“John,” I said, “Let me tell you a true story. Once upon a time, a team of researchers wanted to find the best way to deal with anger. They experimented with children at school. In one group, whenever a child got mad at another child, they had him act out his anger with toy guns. With another group, they had the child express his anger verbally. In the third group, the researchers merely gave the angry child a rational explanation for why the other child did what she did. And you know what? The method that worked the best was the last one.”
“The rational explanation?” asked John, obviously needing a rational explanation.
“Yes. There’s been a lot of research showing that anger isn’t really something that ‘bottles up’ inside you, and that ‘venting’ doesn’t help — in fact, venting increases your feelings of anger. Isn’t that surprising? I didn’t believe it at first. But pay attention next time you ‘vent.’ It makes you more angry! Anger is caused by the way you’re thinking at the moment you’re angry, and it seems like it’s building up because you’re running those thoughts through your head over and over, getting madder and madder. But it’s the thoughts that make you mad, not the event itself.
“Imagine you’re in a restaurant with a friend,” I continued, “and you order dinner. Your waiter takes your order and goes on about his business. After awhile, you wonder where your food is. You look for your waiter but don’t see him. You’re getting angry. By the time your waiter walks up (empty handed), you’re really mad. ‘Where have you been!’ you demand, ‘And what happened to our dinner?’ The waiter says, ‘I’m sorry. I forgot to give the cooks your order until only a few minutes ago. I’m really sorry. The hostess just had an epileptic seizure, and I was calling the paramedics and trying to keep her from hurting herself.’
“On hearing this, what happens? Your anger disappears — almost instantly. Where did it go? If anger really bottled up inside you, it would still be there, right? You’ve had no way to ‘vent it.’ But you’re suddenly not the least bit angry. The idea that anger builds up and needs to be released is just another generally-believed idea that’s been proven wrong.
“The reason you’re suddenly not angry is that your anger was being produced by the thoughts you were thinking, and you’re no longer thinking those thoughts, so the anger is no longer being produced.”
“So what am I supposed to do?” asks John. He isn’t smiling, but he isn’t frowning, “When a customer is being a jerk, do I think to myself, ‘My customer is a nice person; I love my customer?’”
“Good question,” I said. “No. I doubt if that would work, because saying things to yourself you don’t believe doesn’t do much good. Have you ever tried it?”
“Did it work?”
“Right. Sometimes it does, but not very often. What you need to do is question your interpretation. Don’t try to pump yourself up and tell yourself a bunch of positive stuff you don’t believe. Tear apart the negative. When you’re angry, you take your thoughts for granted. If you thought it, it must be so, right? You can trust your own thoughts, can’t you? But if someone else came up and said exactly the same thing out loud to you, you could take the statement apart no problem. But you said it, so you just accept it.
“You should treat the thoughts in your head with as much skepticism as you would treat the words of a fast-talking salesman. ‘Hold on there, buddy,’ you might say, ‘Slow down and say that again...(let him say one sentence)...Can you prove that? Who says? Has a study been done? Who conducted the study?’ You don’t take everything a salesman says at face-value. You question it. You should do the same thing with the thoughts you have that bring you down.
“As soon as you start arguing with your own thoughts, you’ll find it pretty easy to tear them to shreds because the thoughts you think when you’re angry are almost always exaggerations and distortions and unprovable interpretations. Almost always. Like 99 percent of the time. And when you take your thoughts apart, your anger disappears.”
John looked unconvinced.
“Give me one,” I said, “Tell me something you were thinking about a customer.”
“Let’s see...” John recalled, “This lady was being really condescending and the other people...”
“Wait,” I interrupted, “Let’s take one at a time. ‘The lady was being condescending.’ That’s a good one. Do you think you could argue with that?”
“Well...I don’t know.”
“Was she being condescending?”
“Yes. She was.”
“Are you sure? Can you read minds?”
“No. I guess it’s possible she wasn’t being condescending.”
“Maybe she wasn’t. How could you know for sure? Maybe you misread her tone of voice and body posture. It happens, you know. Don’t you hate it when someone misreads your tone of voice? It happens. Maybe you misread her’s. Are there other possible explanations for the way she was talking to you?”
“Yeah, I guess. Maybe she was in a bad mood when she came in and I had nothing to do with it.”
“That’s a good one. That’s certainly possible. Give me another one.”
“Uh...I remind her of her son, and she’s in the habit of being condescending to him.”
“That’s pretty good. You’re good at this. Both of those explanations have nothing to do with you. In other words, with either of those explanations, you don’t have to take it personally. And if you don’t take it personally, you’re probably not going to get angry. Can you think of another one?”
“Let’s see...How about: She was actually strongly attracted to me and had a hard time controlling herself and her effort to control herself looked like ‘condescension.’”
“Okay. Good. Now which explanation do you settle for?”
“Hmm...let me think...”
“None!!!” I say a little too loudly. “You have effectively destroyed your original interpretation—the one that was making you angry. You’ve proven to yourself that there are other equally possible theories to explain what you experienced besides, ‘She’s being condescending.’ Since you don’t know what the ‘real’ explanation is, you can just leave it at that. It is unknown. And when there are several equally possible theories to explain things, you won’t be too upset by any one of them. And you’ll feel better. And you’ll act more effectively because of it.”
“This is good,” he says, looking a little hopeful.
“It works really well. How do you feel now.”
“What do you mean?”
“Do you feel angry?”
“See, it’s working already!”
MOST OF THE MEANINGS we make automatically are given to us during our upbringing. We’re using the meanings we’ve been given without ever suspecting we have a choice. We’re somewhat passive receptacles of the culture we grew up with.
We don’t realize our power to make meanings, so we don’t exercise it. But the meanings we make have a tremendous impact on our lives.
If you think when you and your spouse get mad at each other it means your marriage is on the rocks, that meaning will affect the outcome of your life. It will affect how you feel. If you become afraid of conflict because you think it means The End, and you avoid conflict (maybe you don’t speak the straight truth in order to avoid conflict), you’ll create misunderstandings. Things s/he doesn’t know about you will start accumulating. Confusion and distrust will accumulate right along with it. This, in itself can lead to what you feared: the eventual demise of your marriage.
The meanings you make have an impact on your life.
By experimenting with different meanings, you can improve your attitude and ability to handle problems in your life because a different meaning gives you different feelings and different actions, and that gives you different results in your life.
Meanings are not facts. When a meaning causes you dysphoria or ineffectiveness, question it. Make up other meanings.
You’re in the driver’s seat.
Adam Khan is the author of Antivirus For Your Mind: How to Strengthen Your Persistence and Determination and Feel Good More Often and co-author with Klassy Evans of How to Change the Way You Look at Things (in Plain English).