"John," I said, "Let me tell you a story — a true story. Once upon a time (a few years ago), 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 and stuff. With another group, they had an angry child express his anger verbally. In the third group, all the researchers did was give 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?" asks 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 'venting' increases your feelings of anger. Isn't that surprising? I didn't believe it at first. But you watch yourself next time you get angry and '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 are making you mad.
"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. You wait for a long time. 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. I am not doing well tonight. I just got the news that my brother and my nephew were killed in a car accident this afternoon.'
"On hearing this, what happens to you emotionally? Your anger disappears — almost instantly. Where did it go? If it was bottling up, it would still be there, right? You've had no way to 'vent it.' But you are suddenly not the least bit angry. The idea that anger builds up and needs to be released is just another commonsense 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 are now 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, and he isn't frowning, "What do I do with my thoughts? Say my 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, it won't help to think positive, because saying things to yourself you don't believe has no impact. If you've ever tried it, you know that's true. What you need to do is argue with your negative thoughts. Don't think positive; tear apart the negative. When you're angry, you take your thoughts for granted, as if you believed that because you think it, it must be true. But if someone else came up and said exactly the same thing out loud, 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 the words of a fast-talking salesman. 'Hold on there, buddy,' you might say, 'Slow down and say that again...(he says one sentence)...Can you prove that? Who says? Has a study been done? Who conducted the study?' You don't take everything at face-value. You question it.
"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 unsubstantiated claims. 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 say, "Tell me something you were thinking awhile ago — some thought you were thinking about your customer."
"Let's see..." John recalls, "This lady was being really condescending and the other people..."
"Wait," I interrupt, "Let's take one at a time. You can't argue with several thoughts at once. 'The lady was being condescending.' That's a good one. Do you think you could argue with that?"
"Well, maybe she wasn't being condescending."
"Good. Are there other possible explanations for the way she was talking to you?"
"Yeah. Maybe she was in a bad mood when she came in and I had nothing to do with it."
"That's a good one. Give me another one."
"Uh...I remind her of her son, and she's in the habit of being condescending to him."
"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 wouldn't have to take it personally. And if you're not taking it personally, you're not going to get as angry. Come up with another one."
"Okay. Let's see...How about: She was actually having strong sexual fantasies about 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?"
"I don't know."
"None!!!" I say, a little too loudly. "You have effectively destroyed the thought. You have proven to yourself that there are other theories to explain what you experienced besides 'She is being condescending.' Since you don't know what is the 'real' explanation, just leave it at that. It is unknown. And when there are several possible theories to explain things, and they all explain them just as well, you won't be too upset by any one of them. You have become more rational. You will act more effectively because of it. And you will feel better.
"Cognitive Therapy and Rational Emotive Therapy, two of the very few kinds of therapies that have been proven effective, both use this technique of arguing with yourself. As you can imagine, though, it takes a little practice."
"Yeah," says John, "You'd probably have to go to a therapist."
"You wouldn't, not for everyday stuff like this. You're verbally competent and not out of control. You could learn to do this on your own. Just argue with your own thoughts when you get angry (or depressed or nervous). Argue on the basis of facts and logic. Argue simply and pragmatically. Nothing fancy is required. Argue like you would if somebody else was saying to you what you're saying to yourself."
"I can do that. 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!"
The Cause of Anger
When someone makes you angry, it seems that the cause of your anger is the person's actions. But what really makes you angry is what you think the action means. If you look closely at the meaning of an event, your certainty about it will fade. You'll realize it doesn't necessarily mean what you assume it means. This uncertainty will make your anger diminish.
Let's say I interrupt you while you're talking and it makes you mad. You "know" I am being disrespectful. Let's look at this closely: 1) an event happens, 2) you figure out what it means, and then, 3) you feel an emotion in response to the meaning. Step number 2 happens very fast so it seems the event directly caused your feelings. But that isn't so. And you can prove it to yourself.
Wait until the next time you get mad at someone. Then try to discover one thought you have about what they did. Since the meaning of an event occurs to you so quickly, it's very hard to see. So you have to backtrack. You have to do a slow-motion replay. Ask yourself, "Why am I mad?" Your answer is probably, "Because he did such-and-such." Ask yourself another question: "Why would that make me angry?" Your answer to this second question is probably a statement about the meaning of the action. Now you have something to work with.
Take your statement and look at it skeptically. In our above example, I interrupted you. You thought, "He doesn't respect me." Looking at that thought skeptically, you realize it's only a theory to explain why I interrupted you. Once you look at it, you also realize it isn't the only possible explanation. Try to come up with other explanations. Maybe I've never thought much about interrupting, and no one ever said anything to me about it, so I'm in the habit of interrupting people — those I respect and those I don't. Or maybe I interrupted you because I have a poor memory and didn't want to forget my thought, so I blurted it out. You can never really be sure why another person does something. Sometimes the person himself doesn't know why he's doing it.
After you create two or three good theories (this will only take a few minutes; you'll be surprised how easy it is), your anger will fade, you'll feel better, and you'll deal with the situation more rationally. Argue with yourself this way and everyone wins.
Adam Khan is the author of Self-Help Stuff That Works and Cultivating Fire: How to Keep Your Motivation White Hot. Follow his podcast, The Adam Bomb.