Most of us get angry at times — often over things that on reflection seem trivial. But if you are feeling frustrated often, yelling at your partner, criticizing your colleagues and friends, blowing your horn in traffic, throwing things around the house, then you might want to take your anger seriously and do something about it. Over the many years that I have been seeing patients, I can tell you that very few people come in and say, “I have a problem with my anger.” They might say, “My husband — or wife — thinks I have a problem,” or “My boss thinks I have a problem.” Or, in a few cases, “I was arrested and anger management was part of my plea bargain.” So, owning up to the problem may be the first step. And it may be hard to do.
- Let’s distinguish between feeling angry and being hostile. Your emotion — anger — can be a private event that only you know about. You can stand in line impatiently, feeling frustrated and just feel really angry. But you say nothing and you do nothing. Or you can start yelling at the other people in the line and let everyone in your immediate range know you are angry. When you act on your anger by yelling, criticizing, threatening, or expressing sarcasm, you are being hostile. It’s your hostility that will get you into trouble. Keep in mind that you don’t have to act out your feelings. As simple as this observation may seem, it is important. It helps you recognize that you have a choice as to what you do.
- What are the costs and benefits of being hostile? Ask yourself what the consequences have been for you and the people around you. Have you lost friends, upset your partner and your kids, gained a reputation as a difficult person? Anger can increase your blood pressure and risk of heart disease. But anger may also have benefits — at least you might think so. You might think that people will take you seriously, you will feel good about standing up for yourself, and your anger might motivate you. Look at the tradeoffs. Would you recommend that your friends become more angry? Why not?
- Take a step back. You can pull away — even for a minute or two — to think things through. You don’t have to respond immediately. Think it out — what are the consequences of being hostile? Is it worth it? Can you just let it go and accept it as a “bump in the road” as opposed to a challenge to a duel?
- What are you telling yourself that makes you so angry? You can make yourself even more angry when you take things personally, interpret other people’s behavior as intentionally provocative, view an inconvenience as if it were a catastrophe, or label the other person as a bad person. Examine your thoughts and ask yourself if this event is worth getting angry over. Ask yourself if the other person is just doing what they do — but not singling you out. Ask yourself if it might be worth accepting that people don’t always live up to your expectations — but you don’t have to upset yourself about it.
- Do you have a rulebook that makes you even more angry? You may have a list of “shoulds” about how other people should act — and these infuriate you when people don’t follow your rules. Examples are “they should drive faster,” “this line should move faster,” “people should always be polite and respectful,” “everything should be fair,” and “people shouldn’t disagree with me.” What if you dropped the rulebook and simply observed that the world is the way it is and wasn’t built for your rules?
Keep a record of the situations that lead to your anger and your hostility. Keep track of your thoughts and try to use these ideas. You might find yourself less angry — and less anxious — and the people who care about you will appreciate your progress. You can control your anger rather than let it control you.
by Robert Leahy, Ph.D.