Overcome Anger and Aggression
Psychologist/Professor Emeritus, California State University, Long Beach
Send Feedback/Questions to: Tom.Stevens@csulb.edu
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APPENDIX B: from book by Tom G. Stevens PhD, You Can Choose To Be Happy
Overcome Anger and Aggression
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This self-help manual has been used by thousands of people with problems related
to anger and aggression (including passive aggression). These problems include problems with losing one's
temper, being too loud and aggressive, being overbearing, verbal and physical
abuse, violence and violent behavior, problems with blaming others or not
forgiving others who have harmed them. People can have problems with anger
ranging from milder resentment or annoyance that lasts too long to problems with rage and
ANGER IS AN EMOTION THAT CENTERS ON GETTING CONTROL
Someone calls you an "inconsiderate idiot," and you feel angry. Someone cuts in front of you on the freeway, and you feel angry. Someone attacks your friend, and you feel angry. Someone tells you that you will not get the pay increase you think you deserve, and you feel angry. What causes you to feel anger? What do all of these situations have in common?
Underlying anger is caused by a perceived loss of control over factors affecting important values. The values in the above examples might be pride, getting someplace on time, someone you love, money, or being treated "fairly"--we are frustrated about not getting what we want or expect.
With anger, we usually think we know what caused the problem. We have some target(s) for our anger. It may be the person criticizing you, the person who cut you off on the freeway, an attacker, your boss, or even yourself. With anger, we may hope that a burst of energy aimed at the threat will defeat it. Or we may hope that a burst of energy will break the barrier stopping us from meeting our goal.
Anger can be used constructively at times. It can give us energy we
need to fight back if physically attacked. However, for most situations
it merely clouds our judgement and creates extra stress. If anger prompts
aggressive behavior toward other people, it can permanently harm relationships--especially
with those we love. Prolonged or frequent resentment (mild anger) has been
shown to be a significant cause of cardiovascular problems and heart attacks.
It is the villain behind "type A" behavior.
What do the following examples of hostility have in common? Yelling at a cop for giving you a ticket. Kicking in a door that is broken. Blaming all your troubles on how your parents raised you. Refusing to accept that a relationship is over--when it clearly is. Throwing a temper tantrum after losing a game. Continuing to beat yourself up after you learned your lesson.
As destructive as anger can be at times, it is not nearly so bad as hostility. Dr. George Kelly believed that the underlying cause of all hostility is not adequately accepting unchangeable aspects of reality. Hostility means not accepting reality. Hostility is maintaining a goal even after it is clear it can't be reached. Hostility is doing something desperate to get things "right"--despite reality. Hostility just hurts you and others. The only healthy response to a "done deed" reality is to accept it and try to understand it. Dr. Maslow's self-actualized people accepted life's hardships and people's shortcomings the way they accepted water as being wet.
If you believe that you can choose to be happy and have learned
the methods in this book, you know that you can be happy in the future--no
matter what the reality is. Therefore, accept the past, forgive, let go,
and move on.
Anger is caused by your inability to mentally cope with some situation. If you have a persistent problem with anger, then you either have important underlying issues that you have not yet resolved, or you are using emotional coping methods that are ineffective.
There are many internal and external methods for coping with anger. Many methods that help with any negative emotion also help with anger. Perceived loss of control for getting important values met causes anger. To get over your anger, it is helpful to identify those important values and to understand why you may lack confidence in your own ability to be happy.
Blaming others (or yourself) and remaining angry may appear the easy
way out. Finding new ways to think about the situation and make yourself
happy requires skillful effort. If you want to reduce your anger, consider
each of the following issues or techniques for regaining mental control.
1. EXPLORE EMOTIONS OF HURT AND FEAR UNDERLYING THE ANGER
Remember that anger stems from fear and a sense of helplessness. Some important value or goal is threatened and you feel that you are losing control of the situation. You may not want to admit feeling hurt or fear. (You may think such an admission is a sign of weakness.) Yet these are the underlying feelings that will help you identify which values and goals are being threatened.
The real threat may not be the surface issue (being late to the
movie) as much as the underlying issue (not being important to someone
you love or being mistreated). Identifying emotions of fear and
hurt will open the door to these underlying issues. Once you get
in touch with the fear and hurt, what images, thoughts, and underlying
issues are associated with [cause] them? (Self-exploration; chapter 2.)
2. DEVELOP EMPATHETIC UNDERSTANDING
My sexually abused client found that developing a deeper, empathetic understanding of her father and developing an unconditional caring for him as a person were keys to defusing her anger.
