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by Stuart Sorensen – RMN
Before we begin learning how to manage anger let’s think about what causes it – where anger comes from. Understanding what anger is, how it begins and the part we play in our angry feelings we’ll be much better equipped to deal with it.
Anger is the result of two main factors. The first is to do with the physical feelings we experience in the body – the physiology of anger. This is exactly the same as the physiology of anxiety – it’s only our thinking which makes the difference. The physiology of anxiety has been covered in another handout so I won’t repeat it here. For more information on this fascinating topic take a look at understanding anxiety management 1 in this series of handouts.
The second factor is concerned with out thoughts and expectations, the way we think about and interpret the situation. This is the psychology of anger. For example if we see a man hit his son and believe him to be right in doing so we probably won’t get angry. On the other hand if we believe that he is being unfair or cruel we may well become very angry indeed at the thought. It isn’t what happens which makes us angry so much as the way we think about what happens.
Many psychologists would argue that all anger begins with blame. We get angry at something. It isn’t always easy to work out exactly what we’re angry at but that doesn’t mean it isn’t there. Usually the focus of our anger is obvious but in some cases it takes a little work to find the exact root of our angry feelings. Most forms of counseling or psychotherapy are helpful here.
Blame can be divided into three main categories. To put it another way there are three main areas in which we can apply blame. These are:1. The self
This type of blame is what we call guilt and not only leads to anger but also depression and a range of self-destructive behaviors.2. Other people
This type of blame can result in many forms of anger as well as a wide range of relationship difficulties.
3 The ‘system’
By the ‘system’ we mean anything bigger than ourselves, from the laws of nature to the legal system. It can be something as simple as the weather we get angry about, blaming the clouds for raining on us when they ought to have made way for the sun. Remember that word ought, it’s one of a group of words such as should or must which we call imperatives. Without imperatives there can be no blame and without blame anger cannot exist.
This sounds like a simple explanation – too simple perhaps. Too good to be true? Please remember that simple doesn’t mean easy. There’s nothing ‘easy’ about learning to control anger however uncomplicated the idea may be. Anger management does become easy with practice but in the beginning it requires hard work and commitment. The chance to learn anger management is a very real opportunity to change your life for the better but, like most opportunities, it comes dressed in working clothes.
A good way to begin is to ask yourself where the imperatives are. Whenever you become angry listen to your own thoughts and look for sentences containing words like should, must or ought. Also watch out for injunctions like mustn’t, oughtn’t and shouldn’t. Once you identify these judgments you’ll find the blame. Then all you need to do is stop blaming.
Yes, I know it isn’t easy to stop blaming. Most of us have been brought up to blame ourselves, others or the system and it’s become a thinking habit. Don’t worry – there’s a simple system we can use based upon simple empathy and understanding.
Stop blaming others
There’s an old North American Indian saying which asks us never to judge another until we’ve walked a mile in his moccasins. To put it another way just bear in mind that if you’d been through what he had, been brought up the same way he had and learned the same lessons and had the same experiences that he had you’d probably react in exactly the same way. That doesn’t mean you have to agree with everything someone does, simply try to understand why he or she did it. Acknowledging another person’s faults is one thing – blaming them for it is quite another.
When you catch yourself using an imperative or an injunction as an excuse to get angry ask yourself the one question you won’t want to answer. Ask yourself why you are wrong. Force yourself to come up with as many reasons as you can to justify the other person’s action. As a rule you’ll not only stop blaming them but also alter your own stance in very many situations.
Stop blaming the system
Even if the other person’s action is completely indefensible we still don’t need to become angry. All we need to do is accept things as they are and then work to make them better. The world is full of people who behave inappropriately and even cruelly – that’s just the way it is. That’s the ‘system’ if you will. The world is as it is because the world is as it is! You might as well blame the stars for shining at night or blame a cat for not being an earthworm. We live in an imperfect world – accept it.
The way to stop blaming the system is to stop pretending that the world ought to be other than it is. Who are you trying to kid? Listen for yourself saying things like ‘things should be better’ or ‘it isn’t fair’. Of course it isn’t fair – it’s life. Whoever said life should be fair? Life just is. You can either accept it for what it is or ruin your quality of life blaming and becoming angry about the system you can never hope to change.
God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change
The courage to change the things I can
And the wisdom to know the difference.
Stop blaming yourself
Have you ever met the perfect person – I mean really perfect. The one person in a thousand million who hasn’t any faults; who never made a mistake or error in judgment? Of course you haven’t because that person doesn’t exist. We all make mistakes. That’s part of being human. Part of the system. Making mistakes is how we learn.
If you blame yourself and become angry because you did something wrong (made an error in judgment or anything else) then what you’re really saying is I shouldn’t have made a mistake. Even a criminal act intentionally committed is actually no more than an error in judgment. You made a mistake. If you expect yourself not to make mistakes or judgment errors you actually expect yourself to be more than human. Who are you, God?
Once you get it into your head that you’re allowed to make mistakes (whatever the consequences) – in fact it’s inevitable that you will – the need for self-blame goes away. Then you can get on with the far more serious business of living. Of course if you choose to blame yourself for your mistakes then that’s your right and your business. Just understand that you’re expecting yourself to be more than you ever can be and then pulling yourself down for failing. Doesn’t make much sense really does it?
If you do decide to work on your anger producing beliefs the list below may be useful. It shows examples of beliefs and attitudes which lead to blame and anger together with suggested alternatives. You may want to go over these suggestions with your counselor or therapist as well. However remember that not all therapists work the same way. If yours prefers to try another approach please don’t let this handout get in the way.
Beliefs which lead to blame and anger:
The world should treat me better than this.
Why? Who said so? The world is what it is and it does what it does. I can accept reality or I can ruin my life wishing it were different.
I shouldn’t make mistakes.
I will make mistakes whether I want to or not. That’s just the way it is. Believing that I shouldn’t and then blaming myself when I do is just setting myself up for a fall. It’s better to accept that mistakes happen and that I can learn and grow from them. That’s how I develop into a better person for the future.
Other people should behave the way I want them to.
I’m not judge and jury. Other people do what they do for their own reasons. If I disagree with their behavior so be it. I can choose either to accept it or to take steps to make sure they don’t treat me badly. Let’s face it most of the things other people do don’t affect anybody else anyway. When they do I can still take action without getting bogged down in blame and anger.
Needless to say there are countless examples of these blame-producing thoughts. These are just to give you an idea of the sort of things to look out for. Once you begin practicing this style of thinking you’ll soon recognize many more. For more information talk to your counselor or nurse.
Tulloch R. (1990) in
Dryden W. & Scott M. – Eds. (1990)
An Introduction to Cognitive Behaviour Therapy
Liverpool Personal Service Society / Gale Centre Publications
Compliments of Stuart Sorensen – RMN
Copyright © Patty Fleener, M.S.W. All rights reserved.