Do you know what the worst feeling in the world is?
For me, it’s regret. The regret of knowing that I screamed and shouted at my loved ones—again.
I yelled. I was mean. I tried to prove someone wrong. I wanted my words to cause pain.
Anger is a nasty business.
But I’m not the only one suffering from a bad temper. From ancient philosophers to neuroscientists today, people have been and still are studying anger.
Why do we completely lose control? Where does this emotion come from? And what are the best anger management techniques?
Let’s find the answers.
Anger Messes With Your Brain
The Cow in the Parking Lot (CPL) explains how the story of anger starts in the brain.
The part of your brain that gets activated when you are angry is the amygdala. Its role is straightforward: it helps you deal with emergencies. It’s an alarm that screams ‘Danger!’ whenever you are in trouble.
Luckily, another part of your brain helps keep you sane—the neocortex. It is the logical and rational part of your brain.
The triune model of the brain puts these parts in an evolutionary context. Having evolved early in the evolutionary history of life, the amygdala is similar in all mammals, including humans. The neocortex, on the other hand, is the newest part of the brain to evolve and is exceptionally large in humans, giving us our superior intelligence.
When you are angry, however, the amygdala can take complete control of your behaviour. ‘The amygdala’s response’, explains the book, ‘is automatic and instantaneous . . .’ The result is that you freak out, leaving the people around you stunned. To borrow a phrase from the science journalist Daniel Goleman, you have just become a victim of ‘amygdala hijacking’.
By the time your rational brain—the neocortex—gets back in action, the damage is already done. CPL describes your predicament:
In other words, when we are in the throes of anger, we don’t have access to our rational faculties, which helps explain why we often act stupidly when we act out of anger. Later, after an outburst, we often say, ‘What was I thinking?’ Well, the point is, you weren’t.
This is a big problem, yet it’s one with a solution. Instead of letting anger destroy your relationships, you can use anger to empower them.
Here is how.
Anger is a Signal
The Center for Evolutionary Psychology, UCSB suggests that anger is a signal that alerts you to ‘interpersonal conflicts of interest‘. In plain words, anger is a signal that something is wrong. This happens to be the only empowering way to look at anger.
Sadly, the signal doesn’t tell you what is wrong or how to fix it. It just tells you something needs your attention.
Perhaps the other person did something that you found unacceptable. Maybe you need to have a heart-to-heart conversation with a loved one who has been acting unfairly.
Or, perhaps there is something wrong with how you have been interacting with the world. Maybe you are, unintentionally, causing the angry situation yourself.
The point is that there is something underneath your anger and you need to fix that. Letting anger control your behaviour will not solve your problem. Unless you fix the underlying problem today, it will continue to make you angry tomorrow. On the other hand, dealing directly with the problem will empower you and your relationships.
How You Make Yourself Angry
Just like everyone, I dream of a perfect and frictionless world, but that world may never come.
The reality is that people are sometimes impatient and a bit rude. Our loved ones have their flaws, and even kind people make mistakes now and then.
In our imperfect world, you can choose to spend your life trying to fix everyone around you, but I feel that is a hopelessly impossible task. Because there is only one person you can change—yourself. Personal development is possible.
The question to ask yourself is ‘Am I contributing to my anger in any way?’ Here are a few things to think about.
‘Don’t be one of those angry people who go around expecting loved ones to read their minds’, says CPL, ‘and then get furious when their unspoken demand is not divined and met’.
While your needs may be blindingly obvious to you, your partner may see things differently. Our emotional needs are unique, and not stating them is like playing a guessing game with our loved ones. Predictably, this leads to angry situations.
CPL further warns us: ‘That kind of person often labours under another expectation: If you really cared [loved me], you would know what I want.’
To be sure, talking openly about your needs is tough. Your natural inclination will be to avoid such conversations, as they make you feel vulnerable. Nevertheless, the results will be worth it—a deep sense of understanding and trust.
A trigger is a sensitive issue that will immediately make you furious.
Your triggers come from insecurities about values that are close to your heart. CPL lists out the usual triggers: honour, independence, approval, jealousy, pride, and respect.
Want to know my trigger? It’s independence. I freak out the moment anyone tells me what to do—’I hate being ordered around!’
