unconscious parts of the brain. Ego tends to react defensively, simplify issues, make excuses and blame others. Ego interference can even cause us to be angry with ourselves at times.
The problem with judging or denying our feelings is that they are likely to emerge in ways we're not prepared to handle.
I mentioned self-importance above. A person with an exaggerated sense of self-importance will believe their rights and privileges are superior to those of other people. They may become angry if they do not receive their just due, in their opinion.
Likewise, ego strength influences how someone sees their own role and the role of others in causing or controlling situations. The person who believes happiness means being completely free of emotional pain, fear, and anger is lacking in ego strength and will have a lifetime of disappointments. The same is true for someone who blames their emotions and disappointments on others. They attempt to manipulate other people and events instead of responding productively.
Joseph Grenny's three types of stories carry a lot of explanatory value:
- "Victim stories" arise when people believe that they are not responsible for the situation.
- We are telling a "villain story" if we place blame on the other person.
- A "helpless story" comes from the belief that there's nothing we can do about the situation.
The belief that anger can motivate another to act is very counterproductive. Anger is a powerful motivator, but it generally only motivates people to avoid the anger, often in ways that the angry person would not choose.
Closed-minded individuals will see differing viewpoints as threats. Additionally, a person with a low tolerance for discomfort or ambiguity may react angrily instead of attempting to adapt.
Anger often results from the perception that we have been unfairly treated, unnecessarily hurt, or prevented from achieving something we expected.In addition, anger can result when a belief which benefits us socially is questioned.
- In life, disappointments and setbacks are inevitable. It is possible to have a richer, more satisfying life by putting effort and imagination into overcoming them rather than reacting angrily.
- We should not judge the way we feel. It is important to control our reactions, but also to express curiosity about them. These reactions arise for important reasons, and we should not ignore them. In order to deal with emotions, it is best to find a healthy outlet that addresses the reasons why they were triggered.
- A person with high ego strength has a strong grasp of reality. An internal locus of control means they are aware that their own feelings and wellbeing are largely influenced by their own choices. However, they recognize that their ability to control the world and influence other people is very limited.
- We are not victims. In general, we are never 100% right, nor always 100% wrong. There is always some level of control in every situation, even when it's just in how we react.
- When others do things that irritate us, we should not assume they are doing them because they intend to cause trouble. Rather, we should assume the best. We should try to take joint responsibility for any problems we have with them, even if they don't think there's a problem or don't accept responsibility for their part.
- There is almost always something we can do. Try to think creatively and look at the issue from different angles instead of becoming angry.
- Persuasion and empathy are much more motivating than anger.
- We are rarely 100% right in our viewpoint. By being open-minded and curious, we can avoid becoming needlessly offended.
- Life is uncomfortable and nuanced at times. Learning to adapt reduces frustration to a great extent. Insisting on our personal preferences all the time is exhausting for ourselves and others.
- We should constantly evaluate our expectations. Often, they are unrealistic, so getting angry about not reaching them can be counterproductive.
- Whether you get your way or not doesn't affect your value or importance as a person.
- Being approved by a certain person does not define your self-worth.
In addition to personal qualities and beliefs, habits also affect a person's tendency to get angry. When a person frequently becomes angry in a certain situation, they are developing a habitual response.
According to a 1996 study, making people pause briefly to weigh both the positives and negatives significantly reduced the destructive impact of anger on decision-making.Leith, K. P., & Baumeister, R. F. (1996). Why do bad moods increase self-defeating behavior? Emotion, risk-taking, and self-regulation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 71(6), 1250–1267. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-35184.108.40.2060
The old adage to count to ten is great advice. This allows the amygdala to reset, or at least calm down a bit. The anger you feel does not need to be taken as a command that must be obeyed right away, but rather as a strong signal your mind and body are sending you that needs your attention.
According to a brain imaging study from 2007, putting feelings into words can reduce the intensity of sadness, anger, and pain.University of California - Los Angeles. (2007, June 22). Putting Feelings Into Words Produces Therapeutic Effects In The Brain. ScienceDaily.
Whether you are journaling alone or talking it out with a trusted companion, you can also explore the reasons for your anger.
- Did you not feel heard or understood?
- Did someone act against your values?
- Did something block you from moving forward with your goal?
- Can you associate certain memories with these sources of anger?
- Is it frustrating for you that you cannot reach your goals, or does something important to you seem threatened?
