An article by Dr. Heidi Lepper, Ph.D.

Why Do I Get So Angry?

"OH, I AM JUST SO MAD!"

Have you ever slammed a door? Banged on a vending machine? Yelled at a loved one? Honked your horn? Yes! No? Ever seethed quietly? Nursed a grudge? Felt you could physically explode? We all get angry and some of us more often and more intensely than others. Anger as an emotional experience has many variants, from mild irritation to pure rage; from resentment to hatred. It is the unhealthiest of all the emotions because it first damages the body from the inside and then damages important relationships on the outside. But you can live with less anger when you understand its purpose and what triggers it.

"DON'T MESS WITH ME - OR ELSE!"

Anger's sole purpose is to do harm. It is triggered within each of us when we feel stopped from a goal we have. It signals to others to get out of our way, or else! In the throes of anger is when we do the greatest harm because when we are angry we believe wholly and completely that we are right, we are justified in what is causing us anger.

I want you to think about this again: when you get angry, you believe you are right - when you get angry, you believe your words and actions are justified, even noble.

But are they really? Often times not. That is why often times after the anger has faded we feel remorse, even shame and realize that perhaps we overreacted, did not take in all the information.

When anger is triggered so too is a very primitive system whereby our thoughts and actions are all colored by that emotional experience. We are not thinking clearly, we are not forgiving nor understanding, we believe we are right, that our own goals supersede those of others. So now I ask, why is your spot on the highway more important than the guy's next to you?

It is very likely that different causes of anger will not arouse the same intensity nor type of anger with all individuals. That is we all have differing thresholds for anger, we all have differing attitudes about anger, we all have differing triggers for anger. But despite those differences, the outcome of anger is always the same: to do harm, to eliminate that thing that is standing in the way our own individual goal at that moment.

"GET OUT OF MY WAY - NOW!"

The following ideas about what makes us angry may be novel to you and I am hoping insightful enough to allow for beneficial change within you. Outside of true physical, emotional or psychological threat, the following all relate to the blocking of your goals, and that goal failure or blockage triggers a primitive system within us, namely anger!

  1. Basic frustration. Think back to being a kid and the Chinese finger torture device you picked up on family vacation and how you ultimately responded in a fit of rage trying to yank out your fingers! Just me? It goes something like this.
    The goal » To get your fingers out of the device, to prove that you could, for you had an older brother to impress after all.
    The goal blockage » The harder you tried, the tighter it got.
    The result » Fits of flailing and thrashing in outright aggression to remove the device.
    The solution » Lots of deep breathing to start. Counting to ten and a bit of humor to follow up. And a deep appreciation the situation is temporary. Many anger reduction programs follow this model. And so do to parents when they use the "123 Magic" or time out process.
    Again, just me? I doubt it. Let's move on to the second way anger gets triggered within us.
  2. Retaliation for someone's anger at you. Flat out: Anger begets anger! When someone gets angry at you, you rarely say "Oh, I am so sorry you are angry at me. What can I do to make things better?" Instead, the more likely response is "Oh really? Well screw you then! You are the one with the problem, not me!"
  3. The goal » To uphold a high standard of yourself, to not see many failings, to maintain your self-esteem.
    The goal blockage » When someone gets mad at us it means perhaps we did indeed do something wrong or harmful, and that hurts, it is hard to admit to, it blocks the goal we have of thinking highly of ourselves. We may have been wrong!
    The result » It is easier to get mad at the other person than admit something to ourselves (basic tenet of all defense mechanisms).
    The solution » Lots of deep breathing to start. Counting to ten and a bit of humor to follow up. And a deep appreciation that if you do not retaliate the anger process will not be sustained, this other person will cool off and simmer down, and then a fresh dialogue about the upset can be addressed. But you have to bite your tongue! You cannot tit-for-tat, you cannot engage in relationship-destroying behaviors.
  4. Failure of someone to meet your expectations. Now this one is a 'biggie' and I believe is largely what triggers most of the anger that we do experience. People just don't do it right! They do not do it the way we want them to or expect them to! And that makes us downright angry! Believe it or not you live by your own moral code, one that was taught to you over your lifetime and one you abide by. And so when someone does not live according to that code, you believe they are wrong and are standing in your way of living a moral life. Think about this: Someone cuts in front of you line. You believe people should wait their turn. Do you happily let them in? Or do you instead get angry? You get angry! Because they should wait their turn! More: You asked your child to put away his clothes before turning on the TV. But you find him sitting on a pile of clothes watching the TV. Do you happily sit down and tune in with him? Or do you instead get angry? You get angry! Because he should listen and obey you.
  5. The goal » To uphold a standard of behavior that you value.
    The goal blockage » Others do not necessarily agree with you or uphold the same standard of behavior that you value. Sorry but it is true. And that is a personal threat to you.
    The result » We fly off the handle! We yell, we scream, we seethe in outrage!
    The solution » Lots of deep breathing to start. Counting to ten and a bit of humor to follow up. And a deep appreciation that we simply are all different, no two of us are alike, we have different feeling, thinking and acting states, none of us is right nor none of us wrong. Just different. So try to take on the perspective of the other, or even better, ask! "Why do you do it this way? Help me understand so I do not get angry over it." Practice forgiveness.

I DON'T WANT TO BE SO ANGRY ALL THE TIME!

You don't have to be. There is so much you can do to feel better every day. So start here:

  • Go back through each of the reasons we get angry and find your own examples of goals, goal blockages, results, and solutions. This act will increase your mindfulness about your anger episodes. Share this with a trusted loved one.
  • By making a public statement about how this works within you, it will serve to deepen memory of the changes you hope to make. Talk about this with a trusted partner, friend, lover, or child.
  • Appreciate that negative moods set the stage for angry outbursts...what does not irritate you one day may produce a full-fledged overresponse on the next day if you have a lingering negative mood. What produces negative moods? First, angry outbursts that are unresolved. And a myriad of other life stresses and overall sleep loss.
  • Believe every day that no matter what you will endure, you will cope, you can change in positive, beneficial ways. That you do not want to harm the people you love and the people you merely like through getting so angry so easily.

1 Comment

Heidi,

Great article!

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