Do you ever get really angry? And when it happens, especially at work, are the consequences good or bad? I'm not talking about the competitive zeal you might get when a competitor beats you out for a lucrative sale and you feel determined to beat them out next time around. I'm talking about the rage that can take over when someone treats you unfairly, or insults you, or even cuts you off in traffic

That kind of anger can leave you feeling helpless, useless, self-pitying, and unable to focus on the tasks at hand. Wouldn't it be great if you could somehow quiet that anger when it first arises, so you could think logically about how to respond? Well, there is a way, and it comes from recognizing the truth about anger. Although it is a feeling, it results directly from what you're thinking, and from the meaning you derive from the words or acts that have ticked you off.

To prove it, psychologist Jeffrey Nevid, PhD, proposes a simple experiment: Spend 60 seconds making yourself feel really angry while keeping your mind completely blank. Sure, you can summon up that awful thing your spouse said or the way your boss never gives you the information you need and feel real red-hot anger in a second or two. But try and feel it while not thinking about anything. If you're like most people, Nevid says, you can't do it, not really.

What that means, he writes, is that our anger is always the result of thoughts. The thing is, those thoughts can be completely wrong. Once when I was around 10 years old, I flew into a sorrowful rage because in the middle of an argument, my mother called me a "sickening child." At least, that's what I heard. I found out later that what she'd actually said was, "I'm sick and tired." 

Not every burst of anger results from mishearing what someone else said, of course. But it often arises from placing your own interpretation and understanding onto someone else's words and behavior, rather than trying to figure out what that person is actually feeling and thinking. With that in mind, Nevid also offers a one-minute exercise for managing your own anger and regaining your calm.

1. Allow yourself to feel angry.

Trying to tell yourself you aren't angry when you are won't help you get past your anger, it will just make your anger stronger, as happens to every emotion that we try to deny or ignore. So don't ignore or deny it. Admit to yourself that you feel angry and if it's appropriate, don't conceal your anger from other people either. 

2. But don't allow yourself to feel helpless.

Ever notice that whenever we get angry, we think of it as something that was done to us? People and events "make" us angry, suggesting that we are innocent victims of that emotion. This is exemplified by the comic book character Bruce Banner, who pleads, "Don't make me angry," because if you do, against his will, he will transform into the Incredible Hulk.

I don't mean to suggest that your anger is completely voluntary. Something does usually set it off. But as Nevid's 60-second experiment shows, anger cannot exist separated from your thoughts about whatever it is that made you feel that way. So the story you tell yourself about whatever made you angry can either inflame that anger more and more, or allow it to slowly dissipate. It really is up to you.

3. Apply emotional intelligence.

Emotional intelligence or EQ is generally defined as the ability to understand and manage our own emotions, and to understand and influence the emotions of others. You need EQ to manage your own anger, both to understand and acknowledge your own feelings, but also to understand and empathize with others. That person who just cut you off in traffic may be hurrying to the hospital because a loved one is ill. The colleague who just insulted you may not have intended the comment as an insult. Or, he or she may be having a very bad day, and reacting badly as a result. Or maybe you're taking something personally that wasn't really directed at you. 

As Nevid writes, "When you approach the other person with empathy (accurate understanding of the other person's feelings), you quell the tendency to respond to inappropriate anger with anger of your own." If you can do that, you can stop a conflict from escalating out of control. You may get to understand the people who make you angry better. They might even understand you better too.

Published on: Feb 7, 2020
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