Is there a more rational way to respond to events and circumstances you dislike? Yes – respond to frustration with a third type of anger: constructive anger.
Constructive anger involves moderate emotions like irritation, annoyance, dissatisfaction, displeasure, and disappointment. These are still angry feelings – but they will not cause you to lose your head. Constructive anger also involves moving beyond feeling angry to acting on it. In other words, doing something about the events and circumstances you dislike.
How do you make the change? Begin by giving up any moralising about your anger. Such moralising is pointless – because anger is neither ‘good’ nor ‘bad’. It is just an emotion. And it is more useful to assess emotions on their effects than it is to sermonise about them.
It is quite reasonable to feel displeased about things you do not like. It makes no sense to feel good when you do not get what you desire, or things are not as you want them to be. Anger can be constructive when it energises you to change situations you are unhappy with.
Anger only becomes a problem when it turns into hostility, gets out of proportion, and takes you over. So see anger as being neither ‘good’ nor ‘bad’. Evaluate your own feelings of anger in a practical way. Is it helping? Is it motivating you to change whatever you are unhappy with?
The next step is to tackle the demands that underlie your hostility – and change them to preferences. If you do not get what you think you ‘need’ or ‘must have’, or something does not happen as you think it ‘should’, then you will be prone to go over the top. But when a want, desire or preference is not met, you are more likely to feel disappointed or annoyed.
To help you move from demanding to preferring, ask yourself: ‘Where is it written that people should behave in certain ways, that I must never suffer bad feelings, that I need love and respect and others should give them to me, and that things generally should be the way I want?’ Recognise that in the real world, some of the time you get what you want, some of the time you do not.
When you identify the underlying rules that keep creating your anger, there are two things you can do. First, ask yourself: ’Is this rule still valid – or is it now outdated or irrelevant?
Second, what about the rules you decide are still valid? You can keep your ideals – you do not have to give away your values and forget about things which are important to you. All you do is turn them from demands back into preferences.
If you expect human beings to act imperfectly and the world to be less than fair, you are simply staying in touch with reality. You do not have to agree with the way things are – or stop trying to make changes. Just avoid any demands that past and present realities not exist when you know they already do. Then you will avoid unnecessary emotional pain. Remember: your demands will hurt you more than others.
You can also reduce your hostility by disputing the idea that people are what they do. How is it that someone who behaves stupidly, unfairly, or bastardly becomes stupid, unfair, or a bastard? Condemning the total person because of one action is like saying a car is useless because the radio does not work.
Deal with your own insecurity. Confront the idea that if people behave unfairly toward you it’s a challenge to your worth as a person. This shows that you are relying on other people always liking and accepting you in order to feel good about yourself. Deal with the underlying problem – the idea that you have to be a ‘worthy’ person. Learn how to accept yourself. Make sure, too, that you accept yourself anger and all. As we saw earlier, anger is not a moral issue. If you down yourself for getting angry, and rate yourself as an ‘angry person’, you risk living down to your label.
Is the sky really going to fall in? You can stand it when things are not as you want. After all, you are still here to tell the tale! Remind yourself that although it may be unpleasant, it is not the end of the world when things do not go right or when someone behaves badly.
But, again, keep in touch with reality. Do not try to tell yourself negative events are quite all right. This will not work – because you know it is not true. See adverse circumstances as uncomfortable, unpleasant, disappointing, or annoying – rather than disastrous or intolerable.
If you can, recheck your interpretations. Did the other person do what you are blaming them for? If they did, how do you know what goes on in their mind and what their real motivations were? How do you know they were trying to get at you? Try to think of alternative motives for their behaviour. Remember, though – do not just settle for questioning interpretations. Concentrate mainly on the evaluations that are the main cause of your hostile anger: the demanding, awfulising and discomfort-intolerance, and labelling of other people and yourself.
