Even Psychologists Get Angry
“Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.” – Leo Tolstoy
Anger, like our other emotions, is supposed to help us. We’re all biologically hard-wired to feel it. So how can things go so wrong with it? It’s meant to mobilize and prepare us for dealing with threats. The problem is when our reaction is out of proportion to the situation and most of our “threats” don’t have to be perceived as threats. My clients with anger concerns see me because their anger is too frequent, too intense, manifests as aggression, and has a negative impact on work and/or relationships.
A bit of self-disclosure. I know anger. There’s one situation that was guaranteed to get my blood boiling; someone pulling in front of me when driving and not offering the polite courtesy wave.
My response to this situation was out of proportion to the situation. I didn’t like my reaction but, as is common with anger, it took me a while to honestly want to change it. Anger is really easy to justify from the inside. However, this was out of character for me and didn’t fit with my “ideal self”. I eventually decided it was time to practice what I preach and apply to myself what I know.
What did I do?
- I had to cut through the rationalizing and minimizing and find my personal motivators for change. It was bad enough that I was swimming in cortisol, with tense shoulders around my ears, a spike in heart rate and blood pressure, and shallow breathing. However, what really motivated me was the impact on others, especially as it was tough to shake off the experience for the rest of the day.
- I “got curious” and looked at the interactions between situational factors and the different components of anger: subjective feeling(s), physical, thinking, and behaviours.
- I took an honest look at other emotions underlying the anger. Anger is the ultimate cover-up for vulnerable emotions that may actually be tougher to handle (powerless, insignificant, invisible, embarrassment about my reaction).
- I used relaxation strategies to calm the body and keep my hands on the wheel instead of giving the exaggerated aggressive wave in return.
- I had to challenge the cascade of unhelpful thoughts that fuelled the anger such as “what a jerk”, “how dare he”, “who does he think he is”, “he should know better”. There are some predictable thinking traps we fall into when angry such as assuming malicious intent, should thinking, and labeling. I also had to stop ruminating about the incident. It actually takes a lot of energy to keep anger going. I practiced imagining handling it better. I had to challenge my sense of “being right” and more general thoughts about “unfairness” and “others are inconsiderate”.
I am pleased to report that I got over this situation. Like an old cassette tape where you can hear a trace of a song that’s been recorded over, I get a “trace” of my old reaction but it feels good to “let it go”, that I have successfully changed it.
This may seem like a pretty minor example but the underlying anger process is remarkably similar to other examples. Motivation is a key factor with anger. I typically see two limiting ideas that need to be challenged early in therapy: “At least I get my anger out” and “I have no control over my anger”. Once readier for change, therapy can involve: identifying and managing triggers; relaxation training; cognitive restructuring; communication training; and learning to deal with other emotions.
There is hope for change. Want to read more?