Mediation Resources

The Anatomy of Anger

Sounds easy doesn’t it? Then why is it difficult to remain composed when we’re aggravated, frustrated, exasperated, or just plain old pissed-off?

The Anatomy of Anger

By Oliver Ross, JD, PHD.

“When angry, count to ten before you speak; if very angry, a hundred” – Thomas Jefferson

Sounds easy doesn’t it? Then why is it difficult to remain composed when we’re aggravated, frustrated, exasperated, or just plain old pissed-off? Why do we sometimes lose control, reacting in hostile, counterproductive, or childlike ways toward our spouse, child, parent, friends, and coworkers? And, anyway, what can we do about it? Certain people and things just make us angry. We can’t help it! It just happens.

Do we have a choice whether to be angry? Can we opt not to feel upset, furious, or resentful? Based on my own experiences, as well as helping others deal with anger in my role as a professional mediator, I have come to know that the answer to both of these questions is unequivocally, yes! Here’s why.

Simply put, we get angry when people, situations, and other stimuli don’t meet our expectations – our thoughts about the future, what we look forward to or wait for.

“Expectation is the greatest source of unhappiness.” God, as transcribed by Neale Donald Walsch.

Our expectations can motivate us toward achievement and attainment of goals. However, when entangled with early childhood thinking, they are likely to cause anger and other feelings of unhappiness.

Early in life, we feel omnipotent, all-powerful, in control. We expect to control mom, dad, and others, getting them to fulfill our needs and desires. We also expect to be able to control situations and outcomes of events. As we mature, we realize that our expectations may be unrealistic, that we may not have any real external control, that we may be able to influence certain other people and situations, but we cannot actually control them, or necessarily determine what will happen in the future. To expect otherwise is to fall prey to the “illusion of control.”

When our standards (of good and bad, of right and wrong) are unmet as expected, we may unconsciously revert to early childhood thinking. It is then that we slip into the illusion of control, unrealistically expecting all people to behave and all situations to turn out as we think they should. Thus, we unwittingly set ourselves up for unhappiness: disappointment, anger, resentment, rage, and the like.

In my own life I am now able to see the connection between my control-based expectations and negative feelings. In my prior marriage, I expected my wife to help and comfort me when I was upset or frightened. If she was indifferent or could not meet my need, I became angry and over time resentful. In college and law school, I expected good grades. When my expectations were unmet, I was angry and unhappy. While building a law firm, I expected my associates and partners to be workaholic, as was I. When they weren’t, I became filled with anger and rage. In these instances I slipped into the illusion of control, expecting my wife to behave in unaccustomed ways, my grades to be uniformly good, and for my associates to be workaholic.

Today, in my mediation practice, I work with divorcing couples, co-workers who aren’t getting along, and other people in conflict. Time and again I watch them become frustrated, angry, and hostile, all a result of having slipped in control-based expectations of one another. Helping them recognize these control-based expectations is essential to real movement toward agreement.

“Anger co-opts our energy by diverting it toward punitive action.” – Marshall B. Rosenberg, Ph.D.

When we slip into the illusion of control and revert to early childhood thinking and behavior, we are set up for errors in thinking. Feeling angry and unhappy for not realizing our expectations, we often incorrectly assign blame to others, shifting to them the responsibility for our feelings. We rationalize: “she made me angry.” We are unable to see that no other person or situation can make us angry. It is our own thoughts, our expectations, which are to “blame” for our anger. We mistake the stimulus (in the form of a person, a thing, or an event) for the cause. Blind to reality, we are unable to see that we have slipped into the omnipotent thinking of early childhood – erroneously expecting to be in control.

Sliding farther down this slippery slope, on an unconscious level we are likely to deny responsibility for our thoughts in other ego-defensive ways. We are apt to judge people, situations, and other stimuli as bad, sick, crazy, and evil. Or, we may characterize the outcome of a situation or event as ridiculous, stupid, unfair, or unjust. In this way, we once again mistake the stimulus for the cause, shifting responsibility for our unhappiness to someone, or something, else. We are also likely to act upon these erroneous thoughts, behaving in counterproductive, frequently juvenile ways toward the blameless stimulus.

I can see in my own life how this fall into blame and judgment occurred with my brother in connection with our parents. The slightest involvement with him would trigger me into anger and resentment. Today, I realize that I repeatedly mistook and resented my brother for my own unfulfilled expectations of him. He was the stimulus, not the cause of my anger.

As a mediator, I consistently witness this fall. People in conflict typically have numerous unmet expectations of one another, which are likely to function as catalysts for outbursts of anger, hostility, and resentment. A significant part of my job, as I will explain later, is to help disputants recognize their control-based expectations, and then replace them with realistic expectations and goals.

In summary, it is our unmet expectations which usually cause anger — not other people or events. Falling prey to the illusion of control, we mistake the stimulus for the cause of our anger, and then blame, judge, label, and otherwise shift responsibility away from the true cause of our unhappiness: our control-based expectations.

“A tamed mind brings happiness.” – The Buddha

Most of us are powerless to prevent certain thoughts from coming to mind. They come and go, seemingly at random, entering our heads without invitation, at times becoming obsessive. We may be powerless over the feelings generated by our thoughts; however, we are not helpless! We can stop reacting to the feelings generated by unmet expectations, and, instead, start responding.

