Leslie Tourish, LPC
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Years ago I worked with a guy who was really in touch with his anger. In fact, he was so in touch with the emotion that when he became enraged he would slam doors hard enough in the office for pictures and plaques to be knocked off the walls. Finally the boss, after seeing the employee’s most recent tantrum, decided enough was enough. The employee was instructed to get a lid on his anger or start packing his personal belongings from his desk into a box. For added effect, the boss placed a cardboard box on the guy’s desk. Suddenly the employee could spell the word “therapist” and began searching through the yellow pages.
A few months later he and I were talking and he said that he had a flash of insight that he finally understood through his counseling sessions. People were not “making” him mad, but instead he was upsetting himself by his belief systems that others “should” act in a certain way. He developed new tools for increasing his self-control, such as recognizing his illogical assumptions about people and events, creating positive self-talk and learning new habits, like old-fashioned counting to ten or going out for a walk until he cooled down. It must have worked because eventually the box moved off his desk, and he remained.
Generally it is our thinking and perceptions of events that make us angry. Greek philosopher Aristotle wrote, “Anybody can become angry – that is easy; but to be angry with the right person, and to the right degree, and for the right purpose, and in the right way – that is not within everybody’s power and is not easy.”
Identifying your triggers to anger helps to ferret out automatic thoughts that are often the culprits behind your slow (or fast) burn. What situations tick you off? Do you become impatient waiting in a slow grocery store line? Are you miffed when someone cuts you off in traffic? Once you’ve identified the events where you become angry, then examine what you’re telling yourself. Perhaps your thoughts sound like this: “Look at this, no matter what line I pick, it’s always the slowest one.” “These checkers are so slow! Why can’t they hire competent employees?” “Jeez, look at that guy, he just barreled right into my traffic lane – what an inconsiderate jerk! I’ll show him, I’ll ride his bumper and flash my brights at him!”
Write these thoughts down, and once you see them in black-and-white you can get a clearer picture of how your self-talk triggers your anger response about events. Often our common thinking errors are centered around unrealistic demands and the “can’t-stand-it-its.” Such as, grocery lines should always move quickly, and I can’t stand it when I get cut off in traffic.
Pulling expectations into line determines your level of anger or peace of mind. Unrealistic expectations about how people should think and act, or how events should unfold, can be the engine running our discontent at full-throttle. Also demanding that others be more like you can also add a high-octane fuel to that engine, since the only person like you, and with your exact set of beliefs, is you. Just because someone views the world differently from you does not make them wrong, but seeing red over the differences usually affects you the most. Want to turn down the heat? Turn down the anger-producing thoughts and substitute them with thoughts that are more forgiving for both you and others. While you may not have control over inconsiderate drivers or slow lines, you do have control over one very important sphere – your thoughts and actions.