Everyone has a different rage profile, but we’ve all been there: There’s that subtle push, that incessant poking that gets under our skin until we burst in what, at the time, felt like righteous anger. The people closest to us get under our skin the fastest and with the littlest of things, but our real blood pressure spiking incidents happen on the outside. Read on after the jump for the method I use to defuse my anger and some relevant lessons to learn before hand.
As it turns out, there is a reason we lose our temper more readily later in the day. Human beings have a limited amount of will power and self-control. We spend the entire day exercising them. Whether it’s obeying the speed limit when we want to go faster, or denying ourselves that donut in the office, or biting back some smart remark we wanted to throw at our boss. Then after a day of biting your tongue and holding back, you’re stuck in traffic, someone cuts you off, news radio is poisoning your calm with whatever new inanity is coming out of congress. You get home and the significant other who has had a similar day is stressing you out over some petty insignificance like taking out the trash when you just want to put your feet up and decompress. So you explode. Things are said, doors are slammed, blood pressure rises, skin breaks out, stress levels spike, and the cycle continues all week.
Even for people who don’t go through anything that extreme, we’ve all been in a situation where we know we should bite back our temper but we just can’t. Conventional anger management tells us we should count to ten, but that rarely works. Counting, as an idea, does actually work. Counting to ten is rarely enough though. The idea is that a pause will give your body a chance to dissipate that spike of adrenaline. It doesn’t diminish the anger; it just removes the primary chemical agent that triggers actual action.
With a modest amount of prep work and the guidance of the ancient Greek stoics, you can develop a powerful tool for defusing your anger without tapping into your reserves of will power and self-control much.
STOICS: THE CLIFFS NOTES AND THREE TYPES OF CONTROL
It would take too long to teach you the intricacies of stoicism, and I feel a little uncomfortable giving it the $5 treatment and taking some small part of it for self-help purposes. However, long before I started fully embracing the stoic lifestyle (I make it sound like I’ve been at this a while, but I only started recently), this and a few other techniques adopted from the stoics helped me get my stress and temper under control. Granted, I’ve always been very reserved so this may have been easier for someone of my temperament to adopt, but it doesn’t hurt to try. What you need to know is that a foundational concept in stoicism is the concept of “indifferents” (not indifference. I’m aware this is not a real word). Socrates posited that there are two types of good: material and intrinsic. In other words, having wealth, health, shelter and food is good (material) and having temperance, wisdom, etc. are good too (intrinsic). He then, in a lesson to Clinias, showed how the material goods are not actually good but pointless unless they are used properly. Food is only good if it can be eaten, otherwise, what’s the point? He points out also that they can be used for bad, like using your wealth to make someone miserable.
So according to Socrates, a material good if used with ignorance, is evil, and if not used, is pointless. The implication is that in order to utilize the material ‘good’ you need to have acquired the intrinsic good like temperance and wisdom. Zeno and his stoics would later take this to the logical end and say that all these things are indifferent until adequately utilized. They are neither good nor bad. This is the central premise. Nothing is really good or bad until we make it so. I’m sorry, I’ve just butchered and shortened a deeply complex and brilliant philosophy to try and get you to this point. First, you need to understand that everything outside the intrinsic goods is an indifferent. It is a thing, a place, a time that has no specific intention. When someone does something negative to you, the person is negative, you react negatively, but the thing they did was just a thing with no intention in and of itself. You need to keep that in mind for the next bit to make sense.
The stoics believe that there are three types of control: absolute, partial, and no control. Absolute control is something which you are able to completely affect. It happens because you are making it happen and will cease the moment you stop it. Barring any disaster, reading this is something you have absolute control over. You can stop at any time you please. Partial control, as the name implies, is something which you can only partly affect, but not completely. If you’re a boss, you can hire someone. You can’t control what they do or whether they follow your rules, but you can set rules and you can fire them. This power allows you to exert a certain measure of control, but there are huge swathes of it that you have no control over. No control is simple; this is completely outside your reach. For example, I have no control over the Japanese quake, or Hurricane Katrina, or women.
So how can this knowledge help you defuse your anger? Let’s take a cue from the Dalai Lama (folks, I promise, I’m not some Zen hippie, I came to this stuff when I started thinking about why I’m always so calm. Why invent new words to describe what others have already so eloquently described?). The Dalai Lama once apparently said that worry is a pointless waste of time. Basically if you worry and you turn out to be wrong, you wasted all your energy and time, but if you worry and you turn out to be right, worry didn’t help you avert the crisis so what function did it serve? This is the same sort of dismissal you will need to tap into.