It’s perfectly normal to have triggers, as everybody has them. When you are triggered, however, you end up making a big deal out of nothing.
Fortunately, dealing with your triggers is easy. ‘Naming your buttons . . . can go a long way to deactivating them’, advises CPL. Thus, all you need to do is to be aware of them. This simple awareness will stop you from hitting the ceiling the next time you face a trigger.
So, what are your triggers?
I read about ‘storytelling’ in Crucial Conversations. It made a surprising claim: what other people do doesn’t make us angry.
At least, not directly.
After someone does something and before we feel angry—we tell ourselves a story. ‘[W]e add meaning to the action we observed’, points out Crucial Conversations. ‘To simple behaviour we add motive. Why were they doing that? We also add judgement—is that good or bad?’
We feel emotions based on the stories we make up. Just the facts can’t make us emotional. When someone doesn’t pick up my call, I can begin to tell myself, ‘She’s started avoiding me. I guess she thinks I’m boring and she probably doesn’t care about me anymore. . . .’ That’s my story, but the facts are simply—I called, and she didn’t pick up.
We often confuse the stories in our heads for the truth, but they are only stories. Even for a routine incident, like a missed phone call, you can choose to tell many different types of stories.
An out-of-control story is dangerous, as our stories control our emotions. Our emotions, in turn, control our behaviour, observes Crucial Conversations.
So what can we do about it?
Learn to separate fact from story. Anything that someone actually said or did is a fact. The rest is storytelling.
Out of Control Stress
It’s easy to get angry when you are stressed.
Sadly, stress is an unavoidable part of life. Everywhere you look there are deadlines, targets, expenses, and problems. Plus, our world is a dynamic one, where new opportunities and threats keep cropping up, leaving us in a blind panic to catch up.
Unresolved stress, however, can make you a ticking time bomb for your family. The solution is to make stress management a part of your life.
It’s time—finally!—to discuss what to do when you find yourself having an angry outburst.
Although we have discussed several steps to make our relationships harmonious, you will still get angry every so often. It doesn’t matter how many hours you meditate in a day, you can’t completely eliminate anger. It’s a part of life.
The first step of anger management is simply to calm down.
When you are angry, your mind and body are ready to fight. If you don’t calm down soon, you’ll end up making the situation worse.
Here are some ways to cool off, suggested by Healthline:
- Take a few deep breaths. (This one is my favourite.)
- Repeat a calming word or phrase to yourself, such as ‘Relax’ or ‘Take it easy’.
- Slowly count to 10.
- Take a timeout, sitting away from others.
- Distract yourself by going for a walk, working out, writing, or drawing.
The second step of anger management is to fix the underlying problem.
In The Disease to Please, the psychologist Harriet Braiker emphasises that you must address and resolve your conflicts if you want a happy relationship. ‘Happy couples resolve their conflicts; unhappy couples, as a general rule, do not’, she writes. ‘As a result, unhappy couples fight about the same issues over and over again.’
There is no packaged formula here. It all depends on why you are angry.
Is it a trivial argument with a random stranger? I’m embarrassed to admit it, but I’ve screamed at delivery agents and Uber drivers. Don’t make the same mistakes.
Is it a recurring theme with someone close to you? Talking openly about your feelings would be the best thing to do.
Don’t be tempted by the two self-defeating strategies that Crucial Conversations calls ‘silence’ and ‘violence’. Silence is the silent-treatment, sarcasm, or subtle insults. It also includes looks of disgust and not delivering on your promises. Violence includes verbal attacks, biased monologues, name-calling, cutting others off, overstating your facts, and speaking in absolutes.
Finally, the book reminds us that sharing honest feedback doesn’t require you to destroy your precious relationships. It’s possible to speak openly and to be respectful, at the same time.
Over to You
Life has its ups and downs.
Even so, you’ve just taken a step to make yours a bit more beautiful and loving—congratulations!
It’s alright if you lose your temper sometimes—you don’t need perfection. Just be happy that you are improving and so are your relationships.
Welcome to your new life.
As you would have noticed, I’ve referred to The Cow in the Parking Lot and Crucial Conversations several times. These books have many ideas that I haven’t covered here, so I recommend that you read them as well.