At times, the world can seem almost designed to provoke anger. Inhabitants of the average modern city are subjected to relentless irritation and stress, from overcrowding and traffic queues to flickering screens and 24 hour news. But anger is often treated as comic. Birthday cards and newspaper cartoons, for example, will depict an absurdly irate, red-faced man throwing a tantrum while everyone laughs. But the reality is less amusing – life for those dealing with anger issues can be an utter misery.
Before you can bring anger under control, you must first understand it. The problem isn't anger in itself but inappropriate, excessive anger. Indeed, anger, when directed wisely, can be a wonderful source of energy and power. Those who volunteer to work with the homeless, for example, are often motivated by indignant rage at the pain and tragedy they see. But others can be riled to homicidal fury by the most trivial of things, causing problems both to themselves and those who love them. And anyone unfortunate enough to live with such a person soon becomes a nervous wreck, forever trying to soothe and placate.
The causes of anger are almost limitless, but for convenience they can be grouped into three broad categories: irritants, expenses, and rule-breaking. Everyone has their own irritants. Some people remain quite unmoved as their child throws a tantrum or their boss yells at them, but will become enraged if their partner chews his food too loudly or the neighbor's dog barks last thing at night. Life today is more irritating than ever. Not only is the world overcrowded, but people have to live with, and depend on, forms of technology they rarely understand but which are forever going wrong.
Next, there are 'expenses.' These cover anything that has cost you in some way. For example, imagine you are late for work. You hurry along the crowded sidewalk and take a shortcut through the shopping mall. You jump on the escalator only to find a young mother and her pram blocking your way. You can't get past but have to wait for the escalator to reach its natural end. She has cost you time. Having your car vandalized or being overcharged in a shop would be other common examples. Usually, either money or time is being lost.
Finally, there is rule breaking. Most people have a vague set of rules by which they live. And most assume that others share these beliefs – usually incorrectly. Those who are infuriated by such things will say, "but I would never do that, so I don't see why he should get away with it." Rudeness is an obvious example. Most people feel that speaking loudly on your cell phone in a library or restaurant breaks an unwritten rule of simple courtesy. Marriage guidance counsellors often find that couples develop unspoken rules. When one partner falls out of love with the other, or merely develops a grudge, they will deliberately break these rules just to provoke a response. They may, for example, begin criticising and ridiculing their partner's family.
Before you can deal with anger, you must know your triggers. First, buy a notebook. Each evening, make a note of your angry outbursts. Rank it on a scale of one to 10. What caused the outburst? Was it something someone said? Did someone cut you up as you were driving to work? After writing down what triggered anger, you should then describe your response. Did you yell? Clench your fist? Throw something against the wall? Gradually, a pattern will emerge. With a little effort, you will begin to understand yourself.
More importantly, this will get you in the habit of monitoring your thoughts. Try to recall what went through your mind. For example, imagine a forty-eight year old single father named Steve. It is Friday night, and he has had an exhausting week. He goes to the local bar for a drink with his friend. It is very cold, but the only available table is near the door. New people arrive, enter, and leave the door ajar. An icy draught now disturbs Steve and his friend, so Steve gets up and clicks it shut. He has just sat down when someone else comes in, doing the same. When it happens a third time, he loses his temper and screams at the new customer to close the door behind him. A nasty confrontation follows with Steve and the man nearly coming to blows.
An anger management therapist later asks Steve what thoughts and feelings were passing through his mind at the time. He replies "I'd had a terrible week. My boss is unreasonable and never thanks or praises me. And my teenage son is getting so argumentative and sulky. I was thinking how much I needed that night out – to offload my problems and have a few drinks, you know. But those selfish people who left the door open only cared about themselves. It felt like they were leaving the door open just to annoy me. Plus all the good tables were gone – they'd all got themselves nicely tucked up in the good seats by the fire." The therapist now asks Steve to imagine how a detached observer might have interpreted things. Isn't it more likely that the door was broken? The man you had a fight with, she adds, had no idea what hit him. He walked into the bar and was suddenly screamed at by a stranger. Maybe he was distracted because his daughter was ill or he had just been fired. Don't forget, she says, that you ruined his evening as well!
The key is to get in the habit of challenging thoughts that trigger anger. People who are quick to anger tend to see things in a very simplistic way. They are often paranoid, convincing themselves that people do things just to annoy them. Those bullied when young are especially prone to this. They often make a pact with themselves that no-one will ever treat them that way again. For the rest of their lives they are primed and ready for a bully – often seeing them where they don't exist. Ask yourself the following questions: Am I mind reading? Do I really know what someone's intentions are? Am I over-generalising? Am I using extreme, emotive language?
Those gripped by anger can seem almost possessed, and it can be frightening. But anger isn't some demon taking control from outside. Anger comes from within. And it begins with thought. In Steve's case, he will overcome his anger issues only when he learns to question his simplistic and paranoid thinking and to stop blaming others for his stressful life.