If you choose to decrease your anger at someone, the first step is to make every effort to see the situation from their point-of-view. You might begin by asking them to explain their point of view. Encourage them to talk about underlying assumptions, beliefs, or background factors that may have led them to the point- of-view or behavior you are upset about. Summarize what they say and their emotions from their point of view (so that they agree you understand their point of view). Understanding their situation, point of view, and the causes of their beliefs and behavior is usually the major hurdle to get control of anger.
Forgiving is not forgetting, it is remembering and letting go.
(Claudia Black, 1989)
If it is impossible to have that kind of conversation with someone, then try to imagine an understanding scenario that allows you to defuse your anger. From my experience of dealing with people with similar situations, I try to imagine what they might have been thinking and why.
If you do not know the person well enough to know what their motives
were, then what can you do? Recall the client who was so filled with anger
after being raped by a masked man she would never see again. We looked
at what we knew about human nature in general. Can you accept human nature
as it really is? Can you accept that there are gang killings, child abuse,
theft of my belongings, inconsiderate behavior, or other damaging events--without
getting too upset about them? Can you accept that some people will take
advantage of me and "get away with it"? To be able to control
our anger despite tragic events, we must each find a way to deal with the
"dark side" of life. Issues of injustice, unfairness, and entitlements
are discussed below (Chapters 4, 8).
3. ASSUME THE BEST INTENTIONS (whenever possible)
To the degree that Mike believed his wife's underlying motives for being late were aimed at harming him, then his anger increases. If he dwells on thoughts like, "She doesn't care about me,""She's inconsiderate," "I wouldn't do that to her," or "She's so selfish," then they will add fuel to his anger.
Instead, he can interpret her underlying intentions as a legitimate need to take care of herself. He can focus more on evidence from the present and past that she loves him and is not trying to hurt him. How he chooses to think will increase or decrease his anger. Try to assume the best intentions from people until you have repeated indications that they seem to have other motives.
As a psychologist who has seen hundreds of clients, I have discovered that even the most hostile people are usually not trying to hurt others. Instead, they primarily want to protect or defend themselves and to meet their own values. (The most hostile people are often people who have experienced a lot of abuse and criticism and are very sensitive to it.) That insight helps dissipate much of my anger.
That insight does not necessarily mean that I will refrain from using consequences to discourage hostile behavior. But it does mean that I can deal with the person much more calmly and effectively.
How does the insight that people are usually aggressive to defend themselves
apply to less hostile people? If a person who normally cares about you
is angry or purposely harms you, then he (or she) is probably doing it
out of defensiveness or fairness! He probably thinks that you did
something to him first, and he is just defending himself, "getting
even," or trying to "teach you a lesson" so you won't harm
him again. In short he is probably operating under the same reasons that
you are when you perpetuate the cycle of conflict! He is
assuming the worst intentions of you--that you don't care about
him or that you tried to intentionally hurt him.
4. IS "FAIRNESS" OR "JUSTICE" AN UNDERLYING ISSUE?
So often our expectations are the keys to our feelings. We may not accept
that others are imperfect or that we are imperfect. "Bad," "evil,"
"unfair" things happen billions of times daily. It is natural
to feel negative emotions such as anger in response to events we label
"bad" or "unfair."
"Fairness" versus "Happiness" doctrines. The fairness doctrine states that "Life should always be fair and exactly equal for everyone." If we have developed too many expectations based upon this "fairness doctrine," then we are doomed to a life filled with misery. In the worst cases people spend much of their life calculating fairness, balancing what they have received versus what they have given, and maintaining some sort of self-created accounting system that is based entirely on ideas of fairness. This fairness belief system may have little correspondence to outside reality.
What is "fair" about some people being born into happy, prosperous families and living prosperous, long, happy lives while other people are born into miserable situations and die young after leading a life filled with suffering? "Unfairness" is all around us. I recommend abandoning the "fairness doctrine."
It can be replaced with the happiness doctrine. It states that
I will choose that which contributes most to my and others' happiness.
I accept that my life and all my options are a gift. If I compare my gifts
to others'--especially to those that have more--I will only reduce my appreciation
of my own gifts.
There really is some "justice" in this world. What I have been saying about "fairness" is that rigidly holding on to a fairness doctrine can undermine our happiness. However, one concern people express to me is that if they do not hold on to this doctrine, then there will be no justice or consequences.
