Understanding the ‘mechanics’ of your anger is the first step in mastering this mood.
Anger: The ‘Shoulds’
One common way of setting yourself up to become angry is to have a version of how things should be and to continuously compare reality with your version – and then feel angry when reality gets it wrong!
As part of this process you have mental list of triggers against which you test reality and when reality gets it ‘wrong’ you feel angry. These triggers are situations that cause you to explode – or implode if you tend to suppress your anger.
Many of us live our lives with a long list of ‘shoulds’. These are our beliefs or expectations of how we should behave or how other people should behave. For example: ‘he/she should arrive home from work on time, waiters or shop assistants should treat me with respect, my work colleagues should support me and cooperate with me. I should not make mistakes. I should be better at this’.
Each time one of these expectations is not met we get angry. But it’s not the mismatch between our expectations and the actual event that causes the anger – we set ourselves up to become angry by having such a list in the first place.
Life will never match your personal expectations. It’s full of individuals with their own views and their own ways of going about things. By our standards many of these will appear flawed or even bizarre.
But there is little we can do about it. This may be a tough one to accept. But it is reality and is accepting this is a prerequisite to having peace of mind. You have got to accept that you cannot have things your way all of the time. And you have got to accept that even you will not get things right all of them time. The price of not accepting this is to carry on being righteous and angry for the rest of your life…
Anger: Mind Reading
This often works alongside the ‘should’ habit. Not only do we get annoyed with what a person does or does not do – but we also get annoyed with what we perceive to be their intention in acting like they did.
Frequently it is not the event itself that provokes us but what we decide the other involved person is thinking or feeling about us.
When someone behaves in a manner that is against our ‘rules’ we arbitrarily decide that we ‘know’ their motives. We decide that we are able to read their minds.
For example: when a car overtakes us we get angry because we ‘know’ that the driver is looking down on us or thinks he/she is better than us in some way. If someone turns up late for a meeting we get angry because we ‘know’ they do not respect us. If someone in our family misunderstands us we get angry because we ‘know’ they are doing it deliberately.
In such cases we don’t bother to ask them what, exactly, they are thinking or feeling at the time. After all why should we? We decide that if they truly cared about, respected, loved us they would live according to our rules – or they would ‘know’ that their behaviour was going to upset us and not do it.
This kind of warped thinking may seem humorous when read in cold print but is frequently the kind of thinking that goes on in those moments when we are simmering and coming to the anger boil.
It occurs through lack of self-awareness – we get into the habit and it becomes our normal way of thinking. Then it’s as if there is a mental programme running in the background which guesses what a person is thinking, decides that they feel negative toward us, and then starts up our anger motor.
Anger: “Collecting Straws”
In this way of making ourselves angry we look out for things to get annoyed about – and we then ‘link’ these so that the emotion accumulates until a quite insignificant event becomes ‘the straw that breaks the camels back’. Then we have a tantrum.
It’s morning and you are getting ready for work. But you’ve run out of your favourite breakfast cereal. Or there’s no milk. Or you can’t find your keys. And you think to yourself I just know it’s going to be one of those days!
You are about to begin collecting straws.
From now on you will be on the lookout for things to get annoyed about. And doing this will ensure that do not notice things that you might otherwise feel good about.
For some people this is a thing they do for a few hours or a day. Others collect straws over weeks or months. And become quite furious in the process.
That’s it – I’ve had enough!
Let’s say Jo is one of these collectors. She is shopping and in the supermarket is bumped by someone’s trolley. Anyone else might be mildly irritated by the other persons’ clumsiness. on a good day Jo might have let it pass, too.
But not today. Because she is on the lookout for things to add to her belief that today is one of those days and that the world is out to make her annoyed.
So she explodes with fury, creating a scene that she may later feel embarrassed about or experience self-hatred or guilt.
The intensity of her outburst is due to the suppressed anger built up since she first thought to herself It’s going to be one of those days! And the unfortunate person who bumped into her while searching for the chocolate biscuits bears the brunt of this accumulated irritability or anger.
Days or weeks of ‘collecting’
People with a strong anger-habit don’t collect reasons to feel angry over just a few hours. They can spend weeks, months or a lifetime doing it. This accounts for their quite over-the-top response to rather insignificant events.
When these people reach their ‘ final straw’ – the trigger event which takes them overboard the explosion can be quite severe and may even result in physical violence.
How does this work?
We find what we set ourselves up to find. If I have a belief that the world is out to get me, or that nobody respects me, or that my partner, friends or family hate me then I will find lots of evidence for this. And I will ignore any evidence that contradicts this.
All the little pieces of evidence are carefully collected along with our irritability for each situation. Mixing metaphors, it is as if we have a cooking put into which we put every event and keep it simmering. Then the point is reached where we have had enough and we explode.
Now it is as if the final straw event has tapped into our ‘unfinished business reservoir’ where our memories of anger and injustice and disrespect are stored.
In the case of severe anger this reservoir can include memories of slights and injustices going back to childhood.
Anger: Self Criticism
Where we give ourselves a really hard time – and push ourselves to meet unreasonably high standards.
Many of us are pretty tough on ourselves. We set ourselves standards that would be difficult for a saint to live up to! And each time our performance fails to reach these high standards we mentally criticise ourselves – with harsh, aggressive self-talk.
Living by their rules
What is often occurring here is that we are living according to other’s rules: the standards acquired from our parents, teachers, brothers or sisters, etc. We have never gotten round to updating our standards to suit our adult lifestyle.
Get it right!!
So, for example, the childhood lesson to ‘get it right every time’ that’s a pretty tough standard to try to live up to in adult life. As is the lesson: ‘if a thing is worth doing it’s worth doing right’
Trying to live up to these lessons or beliefs in adult life is going to ensure we don’t try new things very often because to do so will guarantee that we fall short of our learned perfectionist tendency.
Don’t upset people!
Other out-dated beliefs that are often carried over from childhood include: ‘Don’t upset people’ or ‘A tidy house is the sign of a good parent’ or ‘You must win every time’.
We see the irrationally of our old beliefs
When they are brought out into the cold light of day we can usually see how irrational are these old legacy beliefs. But just doing that once or twice does not defuse them.
You need a more consistent programme – where you are observing them in action and reminding yourself on a daily basis of how silly they are. Remember that beliefs work at an emotional level. To defuse them by yourself you need to do so very frequently – taking just one silly belief at a time and dealing with it until it fades in importance.
How out-dated beliefs provoke self criticism
Unless I have challenged them my learned childhood beliefs will rule me. And every time I transgress one of them I undermine my self esteem. I fall short of the impossibly high inherited standards and, to try and get myself to meet these standards, I criticise myself – after all, that’s how my parents or teachers tried to get me to meet them.
Continual self criticism with no apparent improvement when I compare myself with the (impossible and unrealistic) standards results in an on-going angry self tall: you’re just useless! No can never do anything right! You stupid etc. etc.
This build, accumulates and ferments. And soon it becomes directed outwards, too. I am so annoyed with myself that I ‘take it out’ on others and respond to their failings and misdemeanors with unnecessary fury.