We have found that the
most effective way of beginning to use anger, rather than be used up by
it, not surprisingly involves beginning with the Master Strategy. First,
remember to breathe. Take a couple of deep diaphragmatic breaths and
then shift your attention to your muscles, particularly the muscles in
the shoulders, neck, and jaw. Take a moment to relax these. Then assume
the witnessing stance. Look at the situation from the outside. Ask
yourself, “How can I look at this differently?”
Look for Comedy
involves viewing your life as a sitcom in progress. It asks that you
think of yourself as a comedy writer of your own life. In almost all
situations, an element of humor or absurdity can be found if you look at
it from a different perspective, and seeing the humor inherent in a
situation effectively defuses much of the anger. Think for a moment; if
you were an objective, uninvolved bystander witnessing your situation,
could any aspect of your circumstance be seen as humorous? Who is your
favorite stand-up comedian? If that person were observing what was
happening to you, what pithy or funny remarks would he or she make about
you or your dilemma? You can probably remember times when you witnessed
an event where a friend, colleague, or relative became angry, while you
had a hard time keeping a straight face because you could see the
absurdity in the situation. You can do this with yourself as well. As a
matter of fact, almost any situation will seem funny when you are
looking back at it after the passage of time. Realize that you have the
choice to imagine that time has already passed when you are involved in
your particular dramas.
The Unfolding Drama Viewpoint
useful reframe involves looking at your situation from a frame of
reference in which you view your life as an unfolding drama for the
benefit and entertainment of a higher being. And why not? Your life is
God's gift to you. How you live it is your gift to God.
Write a Chapter in Your Life
A related reframe is
to consider that your life is a novel in progress, and what is happening
to you at any moment can make for a fascinating chapter in the book
that is your life. How can you write this chapter, taking into account
what you will ultimately learn from the experience?
We find that any of these
perspectives will help to get you unstuck from the anger of the moment.
If none of these appeal to you, can you think of others that would
serve you better? Take some time to reflect on this now.
Case Study 1 in Anger Control: Road Rage
Sally is a
high-powered executive who works downtown in a major metropolitan area.
She enjoys the excitement and cultural amenities of the big city, but
she prefers to live in a more rural atmosphere. To accomplish this aim,
she purchased a home on the outskirts of the suburbs in an area that
still feels like the country. This also enables her to have a lot of
land and a barn in which to keep her horse. The price of this is that
she has a very long commute, in rush-hour traffic, to and from her job.
On a good day it takes her forty-five minutes to get to the office, and
most days it takes over an hour to reach work. She hates the drive, but
she is very satisfied with her job, and has no desire to move closer to
work and lose the country environment she cherishes.
Lately Sally has
found herself frequently engulfed in road rage, getting furious at bad
drivers or inconsiderate motorists who cut her off. She found herself
often screaming in her car, leaning on the horn unnecessarily long,
making obscene hand gestures to other motorists, and then feeling
agitated throughout the drive and even after she reached her
destination. She was very concerned about her feelings and her behavior.
She feared that she might anger strangers with her offensive gestures,
who might then attempt to retaliate in some fashion. Mostly she was
upset about the holdover agitation she felt even after getting out of
the car. Her blood pressure was up and she was getting frequent tension
headaches during her drive home which lingered all night.
Assisting Sally to
work through road rage to achieve road peace first involved helping her
to recognize that she had a choice whether to respond with anger to
difficult driving situations. Sally was encouraged to identify the
underlying assumptions that were fueling her anger. She believed that
she had no control in the situation; after all, she couldn't stop lousy
drivers from making driving mistakes, going too slow, or cutting her
off. But the thought that triggered the bulk of her anger was her
assumption that “they got away with it.” That is, the person driving
like a madman got away scot-free while interfering with her and putting
her in danger.
Sally was able to overcome
her road rage by being willing to shift her thinking. She began to
acknowledge that while she certainly had absolutely no control over the
driving behavior or competency of other motorists, she always had
control over how she chose to respond to any given driving situation.
She then searched for a way to reframe the trigger assumption: that bad
drivers get away with it. She recognized that if a given driver was
really that unskilled, then it was just a matter of time before that
person was either ticketed by police or hospitalized from a traffic
accident. The next time she witnessed a bad driver (a speeder weaving
dangerously in and out of lanes on the expressway), she fantasized that
that driver got a speeding ticket later that day. She further realized
that when drivers are not incompetent but just inconsiderate (for
example, those who cut you off because they are in a hurry), this
inconsideration will catch up with them in other areas of life,
particularly in interpersonal relationships. People who always put their
needs above those of others rarely can sustain lasting relationships.
So the next day, when a dapper businessman in a new Mercedes almost ran
her off the road to cut into her lane, Sally imagined that he returned
home that night and discovered that his wife had left him for being such
an insensitive cad.
Sally was amazed at how
adopting these alternative perspectives and engaging in these reframed
fantasies defused her anger. Remembering to breathe slowly from the
diaphragm when the driving got tense helped her to keep her mind open to
new perspectives, rather than engaging in knee-jerk reactions of rage.