Rethinking your anger
To keep anger under your control, change what you tell yourself. Compare the two lists below:
Hostility-causing beliefs Rational alternatives
Others must never do anything to devalue me. The actions of others can’t ‘devalue’ me. I don’t magically change because of what others say or do.
I should be able to have the things I want, and live my life as I choose to. It is OK to want things my way (and try to achieve it), but it is not a law of the universe. It is disappointing when things go wrong, but I can stand it – . especially if I avoid demanding and catastrophising.
Other people should never behave in ways that frustrate or deprive me, or upset the stability of my existence. I’d prefer it if people didn’t do things I dislike. But, in real life, they sometimes do! Anyway, it’s not their actions . . which frustrate me – it’s my demanding thoughts.
If I didn’t get mad then things would never change. Getting mad disables me – and puts off other people from co-operating with me. I’m more likely to change things by keeping my head and being assertive rather than aggressive.
People should always behave in a correct and right fashion. In real life, people don’t always behave correctly. No amount of demanding is going to make this reality go away. Anyway, who decides what’s right?
People who behave badly are bad people – and they deserve blame and punishment. People are not what they do. Behaving badly doesn’t make someone a bad person – just a person who sometimes behaves badly.
I wouldn’t be human if I didn’t lose my cool. Just because something is human doesn’t make it desirable. Anyway, to be reasonable and understand someone else’s viewpoint is also human.
Anger is evil and destructive. Anger is neither good nor bad – it’s just an emotion. I can choose to express it constructively rather than destructively.
Acting against hostility Now it’s time to put your new rational beliefs into practice.
Change the things you dislike
As well as interrupting your hostile anger, take some steps to deal with the triggering events and circumstances. Use your frustration about something as energy to change it. Here are some action strategies to help you move from people-condemning to problem-solving:
Do something about problems before they get out of hand. Do not sit on resentments, concerns or disagreements. Address the little things as they occur – before they become big things. If you talk to other people at an early stage, you will have fewer reasons to get hostile in the first place.
Assert yourself in a level-headed manner. Communicate assertively with the people involved. Share with them what you are concerned about and what you’d like to see changed. Responsible assertiveness will increase your chances of getting what you want.
Assertiveness is not aggression. Rather, it involves saying what you think, feel and want in an honest and direct fashion – while respecting other people and taking into account their feelings and interests.
Ask the other person for their point of view. Part of assertively communicating with others is to find out what is going on for them. Check whether you are misreading their motives. If possible, ask them directly. Hear what they say without arguing until they have fully explained their point of view. Even if you end up disagreeing, to understand the other’s viewpoint can at least make it easier to ‘live and let live’.
Negotiate a solution. Assertiveness will help you work toward solutions to your concerns which everyone can live with. This may mean compromising. But it is often possible to reach a deal which is an improvement on how things are.
Keep in mind, though, that there will be some things you cannot change. So make sure you recognise and deal with any demands. Then, when you do not get what you want, you will at least be able to hack it without excess pain.
Analyse angry incidents
While these action strategies will often help you improve your circumstances, they will not deal with the underlying cause of your hostility. Deal with those irrational ideas that you need to be ‘worthy’, other people must never do anything to make you feel unworthy, and you should not have to endure the awfulness and discomfort of frustration. Analysing your angry episodes on a regular basis, using a procedure like rational self-analysis, is the most effective way to achieve fundamental and lasting change.
Do a self-analysis as soon as possible after every angry episode. This will show you what thoughts tend to make you overreact, and before long you will be able to identify these at an earlier stage. Patience and consistent hard work will pay off. If your anger is the passive type, do an analysis while you are still inwardly stewing. This will help you feel better – and free you to do something about whatever it is you are stewing over.
Note, too, that the self-analysis technique is as relevant to dealing with resentments from the past as it is to handling angry episodes in the present. If you are sitting on bad feelings about something that happened ten years ago – or twenty, or forty – analyse it. Do not hurt yourself any longer over things that are gone.