I ask those people to remember that we live in a world controlled by natural laws which we cannot "break." Natural laws do provide some measure of natural consequences--of rewards and punishments for our actions. Society can also create laws which provide additional rewards and punishments. Frequently the guilty seem to go unpunished. How do we control our anger when we see such miscarriages of justice?
"Psychological Justice." Psychological laws are particularly effective as natural punishments. People who take advantage of other people are punished by natural reactions--such as lack of real intimacy and love in their life. They are punished by their Higher Self, which sees "the evil" or harm they do to others and produces guilt through natural empathy with others. They are punished by their own anger and negative beliefs--which torment them with conflict, anger, and anxiety. They are too busy feeling anger to feel happy.
For example, Stalin and Hitler are two men who may share the distinction
of causing more harm to more people than any other men in history. Some
have said that these men were examples of how evil power can pay--as
if to prove that there is no justice. However, while both men achieved
great worldly wealth and power, both men lived highly tormented lives.
Understanding how difficult it is for harmful people to be happy people
helps me let go of some of my anger when something appears "unjust."
Accept reality and forgive. Some of our anger may stem from a belief that others have unfairly received more than we have. We might resent people who have more money, beauty, success, or happiness--especially if we don't think they "deserve" it. We might feel that life has given us a "bum deal" if we follow the "fairness doctrine." How do we get over anger at someone who got something they did not "deserve"? The fairness doctrine says that people should get only what they deserve.
The happiness doctrine says that in order to be happy we must accept that things do not always appear to be fair. I will hope that both the other person and I can learn to be happy with what we have each received--even though it may not be "equal" or "fair." Who knows what the ultimate affects of their "advantages" may be? Many poor people are happier than many rich people. Which doctrine will help you get most control of your anger and feel happiest?
We have seen how my sexually-abused client was able to get rid of her deep anger through understanding and forgiveness. Understanding and forgiveness are necessary ingredients to any anger-reduction formula.
We may also have trouble forgiving ourselves. We might be angry at ourselves because we are still living with the consequences of bad choices we made earlier in our lives. We may think we are so "bad" or "stupid" that we don't deserve to be happy. How can we forgive ourselves for messing up our lives? We may blame our parents or even "God" for making us the kind of people that "failed." It may all seem so "unfair." How do we get over blaming ourselves or others for our misfortunes?
The fairness doctrine says that we should only receive that which we "deserve." The "fairness doctrine" says that someone who has more than they "deserve" should have the extra taken away, while those who have less than they deserve should receive more. This doctrine says we should only be happy when the accounts are all balanced. Until then, we should be spending our lives balancing the scales--and that will never happen.
The happiness doctrine says: 1--forget about fairness accounting; 2--accept life as it is now; 3--love ourselves and others unconditionally--make our own (and others') happiness the top goal; and 4--act accordingly. Blaming ourselves or others, guilt, worry, accounting, resentful feelings, and other unproductive negative thoughts are just barriers to our being happy.
[Note: Accepting the happiness doctrine does not imply that we will
not be assertive about enforcing contracts or other agreements that have
been made with others. We can build rewards and punishments into contracts
and take actions that reward and punish others to "motivate"
them if necessary. That is not the same as enforcing a contract out of
"fairness" or "to get even."]
I would rather we be unequally happy (whether we "deserve it or not")
than be equally unhappy (even
if we get what we "deserve")!
5. ARE YOU "HOLDING ON" TO THE ANGER (OR HURT) FOR MOTIVATION?
Do you "hold on to your anger" or feelings of being hurt in order to punish the person. Do you want to punish the person to "get even" (operating out of a "fairness doctrine")? Perhaps you can begin to see how the "fairness doctrine" does not work well. You may think that you should punish them by holding on to your anger. Holding on to anger or hurt can only hurt you!
If your goal is to change someone's behavior, you may use rewards
and punishments to affect behavior. However, you don't administer the consequences
out of a sense of revenge or anger. Do it caringly--as a way of helping
them learn. Wait until you are calm. Stating your reasons calmly is much
more effective than punishment given out of anger! (In most situations,
rewards are more effective than punishments.)
PRACTICE: Make a Blame-list. Make a "blame list" toward
yourself and others. Try replacing the "fairness doctrine" with
the "happiness doctrine" in dealing with the problems underlying
each "blame." Empathize with the other person, accept the reality
of the situation, and focus on maximizing happiness for the future for
each important item on the list.