She also began using her time in the car more constructively. She began
listening to books on tape, rather than complaining that she didn't have
time to read. She also began carrying a tape recorder in the car and
periodically dictating reports that she didn't get to finish at work.
Using her time more productively lowered her stress level and reduced
her feeling that she was wasting two hours a day in the car. The
distraction value of these activities was such that she stopped spending
time searching the landscape for bad drivers or driving errors, as she
had before. Within two weeks of adopting this change in perspective,
Sally was free of road rage.
Case Study 2 in Anger Control: Workplace Anger
Carlos had been working
at his sales job for a mid-sized manufacturing company for two years
and had enjoyed phenomenal success. He had quadrupled his earnings in
that time, due to his high sales figures and the company's commission
structure, and he was the top salesman in the company. His forte was in
developing new accounts and generating increased orders from existing
customers. Rather than enjoy his success, Carlos became even more driven
and began having inappropriate temper outbursts at work when other
workers did not meet his expectations. He became enraged when other
workers made minor errors that delayed the processing of orders for his
customers. He would often yell at these co-workers and insult them. What
upset him the most was what he perceived as the meddling behavior of
the sales manager, his immediate boss. When his boss would attempt to
assist him on an account (to help with paperwork), Carlos took offense.
He assumed that his boss was implying that he couldn't handle it by
himself. Mostly he was worried about getting fired either because of his
temper outbursts or because he was disliked. He feared that the bosses
wanted to can him so they could hire someone else at a much lower salary
level. He knew he had to deal with the situation when his boss took him
aside and told him that he needed to work on his attitude. Carlos was
having problems sleeping at night and relaxing on the weekends with his
family because he was so caught up in anger and worry.
Carlos was encouraged to
use diaphragmatic breathing and to wait ten minutes before responding to
any mistakes made by co-workers or perceived slights by his superiors,
so he would have time to cool down. Using cognitive restructuring, he
confronted his irrational expectation that people should always be
perfect and never make mistakes. He was also encouraged to identify the
other assumptions that were underlying his anger.
The first assumption was
that he was soon to be fired despite his success. To find a reframe to
combat this, he was encouraged to think of everything his company had to
lose by firing him. He quickly realized that the company stood to lose a
lot of money and a lot of business if he was let go, even if they did
hire a lower-paid replacement. He had to admit that it would be a very
foolish move for his employers to fire him, even if they did find him to
be a “pain in the butt.”
The second assumption
involved his belief that his boss's efforts to help him with paperwork
implied that he was not competent. When reflecting upon alternate
explanations for his boss's behavior, Carlos realized that when his boss
helped with paperwork it freed him up to do what he did best (that is,
develop new accounts and increase orders from existing accounts).
Therefore, his boss's assistance could help both Carlos and the company
When Carlos returned to
work, he practiced breathing techniques and taking a ten-minute
breather to walk around the office if hassles arose. When his boss came
to assist with his paperwork, rather than resenting it and glaring at
him as he had done previously, he thanked him. Within a week he and his
boss were on much better terms. They had a heart-to-heart talk in which
his boss confirmed that he wanted to pitch in so as to enable Carlos to
focus solely on selling. Carlos suggested a brainstorming meeting
between the sales and shipping departments to foster improved
communication and problem solving to expedite timely shipment of orders.
At the meeting Carlos practiced empathic listening and began to
understand why his co-workers made many of the errors. This meeting was
very productive, and as a result numerous suggestions were made to help
fix the existing problems. Carlos acknowledged that mistakes would still
occur, but he was hopeful that the frequency could be significantly
reduced by implementing the ideas offered at the meeting.
Lastly, Carlos kept
reminding himself that he was a very valuable employee who had control
over whether he was fired by how he chose to behave in the workplace.
Several weeks after his change in attitude, his bosses took him aside
and praised his work and the improvement in his attitude. From the
discussion it was abundantly clear to him that he was, indeed, a very
valuable employee with a secure job. Within two weeks he began to enjoy
going to work again. His sleep normalized and he began to relax and have
fun on his weekends.
The two case
studies presented here are actual cases presented by patients in our
Stress Mastery practice. The names and some details have been changed to
protect the confidentiality of the participants, but the methods and
outcomes are stated as occurred.
Developing Your Own Plan to Defuse Anger
Take a moment and
think about a situation or a person that often triggers your anger.
(Notice that we did not say something or someone who makes
you angry. No one can make you angry; whether you respond with anger is
always your choice.) Now, take a few moments to practice diaphragmatic
breathing, and consciously release the tension from your muscles to
better prepare you to deal with the stress of these thoughts. If it is a
situation that you are thinking about, what alternate perspective or
reframe can you create to help you view things differently? Are you
harboring any irrational ideas that contribute to your anger and could
be challenged? Spend a few minutes pondering the situation from this new
frame of reference. What happens to your anger? Do you find it
diminishing or perhaps even fading entirely? If you have been thinking
about a person who often triggers your anger, make your best attempt to
put yourself in the shoes of that individual. What feelings or
motivations might that person have that led him to behave in ways that
anger you? This does not mean that you have to agree with that person or
condone his behavior; the only requirement is that you spend some time
viewing the world from his eyes. Do you notice that it is harder to
generate anger when you understand where someone else is coming from,
even if you don't agree with him? Does that person's point of view have
any validity, given that person's experiences or beliefs? Now that you
have likely attenuated your anger by thinking differently, could you
adopt any other alternative behaviors that might help you cope?
