This post is excerpted from Julie Christiansen’s book, Anger Solutions: Proven Strategies for Effectively Resolving Anger and Taking Control of Your Emotions. “Two ways to fail: Think without acting, Act without thinking”. How do we get this thing called anger in the first place? Isn’t that the question? Understanding how anger develops is instrumental in developing safe, appropriate and effective ways of expressing it. Let’s look first at some of the common causes or triggers of anger. You are probably thinking, “I already know what my triggers are! It’s those crazy drivers, those irritating salespeople, my boss, my whining kids…” Although we tend to think that the visible or audible stimuli in our environment are the causes or triggers for our anger, the truth lies more in the fact that those stimuli cause us to feel an emotion. The emotion that is induced by the stimulus is the actual trigger. Some of the most common causes of anger are felt emotions such as confusion, frustration and threat. Let’s take a quick look at how these words really contribute to the context of anger resolution and management.
- Over-stimulation or sensory overload. This might take the form of too much noise, too much traffic, too many people talking at once with the stereo blasting and the phone ringing, etc.
- Lack of oxygen to the brain. (Poor breathing techniques can contribute to this. We will discuss the value of good breathing later on.)
- Misperception of verbal communication due to poor filtering.
- Misperception of physical communication due to poor filtering.
- Misinterpretation of verbal and/or physical communication due to cognitive deficit (developmental delay, brain injury).
Consider this example of how frustration translates into anger.
I want my voice to be heard. I feel like no one is listening. My desire is not being fulfilled therefore I feel frustrated. I want to attract attention, but no one is noticing. I feel more frustrated… My frustration goes unanswered… I feel anger…
I once had a dream that clearly reinforces this concept. In my dream, I was desperately trying to dial 911 to report a severe beating of a woman outside my house. The first difficulty was that I had no dial tone due to someone else being connected to my line. I could not convince this person to hang up so I could connect with 911, nor could I communicate effectively how dire the need was that we get an ambulance. In the background, the noise level was mounting.
Since I could not convince the other party to get off my line, I asked them to get hold of 911 services for me. They agreed, but when I had finally completed giving them instructions to my house and I asked them if they had received all the information, there was no one there! As you can imagine my level of panic and frustration was mounting steadily as was the volume of noise in the background. Finally, in my dream, my state of anxiety continued to increase until I “blasted”, and what a blast it was! Needless to say, I awoke with a start and had a bit of trouble getting back to sleep afterward.
The process of mounting frustration and panic that took place in my dream is typical of what happens in our everyday lives, although not necessarily in that intensity. “Frustration” happens when your desired goals appear to be unattainable. Anger happens when “frustration” begins to build into an emotional crescendo.
The most important factor that I believe contributes to the escalation of anger is this: EXPECTATIONS. According to William Glasser, the author of Choice Theory, we all filter the stimuli we receive in the “real” world through our senses, our values, and our expectations. This filtered information is the “perceived” world. We tend to think of our perceptions as reality – the way things truly are; however, we must remember that our perceptions are coloured or impacted by our personal filters. This is why two people can see the same movie, witness the same accident, or look at the same beautiful person and have different reactions, thoughts, or ideas about what they saw.
Now, the problem lies here: in addition to our perceived reality, we also have an IDEAL world – our expectation of how things “should” be. For example, your kids should clean up their room, your husband should be considerate, the wife should always have dinner on the table, your boss should respect your intelligence and ability… but often our perceived world doesn’t match up to our ideal world. When there is enough of a discrepancy between what we WANT and what we think we HAVE, anger can develop. It may begin with disappointment, frustration, or irritation, but the more unhappy we are with our perceived world, the easier it will be to respond in anger.
Often when we receive that FRUSTRATION signal to the brain, we revert to whatever comes naturally for us. One typical approach is to ACT without THINKING – this is to externalize our feelings through acting out behaviours – yelling, physical actions, slamming doors, threatening, throwing things, driving too fast, etc. The other option is to THINK without ACTING – this is to internalize feelings, hiding them from the world and using self-blame or perhaps other-blame in a very personal quiet way, while never actually talking about or doing something about those feelings. Either way, this creates a sense of imbalance. The only way to achieve balance is through a process of self-evaluation, which I have discussed often in this blog:
T: Think – what is happening? what does it mean? how do I feel about it? what should I do about my feelings? what is the best thing that can happen if I do this? what is the worst thing that can happen if I do this?
S: Say – Talk to the person with whom you have the problem, or the one who can help you resolve it. Use assertive language – I feel … because…
A: Ask – Invite the other party to engage in a dialogue with you to work at resolving the issue that is presenting itself. See if you can work together to achieve an outcome that is desirable for you both.
Remember that you cannot and must not ask for some input then walk away once the person starts to talk! If you start the dialogue, see it through. Remember that if you expect people to hear you out, you must extend the same courtesy to them. So hear them out, and if you disagree, then so be it! At least you are talking about it now, and even if all that comes of the dialogue is that you agree to disagree, you will still have come a long way from feeling hurt or angry.