“I mean, seriously…what is their !?” I demanded.
The phone call with my mother had begun innocently enough. We’d been calmly catching up on various life happenings when the conversation turned to a proposal I’d submitted to a potential client a few months back.
“You still haven’t heard back from them?” asked my bewildered mother.
“I know!” I replied. “Can you believe that?”
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As I summarized the situation, I could feel my blood starting to boil.
“I have lost track of how many times I’ve called and emailed them. Apparently it was just impossible to find two minutes in their schedules to respond in more than two months!”
Up until that point, I had been (I thought) justifiably miffed about the whole situation; after all, a good faith business relationship would surely dictate a response, even if it’s just “we’ll get back to you when we can.” But on the day of our phone call, what had started as a lightly simmering pot of anger finally boiled over. And despite my mother’s attempts to calmly diffuse the situation, I continued my violent vitriol for a good 10 minutes.
Thomas Jefferson once said “an angry man is again angry with himself when he returns to reason.” During our phone call, my fury had felt 100 percent reasonable. After all, these people had personally wronged me. But a few hours later, once I’d regained my ability to think rationally, I realized how disproportionate my reaction had been. After all, when you work in business development, you win some and you lose some -- and not everyone cares about responsiveness as much as I do.
My ridiculous behavior was a timely reminder of how anger can turn otherwise sensible people into raving, irrational lunatics. Certainly, anger is a natural part of the human condition, and it isn’t always a bad thing. In the early days of human existence, for example, it served a survival purpose, helping us fight back when we were attacked by predators or other humans. And sometimes, anger can give us much-needed energy to drive personal, organizational or social change.
But as a psychologist, I am deeply worried about the rapidly escalating levels of anger in our world -- what’s particularly disturbing is our increasing sense of entitlement to express it in aggressive or hurtful ways. And if the vituperative comments on my Facebook feed are any indication, people seem almost eager to be angry -- as if we must all pick a side and take it as a personal affront when others don’t share our views.
According to a recent NBC News poll, half of Americans are angrier today than they were a year ago. Truthfully, I can’t think of a moment in time when we have had so many legitimate reasons to be angry. But when we let ourselves get hijacked by it, as I did during my fateful phone call, we lose control of our actions. On a good day, we simply embarrass ourselves; on a bad day, we are angry enough to kill.
Laura Hayes, a Maryland-based psychologist, recently opined that “uncontrolled anger has become our number one mental health issue.” I agree completely, and frankly if something doesn’t change, I fear for our collective safety and quality of life. And though most of us aren’t politicians or policy makers, we can all contribute to stopping this cycle -- the surest way is to start with the only thing we can truly control: our own reactions, behaviors and choices.
There are four strategies for controlling the beast. One of the first victories over anger is deciding, in real time, whether or not there’s a good reason to be angry. Though people have different triggers, our inconsequential irritations can needlessly send us off the deep end. As you noticed, one of mine is feeling ignored -- what about you? Do you simmer with irritation when a coworker takes credit for one of your ideas? Does a flight delay turn you into a raving lunatic? Does being cut off on your morning commute bring about a fit of fiery rage at the smiling, unsuspecting grandmother in front of you?
Here’s a simple question to help you decide whether it’s worth being angry: How much does this actually matter for my long term happiness and success? If you realize that a particular situation isn't important, there are three strategies you can use to control your irrational ire. These same three strategies can also be helpful when a situation is worth being angry about, but you don’t have any control or influence over it.
Many people believe that discharging anger is the best way to diffuse it. For example, my husband can be a “frustrated” driver, and he swears that cathartically yelling at other drivers is the best medicine. Unfortunately for both of us, this is a myth, and in fact, discharging anger can actually increase it in the long term.
So if discharging anger doesn’t diffuse it, what does? Arguably the easiest approach is to take several deep breaths. Thomas Jefferson (who is apparently a fountain of anger-related wisdom) aptly advised, “When angry count to 10 before you speak. If very angry, count to 100.” The reason this works is that it keeps our fight or flight system at bay. A related approach is mindfulness: simply paying attention to what we’re feeling, both physically and mentally, can be a powerful anger diffuser. As crazy as it sounds, even just naming your emotions ("I am really angry right now!") can dramatically reduce their intensity.