Unfulfilled expectations can lead to anger. What are your expectations of yourself and others for this situation? Are you expecting more than is realistic for this person in this particular situation?
Examine your underlying expectations about what you need to be happy and live the type of life you want. Examine your expectations from others. Perhaps you have higher (or different) standards than others. Perhaps you expect others to follow them as well as yourself. You may even be right. But these are your expectations of others--not theirs. They are who they are, and one root of anger is not accepting people (or events) as they are.
"Entitlement thinking" and high expectations about what we should receive cause a feeling of being "in a hole." They cause some people to see themselves as victims and view the world negatively. These expectations are the cause of a deep sense of powerlessness and prolonged resentment about being treated "unfairly." They are the deepest source of many people's anger. (Chapter 4)
==> Use the LAPDS dimensions (from "Goals" in chapter
8) to adjust expectations and goals.
7. CHOOSE HAPPINESS INSTEAD OF ANGER--"My anger hurts me more than it hurts you"
Holding on to anger has other self-destructive consequences. These consequences include negative effects on your body and taking away from your enjoyment of the present moment. You cannot feel angry and happy at the same time--it's impossible! Therefore, you have a choice--anger or happiness!
People who habitually choose anger over happiness lead frustrated, angry
lives--not happy ones. Remind yourself of these consequences to get more
control of your anger. Say to yourself, "Self, why choose anger when
I can choose to think thoughts that produce happiness?" Use these
8 methods to control anger. Also, refer to other powerful techniques from
the book--especially the six harmonious functioning mental control strategies
from chapter 8 (CHUG-OF: Choice, Harmony, Understanding, Goals & expectations,
Optimism, and Focus).
8. Remember, "IT'S THE WAY OF THINGS"
My wife Sherry and I have developed a simple formula for overcoming
anger which we often use when we face something unchangeable. It comes
from Winnie the Pooh Bear's philosophy of life (Benjamin Hoff, The Tao
of Pooh). When something goes wrong that is out of his control, Pooh
Bear says simply, "It's the way of things." We cannot change
the world and the forces which operate it, and we can't even change many
things about ourselves or other aspects of our life--especially our past.
So just remember--even though we can never understand it all--the most
basic understanding of all is--"It's the way of things."
PRACTICE: Develop a mental control plan to deal with anger (and
hostility). (1) Think of one or more situations where you get
angry. (2) Use the above methods to mentally role-play overcoming
the anger in that situation. (3) Develop your own list or mental
thought plan (based on these methods) of what you will say to yourself
when you feel angry.
METHODS FOR REDUCING ANGER
1. THINK--"AGGRESSION WILL DRIVE A WEDGE BETWEEN US"
Think about someone who severely attacked you physically or verbally. What was that experience like? The fear, hurt, and anger of that memory can stay with you the rest of your life. The aggression may create some small measure of lasting resentment and distance between you and the person who delivered the attack. The aggression can cause lowered trust and a lasting fear that they may hurt you again.
The same lesson can be applied when you hurt someone else--whether you mean it or not. You may be "conditioning" your partner to fear or resent you instead of loving you! Fear and resentment are incompatible with love.
Is this kind of permanent damage what you really want when you are verbally or physically aggressive toward someone you care about? You can hurt and alienate your partner with even mild "name-calling" or negative "labeling." (It will also probably escalate the conflict.) The effect can be greatly exaggerated with someone who is sensitive to criticism or anger.
Visualize a big STOP SIGN! Think about the consequences before you attack
someone or speak out of anger. Instead, try empathy; assume their best
intentions; and be calm and diplomatic.
PRACTICE: Are you driving nails in the coffin of a relationship? Think about your expression of anger in your most important relationship(s). Are you driving a small wedge of permanent distance between you and your loved one each time you hurt them? Picture that wedge each time you are tempted to attack. Instead, choose constructive expressions of anger (such as talking about feelings and issues).
2. BE ASSERTIVE--Seek "Win-Win" Solutions
If you are angry at someone, focus on your top goal in life--to maximize happiness for yourself and others. Choosing love and happiness--even when you feel angry--strengthens your Higher Self.
Focus on loving yourself. Reach deep inside and find the part of you
(your Higher Self) that loves this other person unconditionally (i.e.
no matter what they have done). Focus on those feelings of love and
on the goal of seeking a "win-win" solution. Try to understand
their point of view as well as your own. If you are successful in producing
a "win-win" solution, you will have a "triple win:"
1--getting your own original needs met, 2-eliminating your own self-destructive
anger toward the other, plus possibly 3-getting the other person to feel
closer to you ("winning them over"). The best way to eliminate
an enemy is to make him or her your friend!
