Dear Doctor George...

I find myself getting really angry about things that other people seem to take in stride. I made a list: people crowding in front of me in line, people cutting me off in traffic, people parking in my spot at work (I even yelled at someone for this), and the other night I was walking with my wife and kids on the sidewalk after a nice dinner at a restaurant and suddenly there was a loud blast from an air horn right behind us! Then a bicyclist sped past. I wanted to run to my car and chase him down and scream at him. Whereas other people would certainly be annoyed, I was positively enraged, and only with a great effort did I control myself. I don’t like feeling this angry, so what can I do about it?

... People Make Me Angry




Dear People Make Me Angry...

Making a list of the incidents that make you angry is a great way to become more aware of yourself and ultimately to understand why you have the feelings you do.

Anger arises in various contexts. First, there is righteous or justified anger that is a universal reaction to injustice—such as discrimination, or child abuse. Second, there is instinctual anger that protects our survival and that of our family members (even infants have the capacity to become angry). The third type is personalized anger that occurs when we interpret a situation as a threat to ourselves (whether or not it actually is) and react with anger that is out of proportion to the situation. This type of anger has its roots in past experiences we’ve had and our resulting beliefs about ourselves.

For instance, let’s say someone calls you an idiot. If you have any doubt about your intelligence, you'll agree or be afraid they are right, get embarrassed, and then defend yourself with anger. On the other hand, if you're completely confident in your intelligence, you might be puzzled for a second, figure they're confused or imperceptive, or realize it's a ploy and, no matter what, not feel implicated in the least. This is even true if you actually were behaving like an idiot. Our anger can flare up if we believe someone else's premise, (or our assumption of what their premise is). Thus the root of personalized anger is usually fear of something being confirmed.

Part of the explanation for your angry reaction to the cyclist may be masculine socialization. The cyclist’s honking probably made you afraid. (Fear is an innate reaction to an unidentified loud noise.) You may have felt afraid for the safety of your family also (instinctual anger). Men are socialized not to express fear — it makes them feel weak and vulnerable — but anger is considered more acceptable.

Doctor George noticed that your anger list involved situations in which you felt disrespected. Being hypersensitive to disrespect (real or imagined) occurs when we do not appropriately respect ourselves. Personalized anger may occur when we superimpose memories from earlier experiences onto present situations. Childhood experiences of negative parental criticism, for example, can cause low self-esteem and lack of self-confidence, making it difficult for us to properly respect ourselves. In that case we believe the other persons’ premise that we are not worthy of respect, (typically the other anonymous person, like the honking cyclist, is not disrespecting us personally because they don’t even know us).

Understanding what makes us angry and reflecting on our personal histories can help reduce the force of our anger. It is important to realize that we don’t have to keep feeling the way we have habitually felt—we can decide to change our reactions once we understand where they are coming from and that the current situation does not have to be a replication of negative experiences from the past. Indulging in personalized anger keeps us stuck in the past and wastes our creativity. Anger can be harnessed for creativity, but this will have to be a subject for a future column. Doctor George wishes you success in working on your anger.

Best Sincerely,
   Doctor George