Finally, even though it’s the last thing that occurs to us in the heat of the moment, we can also diffuse anger with humor. Researcher Jerry Deffenbacher has spent his whole career studying anger (and was also brave enough to serve on my dissertation committee). Humor, he says, can give us much-needed perspective. For example, angry people usually believe they’re right and the world is wrong, so Deffenbacher suggests comically exaggerating that idea. Picture yourself as a supreme ruler -- a crown, cape and all -- who is in charge of everything and demands that others bow down before you. Pretty absurd, right? But the more detail you imagine, Deffenbacher says, the more likely you are to remember that the world does not, in fact, revolve around you (unless you’re a narcissist, in which case I would probably avoid this exercise).
A second strategy to control your anger is to change the way you see the person or thing that’s making you angry. Angry people tend to have common thinking patterns. They see people as either good or bad; their actions as right or wrong. Because they “awful-ize” (as my mom calls it), they love the words “never” and “always” (My boss never listens to me; My spouse always ignores my feelings), which reinforces the belief that they’re being deprived of their basic needs. They also see their desires as demands rather than requests (“My flight was late so I must have a voucher for a first class ticket!”).
The simple way around such thoughts is to choose different ones -- and in the battle between logic and anger, logic usually wins. First, stop the all or nothing thinking. Instead of seeing the person who wronged you as “bad,” look at things from their perspective, or find something you can appreciate or empathize with. Try to remember a time when your boss did listen to you, or your spouse did pay attention to your feelings. Finally, to get out of the dangerous “demand” mindset, remind yourself that this situation shouldn’t have the power to ruin your day. Do you really need that first class voucher? Does the airline really have that much power over your happiness? Surely, you have far more control over your destiny than that.
Though avoiding the source of your anger isn’t always on the table, sometimes you do have this option. I certainly don’t advocate running away from your problems, but if someone is making you uncontrollably angry, the path of least resistance is to simply stop putting yourself in that situation. Does the Starbucks barista irritate you every morning before you’ve had your coffee? Go somewhere else. Does your annoying coworker’s idle chatter send you off the deep end? Take another route to the copy machine. Do flight delays make you see red? Book the first flight of the day. You get the idea.
So far, our three strategies -- diffuse, re-think, and avoid -- work well when it’s simply not worth being angry. But if something really is worth fighting for, your goal shouldn’t be to squelch your anger but to intentionally and productively channel it to help you achieve your goal. And that’s where our fourth strategy comes in.
Paul Kagame became the president of Rwanda in the aftermath of the 1994 genocide, where the Hutus killed one million Tutsis. That alone is challenging -- but Kagame also happens to be a Tutsi and the leader of the opposition army. It would have been easy for his anger to push him to aggressiveness -- that is, getting his own needs met, regardless of the harm caused to others. But instead, Kagame chose to be assertive, enacting his vision while building everyone up in the process. Instead of seeking revenge against the 150,000 alleged killers in his custody, he brought Rwandans together to confront their past, forgive each other, and create a brighter future.
Kagame made three assertive choices: first, to stay together, bringing millions of Hutu refugees home and allowing low-level genocide suspects to be tried in specially formed community courts rather than criminal ones. Second, he wouldn’t tolerate corruption or aggression of any kind, even abolishing the death penalty. Third, he decided to think and act big. Rwanda is now the safest country in Africa. It’s GDP has tripled since 1994. Rwandans have national health insurance, accessible education, and a boom of foreign investments. If Kagame could accomplish all this after the anger he felt, just think of what’s possible for the rest of us.
At the end of the day, and at the risk of sounding a little trite, each of us is either part of the problem or part of the solution. Being part of the problem is easy, because all you have to do is let yourself be seduced by the siren song of anger: to hurl insults at your Facebook friends who are daft enough not to share your opinions, or to let your anger trick you into saying and doing things you wouldn’t normally do. Being part of the solution is harder -- it requires thought, intention, and commitment -- but it is also the only way out of this collective collision course.