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Anger specialists (2): Why do I continue to be angry?

In my previous post, Anger specialists (1), Why did I become angry?, I presented a definition of problematic anger, introduced the difference between a healthy anger chain and a problematic one, and discussed the most common factors that lead a person to be angry: family history, learning to mask shame or defectiveness with angry responses, hypersensitivity to criticism, and other factors, such as history of trauma, or chronic illnesses. The bottom line, however, is that when looking at angry behaviors, we’re looking at learned responses; it’s a myth to believe that anger has a genetic component. Anger is simply a learned response that at some point you began to exercise in order to get what you wanted. In the short-term, it works; in the long-term it will continue to take you further away from building the relationships you want to have.

In this post I’m going to describe the most common rules, or rationales, that people use to justify they anger:

(a) “I’m angry because it’s their fault; if they would stop doing what I’ve asked them, I won’t be angry”
This is a very popular belief among people struggling with problematic anger. It’s all other’s fault. If they change, then things will be fine. When Joe and Theresa moved in together, Joe didn’t know that Theresa had a unique and systematic ways of doing things, such as cleaning, making her bed, and organizing, which were quite understandable given that she had been single for last five years of her life. Joe, on the other side, had his own preferences about how he wanted to complete certain tasks at home and wasn’t as detail oriented as Theresa was. So Theresa simply couldn’t understand why Joe couldn’t leave his cup of coffee in one single place, instead of leaving it in multiple places around the house, or why he needed to clean the bedroom first before any other room in the house. As a result, almost on a daily basis, Theresa was angry with Joe and continue to scream and blame at him for her anger: “If you would listen to me and be more considerate of me, you would leave your cup of coffee on the dinning table, where I have asked you to leave it; but you’re too oblivious and inconsiderate of me to do so. If I reach this point of being really upset it is only because of you and your stupid behaviors; everything would be fine if you weren’t making me so mad.

In Theresa’s point of view, it’s Joe’s fault that she’s angry. Theresa is not owning her own behavior, that is, her own angry response. She may be triggered by Joe’s behavior, but she’s making a conscious choice of how to respond to the trigger (with her habitual response of anger). We’re constantly going to be triggered in life on a daily basis, but we’re fundamentally accountable for our own response. We, not our environment or the people around us, are responsible for the way we respond to these triggers.

(b) “I want what I want right now; it’s my way or the highway.”
People that continue to display angry behaviors hold the rule that it’s all about their needs, desires, and expectations; other forms of being are simply not good enough or intelligent as their way of being. And if people don’t go along with what they’re asking, it’s simply wrong and so they feel justified in having an angry response to it. For instance, Peter tells his wife, “I don’t understand why you continue to chop the vegetables with the small knife when I have repeatedly shown you which knife to use and how to do it. Do you just want me to be upset? Are you stupid? I don’t understand how you could have gone to school for so many years and yet you still cannot follow a simple direction like which knife to use when chopping vegetables. If you continue doing it I’m going to stop cooking with you, and you will be in your own.”

Peter cannot acknowledge that his wife may have her own preferences when chopping vegetables and he displays his anger by yelling, calling her names, and threatening; all of which are a form of controlling his wife’s behavior.

(c) “People should be accountable for their behavior, and it’s up to me to make sure they face consequences.”
People that engage in angry behaviors justify their response by telling themselves that if others do something wrong or inappropriate that affects them those people should be punished. They believe that if these people are not punished, they will continue doing what they have been doing. For instance, when Tamare complains to her husband Tom that he continues to act as though he is living a single life and is not prioritizing their time together, he gets extremely frustrated and angry; his response is usually, “If you would stop nagging me, I would be here more often; but you’re so pushy that I don’t want to be around you. The more you nag me, the less I will give in to you. I have to stop your behavior, because otherwise I would be giving you what you want and letting you off the hook.” Then, he punishes his wife by working out for hours, watching TV, calling his friends to hang out, or going to sleep in the sofa.

These rules are the most common ones that I encounter in my clinical work with clients struggling with problematic anger:

(a) “I’m angry because it’s their fault; if they stop doing what I ask them to do, I won’t be angry.”
(b) “I want what I want right now; it’s my way or the highway.”
(c) “People should be accountable for their behavior, and it’s up to me to make sure they face consequences.”

I refer to them as “rules” because they’re extremely rigid and inflexible; there is no consideration at all of how a person’s behavior or his/her angry response is affecting  a relationship. Most angry people will quickly respond that their behavior is working in their favor since they’re getting what they want. In a sense, they are right, they’re getting what they want right away, but in the long-term they’re simply creating a path to unhappiness, deeper resentment, and creating strife in their relationships.

As P. Efron (2001) has stated “Anger is a crude weapon …  It’ s like holding a gun to the head of a person.” They will probably do whatever you demand, but that moment the gun goes down, they will run or shoot you back.

Now, the invitation for you is to identify your rules. Think about a particular angry situation you recently struggled with, maybe a week or two weeks ago, and do the best you can to simply describe the situation without any judgment. Then look at the underlying rule; a rule is a fixed belief about how things are supposed to be handled or how people should behave; and finally, look at the consequences of following that rule in your relationships in the short-term and long-term.  

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Written by:
Patricia E. Zurita Ona, Psy.D. is a psychologist at the East Bay Behavior Therapy Center. Dr. Zurita Ona can be contacted at ebbehaviortherapycenter@gmail.com.
Based on:
Potter-Efron, R. (1994). Angry all the time. An emergency guide to anger control. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications.