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So much anger is impulsive, in the heat of the moment. How can we short-circuit that?
I have an important session in my program on cognitive restructuring, which is just a fancy way of saying "changing the way we look at things." For this, I use something called the ABCD model, which was created by the psychotherapist Albert Ellis. 'A' stands for activating event, 'B' for belief, 'C' for consequences, and 'D' for dispute. Back to the road rage example, maybe someone cutting you off is the activating event. Your belief might be, "Oh that son of a gun (or worse expletives), how dare he do that to me." Next, consequences: Our blood pressure goes up, we chase the person, and we may get into an altercation where we end up getting arrested. But before that happens, we can dispute the belief that might get us into trouble. Maybe the person who cut you off has a family member in an accident and is racing to the hospital, or it's a firefighter racing to a fire. So we say, "You know what, I'm going to give this person the benefit of the doubt." I call it turning the kaleidoscope: We look at the activating event from a different perspective, our belief changes, and instead of getting very angry, we perhaps get just mildly so. Maybe we hit a three or a four on that ten-point meter, and then we're able to get on with our day.
So many times we are judge, jury, and executioner. One man's activating event is when he comes home from work every day, his two sons, 8 and 10 years old, are fighting, and there's no food on the table. His wife is upstairs in bed watching an afternoon soap. His belief is that he's worked all day, and she isn't doing anything. He says, "What the hell are you doing lying in bed? The kids are fighting downstairs." The consequence is a big, blow-up fight. She's crying, the kids are crying, the whole night is ruined. Turning the kaleidoscope, it turned out in that particular case that his wife had trouble walking down the stairs because she had the beginning signs of multiple sclerosis. And he thought, holy crap. It wasn't what he thought.
Anger often comes from feeling powerless. How can we keep our power without losing our cool?
The last session I do helps with that—it's based on assertiveness. Oftentimes, people confuse assertiveness with aggression. But physical or verbal aggression is typically not going to get you where you want to go. Assertiveness is a tool; it's speaking up or standing up for yourself in a firm but respectful manner. I give the example of a carpenter who's just been given news that he's going to be cut $5 an hour. And he's got various options as to how he's going to react to that news. One option would be to say to the contractor, "I really don't want to leave. I can't take a $5 an hour cut, but would you be willing to look at other options, like getting part of our wood from Home Depot instead of from the supplier that we're currently using, and save the money there?" It's that sort of thinking, versus going down to his office, pulling out a hammer and pounding the desk, saying, "Now do I have your attention?"
Is it my imagination, or do people seem angrier these days?
I think so, yes. Why? Because there is permission for all of us to be angry, and to act on it toward one another every day. That permission comes from the highest office in the land. And it doesn't matter what side of the political aisle you're on—the fact is that you have a dually elected Chief Executive who ridicules the disabled, objectifies and sexualizes women, sides with foreign dictators against his own government, separates children from their parents, and divides blacks, whites, and Hispanics. Then you don't have to worry about the consequences of hatred and the anger that fuels it. So you see the surge in the Nazi behavior, the desecration of grave sites, attacks on immigrants. That scene [during the Republican presidential primaries] of Trump telling a disabled reporter to stop shaking and maybe he'll answer his question—that sort of thing gives permission to people who have anger inside them to express it. I think it gives a voice to those who feel, "You know what, I've stifled my anger my whole life. It's okay to let it out now."