This will not stop you from getting angry; it will just make you better at calming down. When something arouses your anger, you need to ask yourself, “What type of control do I have over the situation?” If you have absolute control, by all means change it. What are you wasting your time being angry for? If you have partial control, handle what you can control in the situation and ignore the rest. What’s the point of getting worked up over something you have no control over? If you have no control, now you’re just being silly by getting worked up. What’s the point? This is something you can’t change or otherwise affect. This may sound like giving up, but it isn’t. Humans are better at dealing with the big disasters than with the little annoyances. In the back of our minds, we realize that raging against the wind is a waste of energy. So we know how to calm down and come together in times of disaster. The little things are a mental quagmire and we work ourselves up into a tizzy. The reason is simple, we have no control over major disasters so we let go of it faster and dig into our better nature. Understanding that we have absolutely no control no matter what we do, about a certain thing, helps us endure it. On a negative level, this is how abusive relationships endure for so many years. It is also central to why rage can be so visceral and vitriolic among the deeply religious. The things that bother you ARE within your control because you need only ask your god to intercede (whether or not he chooses to), and there is no psychic trigger to let it go.
Let’s use an example to illustrate this. You’re driving home from work in rush hour. Afternoon and evening rush hour tend to be the source of the majority of temper tantrums for the reason I explained in the beginning. You’ve used up your daily supply of will power. You’re in a traffic jam and a trip home that should be a 15 or 20 minute long trip will likely take an hour+. It’s hot and your A/C is busted. Suddenly a small gap opens between you and the car in front of you and some jerk cuts in. You are furious. This asshat doesn’t know who he’s messing with. You just want to go punch babies in the face. While you do nothing more than rage in your car, the real people in danger are those back home if you don’t get things under control. Of course there are plenty of cases of people hoping out of the car and shooting someone over some nonsense like this.
The first thing you need to ask yourself, right now, is how much control you have. You can’t go back in time and stop him from cutting you off. Notice that he is still in front of you because YOU’RE IN A TRAFFIC JAM, so it’s not like he’s gained anything. You’re literally raging over a few feet. So traffic is slow enough that you can get out of the car and walk to his. Are you going to go there and shoot him? What have you achieved by doing that. Let’s ignore the fact that you would then have a car with a dead driver, permanently stopping traffic, screwing you over even more. Let’s also forget that you will go to jail. Let’s imagine this is a video game and after getting out of your car, walking over to him, and shooting him or punching him or giving him a piece of your mind, he vanishes and no longer exists. You just won and you can take back your lost few feet. Have your actions in any way ensured that you will never be cut off again in another traffic jam on another road maybe in another city? Here, the traffic jam, the behavior of the other driver, these are things you have zero or partial control over. (You have partial control over the other driver to the extent that you could have closed the gap and not given an opportunity, but again, really? A few feet?).
In so many cases, there are so many things you get upset about that you never had any control over in the first place. Did your girlfriend cheat on you? Guess what; at best you had partial control before she did it… At best. On Tuesday, you have no control over the fact that she cheated on Monday. You can get sad, feel betrayed, but anger is so pointless. You have control over one thing. You can walk away. This system doesn’t allow you to control all negative emotions, this is focused on anger. Considering there is a flavor of anger in even depression, it can be helpful but it’s not the cure-all.
When you find temperature rising remember to ask yourself, “What type of control do I have in this situation?” If absolute, the blame is on you and you have no right to anger. If partial, control what you can and the rest is beyond your control so ask yourself what the point of anger is. If no control, you’re wasting your own time, go use your energy on something more deserving. If the item you are getting angry about isn’t currently happening or about to happen because it has already happened, then the answer is always either partial control or no control. Act accordingly. I’m willing to believe that this wouldn’t be that easy for everyone and that I’m a freak who already has the reserved temperament that benefits from it most, but I find that people who give it an earnest try tend to genuinely benefit from it.
In some instances, anger is useful. It can sometimes be that last bit of fuel that gets you over the hump or helps you achieve something truly meaningful. Everything has its place, even anger. Just remember temperance. All things in moderation. Treat anger like you would an adrenaline rush. Useful in a pinch, but not worth dwelling on.
Now tantrum over this, nerd.