- The CBT position on anger is an empowering one: events of the world or other people are not the primary determinants of anger, rather your own thoughts are the biggest contributor. Specifically, your judgments — a polite way of saying your demands — are the primary culprit.How is this empowering? The notion that you are primarily responsible for your anger enables you to have a good deal of say over how long and how intensely you feel angry and, importantly, over how, when and whether to express your anger.By recognizing the role you play in creating anger, you are not at the mercy of events or behavior of others that you really can’t control Nor are you at the mercy of your spiraling reaction of anger.
- So, what are the thoughts that result in destructive anger? Albert Ellis, a pioneer of cognitive therapy, identified the essential quality of intense and destructive anger: our judgments and evaluations. That’s right, it is our judgments and evaluations of frustrating events or undesirable behavior of others that constitute the largest component of anger. Ellis boiled these judgments down to three declarative sentences:
“You (or the world) SHOULDN’T be behaving this way?”
“It’s AWFUL — that is, godawful — you are behaving this way?”
“I CAN,T STAND this behavior.”
- Really? That’s it? Yes. Examine your episodes of intense and destructive anger and see if these basic judgments aren’t there.
- What can be done about intense anger? Oh, that’s simple, just not easy. Not easy because these judgments are very understandable, nearly universal and probably hard-wired into the our brain. Nevertheless you can work at developing a more tolerant, accepting and tough-minded view of our polarized, maddening world, and imperfections of our loved ones and colleagues. Such a view can result in a different set of judgments.Instead of:
“Wall Street shouldn’t have gotten away with this!”
“My beloved shouldn’t have criticized my outfit!”
You can reason:
“Even though I have every right to be unhappy, irritated, put off, even deeply offended (if the upsetting event cuts against your core values) by X, there simply is no rule of the universe that says X shouldn’t happen.”
“It is undesirable, perhaps even really, really lousy that x happened, but I had better accept that it did happen.”
“And accept does not mean resign. I can consider whether there is some constructive response to x.”
“It’s awful that Wall Street got away with ……”
“It’s awful that my beloved criticized …….”
You can reason:
“When I say X is awful I rally mean (and feel) it is godawful, 100% awful. But is it, really?”
“On a scale of 1 – 100 of bad things happening, how awful is it? Don’t minimize the damage, but push yourself to make an accurate assessment of the damage (e.g. Wall Street shenanigans resulted in significant, but not 100% catastrophic damage) or unfairness (e.g. did not life mange to move on after your spouse criticized you at a dinner party?)
“I can’t stand that Wall Street …”
“I can’t stand that my spouse …”
You can reason:
“Who are you kidding? Of course you can stand these injustices. You always have. But by saying you just can’t stand undesirable behavior in others, you demonize them, enter the world of obsessive, preoccupying anger, and set yourself up for lashing out at others.”
- So, change these judgments and…..just be happy? No, maybe not even close to being happy. But changing these judgments will empower you, eliminate a layer of unnecessary and unproductive suffering, and enhance your ability to respond effectively to upsetting situations. However, you will still live in the world of difficult and upsetting situations.
- So, the prescription for happiness is …? Just stay angry, my friend. Oops, I meant stay concerned, disappointed, unhappy or even outraged with injustice, open to complexity, receptive to suffering, keyed in to yours and others fallibility. That is stay engaged, particularly to the difficult stuff. This doesn’t guarantee happiness, but will promote being happier. (All the research on happiness supports this assertion, but that’s a longer conversation and for a different blog post).
- Any final tips? Yes. Take a situation that has enraged you and replay it in your mind. As you picture it in your mind, try to reason ( using the arguments outlined above ) yourself into a less enraged, more accepting state. In a small but significant way, this will help rewire some of the anger producing connections in your brain and help prepare you for difficulties in the future. For example, the upsetting event I picked was in 2000 when the Supreme Court stopped the recount in Florida and issued Bush v. Gore. When I recounted this, I was able to….oh well, let’s not go there.