Saturday, January 7, 2012

The Powerlessness of Getting Angry

"He makes me sooo mad."
"That really pisses me off."
"I can't stand it when you do that."

We often think of anger as a powerful emotion--anger makes us red in the face, we feel a surge of power, our voices get loud. What we fail to notice is that the perception of power is vastly different from the experience of power. When you are angry, you are not in control. You are powerless over what you feel, and often feel powerless over your reactions. This is not power, but its opposite, powerlessness, loss of control, and weakness. When you are not in control of your reaction to a situation, you are indeed weak. The presentation of anger may serve to decoy the person or situation about which you are angry, it presents a loud and blustery front, but it takes away your power to regain control of the most important variable: yourself.

Ah, but since it appears that people, things, and situations MAKE us angry, how do we avoid becoming angry and thus maintain control? By following the famous ABCs of Rational Emotive Therapy. A is an Activating event--it is what we complain about that has "made" us angry--a fact of experience. C is the Consequence we create--behavior(s) and/or emotion(s). Which leaves B out of its place between A and C. B is the Belief or set of beliefs, whether conscious or unconscious, that is the true cause of C. Generally the beliefs that cause anger are irrational.

To illustrate: a man tromps your toes quite hard in a crowded elevator. Your initial reaction of pain is a normal, automatic one. The next reaction (emotional C), anger, and possibly the shout (behavioral C) "hey, look where you are going", is mediated by your beliefs that "he should be more careful", "he should look where he is going", "he should have waited for the next car", etc. Then you notice the white-tipped cane--the man is blind. Your anger is replaced by compassion, perhaps a lingering annoyance that no one in front helped him enter safely, a touch of shame for being angry at a blind man, etc. Thus the anger was NOT caused by your toes having been stepped on, but by the thoughts generated by your related beliefs. The anger, thus created, can be eliminated once the belief system is altered either by new knowledge ("he is blind"), or by a conscious choice as in this next example:

Your daughter is very late getting home one Saturday evening. You are frustrated that she is missing her curfew once again. You are getting angry, and thinking about how you will discipline her when she finally shows up. You feel yourself coming to a boil, and the words "grounded for life" and "never go out with those people again" bounce around in your brain. Eventually, you realize that losing sleep, pacing the floor, and planning the expected late-night ambush will do little to solve the problem of her frequent tardiness, but will result in her becoming correspondingly angry at you and creating a stalemate on the issue of improved behavior. You create a plan to deal with her in the morning, and head off to bed, your anger having turned to disappointment, and your self-control reasserted. You even manage to get some sleep, which your worried daughter, having created her own defensive, angry stance, ("where is the expected, unreasonable parental ambush?") is not able to achieve.

Success--you have managed your irrational thoughts ("that girl must respect the house rules", "I can't stand having a child who disobeys", "what a bad daughter I have"). By changing your thoughts into calmer ones ("it is a shame she has made another poor choice", "I need a plan to help her understand that if she is living here, there are rules she must follow", "children test the patience of parents; I remember that from when I was her age, but it will make for a happier household if she learns to cooperate".), you regained control over your emotions and behaviors. Changing your thoughts from demands and name-calling into preferences and facts helped you to calm yourself and create a plan. You put yourself back in control of both you and the situation.

Getting from anger to calm is a process. It begins, in the language of RET, with D, a Dispute: "Is it really true that she must respect the rules, or is that just my unreasonable demand of a teenager?", "It is not true that I cannot stand her behavior", "She can be unruly, but she is not all bad"). Following your dispute, you arrive at a new approach, the reasonable beliefs that will allow you to sleep, as in the example above. E is that Effective new belief or philosophy. And F is your new behavior and emotions: getting a night of good sleep and dealing calmly with the teen in the morning ("Honey, we need to talk about your curfew"). You win and so does she. Having a calm parent helps her to remain open to learning and improving.

Whenever you find yourself thinking "(he/she/that)makes me sooo mad", you have given away your personal power. To maintain power and control, change your thoughts so that you can be understandably upset, disappointed, concerned, confused, etc., without losing control over your reactions and thus, the situation. Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy, developed by Albert Ellis, can help you learn to prevent anger and maintain control. Empower yourself!

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