How Anger Impacts Our Thinking
Anger greatly distorts our thinking. It leads to us having tunnel vision, as well as thinking people are out to get us or purposefully hurting us when in fact there was no malintent. Someone who is often angry is more likely to think that the person who just bumped into them did so intentionally when in fact it was accidental. This then begins a self-fulfilling cycle, because the angry person might confront the bumper more aggressively than the situation called for, leading to the bumper to respond more aggressively - continuing the cycle. However, given that the bumper also responded aggressively, the angry person doesn’t realize how their anger exacerbated the situation. The first step in noticing how anger affects our thoughts is catching our thoughts, followed by checking the evidence and then changing the thought (aka the 3 C’S). There are several common angry thought patterns to watch out for: demandingness, low frustration tolerance, awfulizing, globalization, blaming, and revenge.
Demandingness. Demandingness is the most common thought process associated with anger. Just to give you an idea about how common it is, one study found that over 90% of participants reported thoughts of demandingness when angry. Demandingness is believing that someone else should, must, need, or have to do what you want. It is you saying to yourself that your significant other should have or must have been nicer to you and done what you wanted. It is you saying that the guy who cut in front of you should have used their blinker. In truth, if you look at the situation realistically, while you may have wanted them to use his blinker, there is no reason that they had to. If I were to tell you that you should buy me a new car (preferably a Tesla please), you would scoff at me. I may want you to buy me a new car, but that does not mean you have to. You may want, and you may prefer, that someone is polite and acts nicely towards you, but that doesn’t mean that person has to be polite. We cannot control other people. We can hope, wish, and want, but often what we want just does not happen. We will only stress ourselves out and become increasingly angry by trying to control others. At the end of the day, the other person and you both have your own thoughts, behaviors, and ideas about how to live life.
Low frustration tolerance. Low frustration tolerance (LFT) relates to a lack of belief in our own abilities. We tell ourselves that we can’t deal with unpleasant situations and, so, we become angry, anxious, or stressed. It is you thinking that you are not capable of handling what is on your plate when in fact, you can, even when the situation is truly very challenging.
Awfulizing. Awfulizing is a thinking distortion where, like the old phrase goes, you make a mountain out of a molehill. It is taking a small problem and unrealistically blowing it up. For example, getting a C on a test or a term paper can certainly be stressful. But, it does not mean you will not reach your life goal. You can still succeed with that C and even do well in that particular course. A C is a setback, but it is not a death sentence.
Globalization. Globalization relates to looking at one occurrence of a behavior in another person and generalizing to the point where you believe that one behavior represents the totality of the person. An example is if someone cuts you off while driving you might start calling them a jerk among other, less pleasant names. The person who just cut you off is not a jerk, because that would mean they act that way all the time. They probably do some nice things sometimes. What is more helpful, is to describe the situation and their actions without judgment. Also, it is possible that the person who cut you off did not see you which is why they cut in front of you (most of us have done this before, but are often more forgiving to ourselves than others). Or maybe, they are rushing to the hospital to see a loved one. Since we do not know why they cut us off it is more helpful for us to give them the benefit of the doubt than becoming angry.
Blaming. Many people blame others for why they are angry, but the truth of the matter is we are angry because of ourselves. No one else can make us angry. There are triggers that we experience, but triggers do not cause our anger. As I say in another post, only we are responsible for our behaviors and emotions. Epictetus, a famous Stoic philosopher, said “Men are not influenced by things, but their thoughts about things.” One person could have their order messed up at a restaurant and not think much about it. Another person could have their order messed up and start yelling at the waiter. Yes, the waiter may have made a mistake in the order, and that doesn’t mean they are responsible for your anger. Only you are responsible for your anger.
Revenge. Anger is often related to thoughts of revenge. When we are angry we often want to get even or do more harm than what was inflicted onto us in an attempt to teach the other person a lesson. This can be flipping off the other person, calling them names, or giving someone the cold shoulder. The idea is that we are doing this with the intention of “showing them” or punishing them. Given that most of our anger episodes involve people we like or love, that means we are taking revenge against the people who matter most to us.
Many of these thought patterns are implicit. Meaning, we may not explicitly state these thoughts out loud or even in our minds, but they underlie other thoughts. In the example above about the person who bumped into the angry individual, the angry individual was implicitly thinking that the other person should not (demandingness) have done so. Following this thought of demandingness is “This is awful and I can’t handle this” (awfulizing and LFT). What might have been verbalized is “You’re a real jerk (globalization). Are you even going to apologize?” You don’t call someone a jerk for doing something that you think they should be doing, but rather what you think they should not be doing. They may not have been consciously thinking that the bumper should not have bumped into them, but it was underlying their conscious thoughts.
Once we recognize how anger influences our thoughts we can begin to change our thoughts. Remember, the 3 C’s (catch, check, and change) begins with recognition. Try and recognize how often anger affects your thoughts. Keep a thought record. Once you do that, we can begin to challenge our thoughts of demandingness, low frustration tolerance, awfulizing, globalization, blaming, and revenge, regardless if they are explicit or implicit. If you have difficulty doing this yourself then seek help from a professional.