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How to Control Your Anger Before It Controls You
By Albert Ellis, Raymond Chip Tafrate
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 1997 Albert Ellis Institute
All rights reserved.
The Grim Costs of Anger
You are probably reading this book because either you or someone you care about has a problem with anger. Before we begin to show you and your loved ones how to reduce anger, let us briefly look at some of its grim costs.
Why should you and those you care about work to push away your honest and heartfelt feelings of rage? Obviously, there is no law of the universe that says you absolutely must do so. But there are some important reasons why you'd darned well better.
ANGER DESTROYS PERSONAL RELATIONSHIPS
Damage to personal relationships is one of the most common costs of anger, and probably the worst. The relationships that are damaged are often your best. You may believe, like many people do, that anger is something we direct mostly at people we dislike. Wrong! Several surveys conducted by psychologists tell us this is not true. We more commonly make ourselves angry at individuals we know well. The most frequent targets of anger include spouses, children, co-workers, and friends. The following case examples illustrate this point.
Jeff was in his late fifties when he came into therapy to get control over his explosive temper. He was divorced with two grown children. He said that his wife became fed up with his angry outbursts and controlling behaviors and had divorced him several years before. Even when he still had some contact with his children, their relationship was often strained. Once, while visiting with his daughter, he got into an argument with his son-in-law. The exchange became so heated that Jeff actually punched him. Since that time both his children had refused to have any contact with him. When looking back, Jeff sadly realized that his anger had contributed to the loss of most of his close family ties.
Nancy was twenty-six years old when she sought help. At that time she had been living with her boyfriend, Fred, for about two years. They had been planning to get married, but Nancy's anger at Fred was destroying their relationship. She reported feeling jealous and enraged about him working closely with other women and complained that he was not paying enough attention to her. While there was no evidence that Fred was romantically involved with any of his coworkers, Nancy would search for things he was doing wrong. Periodically she would accuse him of all sorts of horrors and sometimes yell and throw things around the house. Fred finally got fed up with her angry displays, broke off the engagement, and moved out.
These two cases may seem somewhat extreme but actually are not that unusual. People like Jeff will frequently put the blame on others when their relationships are rough. They refuse to compromise or adjust when disagreements arise. It's not until some of their relationships begin falling apart that they take some responsibility for their anger and really notice its grim costs. In many cases, they don't realize that their own angry feelings and outbursts have led them to lose friends and fail to influence people — until it's much too late!
Nancy's case was a little different. The loss of just one important relationship was enough for her to see that she had a problem with anger control. But at first, even she blamed her rage on her exfiance. She reasoned that because she was feeling so hurt and angry, Fred must be wrong. She didn't improve until she accepted responsibility for her own lack of emotional control.
Think about your own life. Has your anger ruined any important relationships? Do you tend to blame other people for how you are feeling? If you continue this pattern, where will you be a few years from now? Letting go of your anger and being more accepting and flexible in close relationships will probably serve you better in the long — and short — run.
ANGER DISRUPTS WORK RELATIONSHIPS
Let's face it, work is often very frustrating. Demanding bosses, jealous coworkers, irate customers, deadlines, unfairness of all sorts — these can all test your patience. Your anger about frustrations, however, can frustrate you more. First, it can ruin work relationships and impede your success. Second, it can block your focusing on important issues and limit your ability to do quality work.
Getting along with other people helps you succeed on the job and may even be as important as your ability to do the job itself. Coworkers and supervisors hate working with you if you have temper outbursts. They will see you as a difficult customer and want to run for the nearest exit. A study conducted by the Center for Creative Leadership in North Carolina found that among executives, the inability to handle anger, especially in pressure situations, was a major factor in missing promotions, being fired, or being asked to retire.
And not only among executives! Hostility can sabotage you in all sorts of work settings and at different employment levels. Let's look at two very different case examples:
Jerry, a construction worker, started therapy because he was afraid his angry outbursts might lose him his job. Although he was physically capable of handling his work, Jerry was short in stature. He would often get teased by his coworkers about his height. In response to these insults, Jerry became visibly enraged. This led to even more ridicule. At one point, Jerry became so angry that he actually threatened to assault another employee. He was suspended and told that if he lost his temper on the job once again he would be fired.