3. TAKE A "TIME-OUT" IF SOMEONE GETS TOO UPSET
Observe your own emotions when you are in a frustrating situation. If you see that you are starting to feel too angry, anxious, or guilty, then take a "time-out." A time-out means that you both stop talking or that you separate long enough to think about it, calm down, and get your control back. Time-outs can be effective even if they are only one to five minutes long. Use your time out to clarify what you want or how you want to deal with the other person.
To take a time-out, you might say, "I need some time to think about what we have been talking about. I would like to continue our conversation [in a few minutes, at a later time, etc.]." If the other person doesn't want you to leave, insist and leave anyway.
Similarly, if you observe that the other person is getting too upset and is not dealing constructively with the situation, take a time-out. You could say the same thing as before, or say, "It looks like we're both getting upset, and if we can't discuss this more calmly, then I will need to take a time-out."
Take the time-out in the early stages of a conflict, don't wait
until it has gotten destructive. Take time-outs as often as is necessary
to keep things reasonably calm and productive. (See Chapter 6.)
4. FIND CONSTRUCTIVE WAYS TO RELEASE YOUR HIGH ENERGY AND AROUSAL
You have heard the expression, "Get your anger out" to get rid of it. Freud used the analogy of a steampot that will burst if the energy is not released. To some degree the analogy is accurate.
Anger causes high levels of arousal and energy--energetic activity
releases it. Research has supported the idea that anger leads to a
high arousal, high energy state that can last for hours--or even longer.
During that time, we are more prone to renewed anger. Energetic activities
use the energy and help dissipate that extra arousal. Therefore, in addition
to internal methods of reducing anger, it is important to dissipate anger
by energetic actions. Try exercise, walking, running, sports, physical
labor, or other energetic activities--especially those that make you feel
5. CHOOSE CONSTRUCTIVE (NOT SELF-DESTRUCTIVE) EXPRESSIONS OF ANGER
Many people take Freud's analogy farther. They believe that in order to get rid of their anger, they must "Get their aggression out" by doing something destructive or harmful to some other person or some thing. Many people--even some therapists--mistakingly believe that aggressive or confrontive expressions of anger are the only way that we can "get our anger out." We have to "take it out" on someone or some thing. Research has shown that this belief is not true.(1)
It is true that any energetic behavior reduces anger by dissipating the arousal. It is also true that the resulting "good feeling" reinforces the destructive behavior. However, reinforcing aggressive behavior means that it will become a stronger habit. People using aggressive behavior to "get rid of their anger" tend to become more--not less--aggressive. Research evidence supports this conclusion. A better way to reduce anger is to do something constructive and energetic such as exercise, sports, or doing something physically active that helps solve the problem.
What about "honest" aggressive behavior? How would you feel if someone called you "stupid," "selfish," or a string of other negatives and then said, "I just wanted to be honest about how I feel?" How would you feel? How constructive was it to the relationship?
The aggressive statement may have been honest in the sense that it reported their thoughts at an angry moment. However, was it the whole picture? Or was their "honesty" just a series of anger-induced thoughts that were intended to hurt you in order to get even for some perceived harm?
Wouldn't it be more constructive if the person told you that he or she
really cares about you, but is angry over something you did? Wouldn't it
be more constructive if the person took time to listen to your point-of-view
and work on constructive solutions to the problem? Which approach is better?
Aggressive "honesty" or a thoughtful, assertive honesty?
(2) List energetic activities to reduce anger's arousal. Sports,
exercise, biking, walking, running, doing chores, laughing, and even (constructive)
talking can help reduce anger's arousal. The more vigorous the activity,
the more effective.
PRACTICE 2: Develop a plan for assertive (not aggressive or passive)
conflict resolution. Follow the suggestions above (and in chapter 6)
to develop a plan of how to deal assertively with situations where you
tend to be angry and aggressive (or non-assertive). Seek win-win solutions.
To overcome anger and
1. 1 See Carol Tavris' book, Anger, the Misunderstood Emotion, for a good summary of research demonstrating how people learn to respond aggressively or constructively to anger. Either expression of anger can reduce the anger's arousal, either can be reinforcing; but aggressive responses tend to make people more aggressive.
C=> Overcoming Anger
****Controlling Anger -- Before It Controls You
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