Sometimes it seems that no one knows what to do about anger. Spiritual people say to transcend it (whatever that means), anger management courses tell you to contain it and some therapists say the best thing to do is to express it. Confusing, no?
I don’t think that there is just one way to work with anger. Sometimes it’s good to contain it, other times it needs to be expressed. Other times it may be possible to just let it roll off your back and do nothing about it.
From my work as a therapist, I’ve noticed four ways that people unknowingly increase their anger at themselves and others. See if you recognize any of these:
All-or-nothing thinking: Everything is black or white, right or wrong, there are no shades of gray. Living this way, you end up putting incredible pressure on yourself and everyone around you. You either have to be perfect or you’re a total loser; other people are either totally right or completely wrong. This encourages disappointment and frustration which eventually leads to anger.
Mindreading: You assume you know what others think and feel. This is the #1 problem in most relationships. Just because you love someone and live with them doesn’t mean you know everything they feel and think. In fact, most of us are a mystery to our significant others even after many years together. Stuff like, “I just know she’s mad at me” or “I bet he expects me to do his work for him.” are examples of mindreading.
Overgeneralizing: Do you ever make generalizations based on one little piece of information? Your best friend forgets to call you, so you say, “He’s such an asshole.” You don’t get the job you applied for and tell yourself, “I really am a failure.” Along with anger, other side effects of overgeneralizing are feeling helpless, hopeless and overwhelmed. Sound familiar? We all experience this at times, but if you habitually overgeneralize, you probably feel like the world is awfully hard and unfair. No wonder you’d feel angry!
“Shoulding” people: A good friend of mine once told me that “should-hoods are shit-hoods: every time you use the word ‘should’, you’re shitting on somebody.” Shoulding on people is a way to make them wrong. It positions yourself as a superior moral being who knows what other people need to do. Talk about a setup for a fall! If you believe that the universe and everyone in it revolves around you, you are bound to be pissed off most of the time. But the most self-directed anger is caused by shoulding on yourself, e.g., “I should be smarter/richer/happier/in better shape.” is a great way to feel like a total failure and then be angry at yourself for just being who you are.
So, how do you stop doing this to yourself and others? Here are some suggestions:
Be willing to be wrong and open to seeing the ambiguity in situations. If you are a rigid person, know that it’s your fear that keeps you stuck there. To slowly free yourself, allow yourself (and others) to not be so perfect all the time. You’ll be a lot less angry if you don’t hold yourself and others up to rigid standards of perfection.
Rather than assume you know what other people are feeling and thinking, ask them. And the more you love them, the more it pays to ask them. We’re all changing all the time.
Don’t let your fear push you into anger. Fear encourages us to jump to conclusions, then we get to be self-righteous and that gives us an illusion of safety and control. Instead, try saying, “I’m not going to judge this, I am going to wait for more information and see how things unfold.” Be willing to be surprised that things can turn out better than you thought.
Begin to notice how often you use the word “should”. This word has a lot of power and can be emotionally crippling.
Stop sabotaging yourself and your relationships. Try the above ideas and watch your anger at yourself – and others- begin to melt away. You have nothing to lose but your anger.