Viewing Criticism as Feedback
One of the
stressful things that often triggers our anger, particularly in a job
setting, is criticism. It goes without saying that no one really likes
to be criticized, particularly about our work or our on-the-job
behavior. But some individuals handle criticism better than others. Why
is it that some people seem to take negative feedback in stride and even
appear to benefit from it, while others are overwhelmed with anger and
self-doubt? Again the answer lies in the meaning attributed to the
criticisms. One of the main reasons is that often people tend to equate
criticism with themselves rather than their actions. Therefore, they
view negative feedback as a statement about their self-worth rather than
an observation about their behavior. When viewed this way, criticism
tends to remind us of our inadequacies.
However, if we realize
that it is not us but our actions that are being critiqued, it becomes
easier to consider the possibility that there is validity to the
complaint. You no longer need to feel as though there is something wrong
with you, or that you are a bad or worthless person; rather, you need
to focus your attention on the appropriateness, effectiveness, or
worthiness of a particular behavior.
You need to recognize that
in any situation where you receive criticism, three possibilities
exist: (1) Your behavior is definitely out of line and the other
person's complaint is valid; (2) your behavior is questionable but the
criticism is also a reflection of biases, difficulties, or neuroses on
the part of the critic; or (3) your behavior is fine and it is the
critic who has the problem. (Remember the old saying, “Criticism
reflects the critic.”) It is important to take a good look at your
behavior, but how you respond will depend on which possibility you
decide best fits the situation.
If you decide that
your behavior has been inappropriate, you must be careful not to fall
into the trap of taking this as evidence that you have done something
wrong and should feel bad about it. This trap is avoided by remembering
to look differently at mistakes. Mistakes are not necessarily always
bad. They are not just evidence that we have done something wrong. You can decide to view mistakes as feedback—important
feedback that helps train you how to do things properly. It is when we
realize that our mistakes are invaluable teachers that we cease to
continue to repeat them.
I have not failed 10,000 times,
I have successfully found 10,000
ways that will not work.
—Thomas A. Edison
anger and resentment damages our health and contributes to our level of
stress, then clearly the ability to forgive and let go of past hurts and
disappointments is a desirable goal. Let's be clear about what
forgiveness is and is not. Forgiveness is not forgetting what happened,
thereby placing yourself again in a situation where you could be
mistreated. It is certainly not about condoning behavior you find
offensive or hurtful. It is the process of letting go of the energy
invested in past hurts or disappointments so that you can free that
energy for more productive, growth-oriented activities. The decision to
forgive stems from the realization that anger and resentment have a
damaging effect on you. There is an old Chinese saying: “When working
for revenge, dig two graves.” We wonder whether you or anyone you know
has ever said, “I don't get mad, I get even!” As cool as that statement
might sound, you must realize the eventual toll such an approach will
take on you.
Although forgiveness begins
with a decision to forgive, it is important to remember that forgiveness
is a process. As such, it takes time and willingness to go through the
particular emotions involved, be they hurt, anger, or even depression.
The problem develops when you get stuck in this process because of
righteous indignation. Do not get caught in the trap of believing that
you can begin to forgive only when an apology is offered or amends made.
When and how you forgive is totally up to you, whatever the
circumstances. If you want to achieve stress mastery, a consistent
attitude of forgiveness is extremely useful.
An important point
needs to be made here. Not only do you need to forgive others; it is
perhaps even more critical that you master the art of forgiving
yourself. Too often we see people in our workshops and classes who claim
to be great at forgiving others but who are harsh and unforgiving
regarding their own past actions and perceived mistakes. Remember that
the most important relationship in your life is the one you have with
yourself. Be gentle with yourself. Remember that all the decisions you
have made in the past have contributed to who you are today, and as such
they all have their usefulness. A most important key to stress mastery
is learning to forgive yourself, again and again and again.
To facilitate this
process you could use a helpful visualization strategy discussed
earlier, that of observer imagery. Imagine yourself sitting in front of
yourself. Have your present self speak to your past self, the part of
you that made those mistakes you have found so unforgivable. Visualize
telling your past self that you are forgiven, that you are not pleased
with the behavior and wish you had done it differently, but that you now
recognize that we are all struggling human beings trying to do the best
that we can. Furthermore, you consciously forgive your past self
because you deserve it. Of course, this same process can be used not
only with yourself, but with an image of anyone who has hurt or angered
Some situations that
anger you certainly call for some type of response beyond letting go of
your anger. Many times you will need to respond to individuals who have
angered you so as to rectify the situation or prevent future occurrences
of whatever is provoking your hostility. This is best accomplished by
dealing diplomatically and assertively with the other person, rather
than passively avoiding conflict (and allowing your resentment to build
and take a toll on you) or responding aggressively (where you risk
alienating others, making the situation worse and later being ashamed of