Fortunately, Jerry used REBT methods to reduce his angry feelings first, and then was able to respond more effectively to people's ridicule. Let's look at another case:
Howard was the owner of a small accounting agency. His business consisted of himself and an administrative assistant. Howard was feeling depressed because his business was not doing very well — especially because, over the past year, he had lost five different assistants. Important work was not getting done and he had to constantly keep retraining somebody new. Howard overreacted strongly to any sort of frustration, screaming, banging on the furniture, and even breaking the phone on several occasions. He foolishly figured that he had every right to be angry because it was his business and he was paying the salary of his assistant. A few REBT sessions helped him to realize that his angry outbursts were driving people away and proving to be very costly.
In both of these cases, angry feelings and outbursts were destroying important work relationships. Jerry needed the support of his coworkers and supervisors to keep his job and to move upward. Howard mistakenly assumed that just because he was the boss everyone would have to accept his temper tantrums.
Being able to manage your emotions on the job, in spite of inevitable frustrations, is often crucial in building a successful career. Giving vent to your anger often feels great to you — but hardly to your business or professional associates!
Anger also diverts your energy and attention away from your work. How? By driving you to ruminate about some "unfair" situation, and to run it uselessly over and over in your head. Or by your obsessing about seeking revenge against a coworker or supervisor. Or by pushing you to engage in subtle sabotage, to refuse to follow sensible directions, to let important things slide, or even to go out of your way to destroy someone else's work.
How will your madly focusing on some "unjust" person, or on plotting and scheming revenge, help you constructively resolve conflicts or do quality work? Badly! Your rage, over time, will certainly be noticed by people around you. Observe the case of Jane:
Jane came into treatment because she could not stop ruminating about why she did not get a recent promotion. She had been with her company for over five years and expected to be promoted to a managerial position. When this did not happen she felt hurt and enraged. The more she thought about it, the more angry she made herself. While Jane masked her anger from her boss, her enthusiasm for her work declined, her performance waned, and she failed to follow through on several projects. After a month of this, Jane's boss called her in to his office, expressed his concern, and revealed that her failing to get a promotion had more to do with budget problems than her job performance. He reassured her that she was the next in line for a promotion — however, if she did not get back to being more productive, the firm would promote someone else.
Jane had spent so much time and energy inwardly raging at her boss that she never stopped to think of other reasons why she did not get promoted. So she acted in a manner that decreased her chances of getting the raise. Result: She almost ruined her chances for advancement.
You may, of course, sometimes find yourself in work situations that are indeed unfair and unrewarding. But by reacting angrily or by impulsively "running away," you encourage people to conclude that you cannot handle frustration and are likely to enrage yourself when things get tough again. A much better alternative is to reduce your anger and do your best to improve the situation. If this does not work, you may unangrily decide to move on and seek a more rewarding work environment.
MAKING DIFFICULT SITUATIONS WORSE
In spite of what we have just said, doesn't anger have some gains? Doesn't feeling angry sometimes help you to face difficult situations? Won't it help you to feel empowered and in control when confronted with adversity? Isn't expressing your anger necessary for asserting yourself and getting your points across? Good questions. Psychological research has not yet definitively shown whether anger increases or decreases your effectiveness in handling difficulties. In fact, few researchers have even bothered to look at this issue. Nonetheless, many people, including some therapists and popular writers, have jumped to the conclusion that you must feel angry when facing unfair situations.
A somewhat different perspective emerged over two thousand years ago from some of the Asian and Greek and Roman philosophers. In one of the earliest essays on anger, the Stoic philosopher Seneca described anger as "the most hideous and frenzied of all the emotions." The Stoics observed that anger has the capacity to cloud people's ability to reason effectively.
Among the numerous clients we have seen with anger problems, many are quite intelligent and have good skills for resolving conflict and difficulties — when they are not enraged. After they have cooled down, they can calmly identify different ways they could have better handled troublesome situations.
Try to remember the last time you felt extremely angry. Recall what you focused upon and how you acted. Were you able to reasonably consider good courses of action? Were you able to look at all your options? Did you make the best decision? Do you regret something you said or did? If you are like most people, you will see that you hardly think and behave at your best when you feel enraged.
Also observe how other people act when they are very angry. Look at your relatives, friends, and coworkers. Or just turn on your television set. News broadcasts and talk shows are full of examples. During a tough interview, how effective are people who lose their cool? Does anger help debaters make their points logically and reasonably?
But, you may ask, what about situations where someone is fighting against some form of injustice or unfairness? What about struggling for large-scale social reforms, such as equal rights? Isn't anger appropriate and effective in these situations?