We are all human. It is normal to feel hurt and disappointed from time to time. This is obvious, so why do I mention it? Because many unspoken beliefs to the contrary cause a great deal of anger.
I might have perfectionistic tendencies (I do, in fact). That may lead to unreasonable expectations, both for myself and others. Since we all are human, we should realize that 99% of the time we are neither victims, nor villains, nor helpless. We're simply imperfect. So instead of expecting yourself to always be right, make a commitment to do your best.
Despite ego's attempts to convince us that we are special, our shared humanity should spur us to be compassionate and empathetic.
Empathy is essentially curiosity. Instead of judging ourselves and others, we look for possible reasons. Kristin Neff gives an example:
Let’s say you criticize yourself for having an anger issue. What are the causes and conditions that led you to be so angry? Perhaps in-born genetics plays a role. But did you choose your genes before entering this world? Or maybe you grew up in a conflict-filled household in which shouting and anger were the only ways to get heard. But did you choose for your family to be this way? If we closely examine our “personal” failings, it soon becomes clear that they are not entirely personal.Neff, K. D. & Germer, C. (2017). Self-Compassion and Psychological Wellbeing. In J. Doty (Ed.) Oxford Handbook of Compassion Science, Chap. 27. Oxford University Press.
Perhaps it's becoming clear now that it's not just a matter of who is at fault. In varying degrees, we are all affected by outside forces. It's much more productive for me to look at what I can do to change a situation, rather than trying to find out who is at fault.
Self-distancing is another productive way to deal with anger. A study found that "the self-distanced group showed lower cognitive accessibility of anger-related thoughts than the immersed group."Özlem Ayduk & Ethan Kross, Analyzing Negative Experiences Without Ruminating: The Role of Self-Distancing in Enabling Adaptive Self-Reflection. Social and Personality Psychology Compass 4/10 (2010): 841–854, 10.1111/j.1751-9004.2010.00301.x Another study concluded, "Reflecting over provocations from a self-distanced perspective reduces aggressive thoughts, angry feelings, and aggressive behaviors, even in the “heat of the moment.”" Mischkowski, D., Kross, E., & Bushman, B. J. (2012). Flies on the wall are less aggressive: Self-distancing “in the heat of the moment” reduces aggressive thoughts, angry feelings and aggressive behavior. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 48(5), 1187–1191. doi:10.1016/j.jesp.2012.03.012
Kaira Jewel Lingo recommends treating our own self-judgment like a caretaker rocking a crying baby with tenderness and compassion. "We attend to the pain of the moment, rather than trying to push it away."
What about interpersonal conflicts? Again, focus on shared humanity. Anne-Laure Le Cunff recommends explicitly showing the other person you want to resolve the conflict, with the words, "I would like to resolve this together." Show you care about the other person by acknowledging their strengths. Be vulnerable, and be willing to admit you aren't perfect either.
In fact, a 2006 study found that focussing on vulnerability reduces both angry feelings and thoughts.Bond, A. J., Ruaro, L., & Wingrove, J. (2006). Reducing anger induced by ego threat: Use of vulnerability expression and influence of trait characteristics. Personality and Individual Differences, 40(6), 1087–1097. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.paid.2005.12.002
Rather than making judgments, be honest and open about how the situation makes you feel. Instead of saying, "You make me angry when you...," say, "When you do x, I feel frustrated and angry because y." Don't expect them to agree with you. If you take the time to understand their viewpoint, they will probably do the same for you. Reaching an understanding may take several sessions. Feel free to let the person know that you need a break, but that you intend to resolve the conflict in the end.
Learn to laugh at yourself and not take yourself so seriously. Did you trip and fall on your face in front of coworkers? Instead of getting angry, try making a joke. "How would you rate that fall? Nine out of ten?" It might seem like everyone is having a laugh at your expense but likely they will be relieved and respect you more as a result of your emotionally intelligent reaction.
Learning how to relate well to others, expressing our concerns, and discussing problems can help cope with anger proactively.
If people have 20 words for anger (irritation, fury, rage, hostility), then they will perceive 20 different states and better regulate their emotional states as a result.
Asking ourselves questions can break the cycle of anger.
Joseph Grenny found that by asking himself, "What is the right thing to do right now?" he was able to turn anger and resentment into humility and curiosity.
Samantha Postman wrote a delightful essay about how asking two questions helped both her and her daughter to turn their anger around on two separate occasions.
The questions are:
- Who do you want to be?
- Are your intended actions true to yourself as that person?