Re-acting is the reliving of an unconscious pattern; it’s habitual, automatic, something you don’t think about. Responding, on the other hand, involves choice, conscious awareness that we can choose our thoughts – and thereby redirect our feelings and behavior.

Thus, we can tame our mind to stop reacting, and start responding. Indeed, this is the first step toward happiness. Rather than re-acting as we have in the past, we can take response-ability for our thoughts. We can decide, make our minds up, to be happy.

“Most folks are as happy as they make their minds up to be.” – Abraham Lincoln

If we are to have any chance at all of choosing whether or not to be angry, we must first master our reactions – the feelings and behavior generated by old, habitual, unconscious, childlike thoughts. In my experience this requires active intervention, some contrary action that provides the time and space needed to break out of reactivity. Here are some of the actions I took, and suggest you consider.

Sometimes I followed Thomas Jefferson’s advice, counting to ten or twenty. In other situations where I anticipated problems, I placed a rubber band around my wrist, snapping it to shock myself into consciousness. Today, I most often use affirmations or a favorite prayer, calling on a power greater than myself to break the chain of reactivity.

No matter what the method, the task is to stop re-acting. Until we change our pattern of reactivity, we remain enslaved to environmental stimuli, unconscious of the thoughts that generate our anger, blind to their inaccuracy. Any action that functions to stop our fall into the illusion of control will do. If nothing more, simply bite your tongue. The important thing is to build an arsenal of mental practices, tools, which are instantly accessible to create a moment in time in which you can choose to change your thoughts.

“Change your thoughts and you change your world.” – Norman Vincent Peele

Once out of reaction and into response, out of unconsciousness into consciousness, there is the opportunity to trace anger or other feelings back to their source. We can then re-examine our expectations, determining if they are control-based and, if so, change our thoughts accordingly.

For example, I used to be triggered by my former father-in-law, frequently getting angry and acting out in hostile ways. This is when I learned about using a rubber band to snap out of reactivity. Now, I realize that the use of a rubber band in this way (or the use of any of the other tools I’ve mentioned), provides the moment in time needed to ferret out the expectations causing my anger. Then, I have the opportunity to look at the situation realistically, perhaps remembering that I have no control over anyone else – what they say, do, or think – and that my own control-based expectations have caused my anger.

Another, perhaps more advanced way, to discover the expectations causing anger is to use the word “ANGER” as an acronym. First, concentrate on “A”cknowledging the anger, and “N”ormalizing it as very common and human. Next, think about your “G”oals in relation to the other person or situation. For example, when angered by my wife I’m apt to think about my goal to have a loving and caring relationship with her. Since goals are necessarily future oriented, focusing on them helps to redirect our thoughts away from the past, away from re-action, to the present.

The next step is to think about the accuracy your “E”xpectations. Are they grounded in reality, accurate in relation to the people or circumstances with which you are presently involved? If so, anger may be an appropriate response. On the other hand, are your expectations so entangled with early childhood thinking that you fell prey to the illusion of control, getting angry because you mistook the stimulus for the cause? The task here is to trace your feelings back to their origin: your expectations.

By tracing our feelings and behavior back to their source, we free ourselves of enslavement to reactivity. Moreover, we afford ourselves the opportunity to “R”espond, selecting our thoughts, and thereby generating feelings and behavior which are in furtherance of our goals.

Initially use of this acronym may be difficult and awkward. With practice, however, it can become a readily available mental tool for responding rather than reacting. Indeed, it has become very helpful in my mediation practice. When anger surfaces, I use this acronym to redirect it. First, I acknowledge and normalize the anger, commenting in a divorce situation for example, that anger is a necessary stage in the grieving process endemic to the loss of any significant relationship. Next, I remind the angry person of the goals they established at the beginning of the mediation (e.g., getting their issues resolved quickly, inexpensively, and smoothly in terms of stress and strain). Finally, I ask the angry person if it’s realistic to expect that the other person will all of a sudden change, and then discuss what response (rather than reaction) would best help them accomplish their goals.

Again, the important thing is to develop a readily available method for escaping the dark and narrow place of reactivity, reaching, if you will, the Promised Land, the place where you are free to choose your thoughts. This method, or tool, will allow for the shift of consciousness (awareness) necessary to return from the past to the present, selecting the many options or alternatives which are usually available and best suite the situation. Then, when someone does or says something that doesn’t live up to your expectations, you will have the freedom to see the situation clearly. Instead of unconsciously reverting to childhood thinking, reacting to certain stimuli, you will have the opportunity to examine your expectations, change your thoughts, and decide upon the best course of action.

“Keep adding little by little and you will soon have a big hoard.” – Latin Proverb

My journey from reaction to response has unfolded over the course of many years, and continues. In changing my thoughts and behaviors, I have learned to be gentle with myself, striving for progress, not perfection. And, it has all been wonderfully worthwhile. No longer am I helplessly blown by the winds of unconscious control-based expectations. With continued practice and discipline, I am increasingly able to respond rather than react.

Furthermore, and much to my surprise and delight, as a result of developing this ability, maturing in this way, I am now developing the ability to replace control-based expectations with “benevolent-based thoughts” – thoughts grounded in the desire to be good to myself and others. This, for me, is the greatest miracle of all. It has led to an abundance of serenity and joy, as well as growing compassion, enabling me to respond to situations with humility, relating to other people as one human being, one soul, to another.

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