While anger may help in some situations, it rarely aids sensible change. Leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr., Mahatma Gandhi, and others were forcefully committed to and passionate about their causes. But they were also extremely disciplined and clear-headed. They were effective because they mainly relied on reason and not on anger.
We all struggle at times. Life is difficult and challenging. While anger is a natural human emotion, it is hardly the most useful for solving problems. Think about it — and decide whether rage is helpful or hurtful for you.
ANGER SPARKS AGGRESSION
Another reason to curb anger is that it can easily lead to aggression. Haven't you witnessed violence in your own life? And on the screen and in the news? Isn't our own American culture one of the most violent of any industrialized country?
According to the U.S. Department of Justice, one violent crime occurs in the United States every seventeen seconds. Acts of brute force are especially prevalent among our nation's youth. Homicide is currently the second leading cause of death among fifteen-to-twenty-four-year-olds, making interpersonal violence one of the most important public heath problems.
So is family violence. It is estimated that in the United States about a million and a half women are battered by their partners each year. Approximately 40 percent of all the women who are murdered in this country every year die at the hands of their husbands. Not that women are themselves exempt from acting violently. More recent surveys show that women assaulted men more often than the reverse. Be cautious, however, about such comparisons, because when men assault women the consequences tend to be more severe.
Violence in families also takes a grim toll on young children. A government report concluded that in the United States approximately 140,000 children a year suffer serious injury from child abuse. At least two thousand children a year — more than five each day — die at the hands of their parents or caretakers.
While anger does not automatically lead to aggression, it can often do so. As one anger investigator, James Averill, put it, "Anger can be likened to an architect's blueprint. The availability of a blueprint does not cause a building to be constructed, but it does make construction easier."
The cost of anger as an instigator of aggression is illustrated in the following two case examples:
Rich was a thirty-seven-year-old husband who started treatment after his arrest for assault and battery. His wife had long complained about his aggressive behavior while driving. She insisted that he get help when another driver cut Rich off at a traffic light, almost causing an accident. Rich enraged himself and followed the driver to the next light. He then got out of his car and exchanged words with the other angry driver. Rich punched him in the face and then left the scene. Police later caught up with him after a witness provided his license plate number. When seen for therapy, Rich revealed that he got angry and exchanged words with other drivers at least once a month. This had resulted in other fights, though this was the first time he had been arrested.
Shirley was in her early thirties when she sought help for constantly screaming at her three young children. She reported that her kids continually frustrated her, that she received little help from her husband, and that she felt that she never had a minute for herself. Her outbursts were getting worse and she was breaking objects around the house. She was worried that she might be harming her children psychologically and feared losing control and hurting them physically.
Like Rich and Shirley, a number of people seek help for their anger because it leads to violent behaviors. Costs associated with aggression include loss of relationships, loss of jobs, physical injury, damaged property, lawsuits, jail sentences, and feelings of guilt and embarrassment.
Try to remember the last time you were aggressive. Think of times when you may have destroyed property, yelled, screamed, pushed, slapped, or punched somebody. Weren't you — honestly? — impelled by some degree of anger? Even rare expressions of violence can be costly. If you get enraged frequently, watch it!
ANGER MAY LEAD TO HEART DISEASE
Maybe you are thinking to yourself, "I'm perfectly healthy and this section doesn't really apply to me." Don't be so sure! Over fifty years of research shows how chronic anger and the development of heart disease are often connected. Heart disease is currently the leading cause of death among Americans. While your anger may not as yet have produced serious health problems, its damaging effects may already be at work.
To understand how anger can harm your body, let us review its purpose and function. Many researchers view anger as an emotional system that prepares and energizes us for action against a potential source of threat and that assists us in mobilizing our resources to deal with conflict. Early in this century this type of emergency response was studied by the physiologist Walter Cannon, who coined the term the "fight or flight" response. The flight part of the response goes with anxiety and fleeing from a dangerous situation. The fight portion goes more with anger and defending yourself against some kind of threat.
What happens in your body when you feel angry and your emergency response gets going? Physical changes, such as increases in muscle tension, heart rate, breathing, and metabolism, help ready your body for action. Also, adrenaline pours into your bloodstream and your blood flows to the larger muscles in your body. It is not surprising that people often report the urge to strike out at the target of their anger. Their bodies are prepared to do just that.
Excerpted from How to Control Your Anger Before It Controls You by Albert Ellis, Raymond Chip Tafrate. Copyright © 1997 Albert Ellis Institute. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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