If we find ourselves frequently angry, we may want to examine our interpretations.
Our brain allows us to interpret information about what is likely to happen in different situations. Our interpretations promote expectations and predictions for how life will unfold.
For example, when we walk into a grocery store, we know automatically how things are supposed to go. We go in, grab a cart, pick food off the shelf, line up for a cashier who will take our money, and we can go home with the food. It is not as if we walk into the store and think `OK, what happened the last time I was here’ or `Why are people looting food off the shelves?’ We automatically know how to behave in the situation based on our experience. The knowledge from these interpretations makes the world a much more predictable place.
Automatic emotional processes allow us to respond to familiar situations quickly and efficiently, whereas controlled logical processes produce responses slowly, demanding attention and mental effort. We typically only use controlled processes when we are highly motivated to apply them.
There are two things that determine if our response is automatic or controlled: 1) do we have a memory or point of reference for comparison and 2) are there any signs of danger. If we see an individual who is oddly dressed, carrying a weapon, or naked, our brain will deliberately focus and start a full-scan to react accordingly (long stare, fright, or “Don’t I know you?). Individuals with physical features that are unusual lead to the common “double take” where we will first automatically scan for safety and reference, then look again to examine and analyze.
The mind generally uses the “makes-sense-to-me” rule, where we take a position, look for evidence that supports it, and if we find some evidence, enough so that our position “makes sense”, we stop thinking. If someone brings up reasons and evidence on the other side, we may be swayed to change your mind. However, the problem is that we may not make any effort to seek out conflicting points of view unless they are presented to us.
This reminds me of a client I saw who had two failed marriages and concluded, “All women are after your money.” From only two examples, he created a generalization that included three billion women! His cynicism, his unwillingness to allow any women to get close to him, was the side-effect of two fundamental facts about how the brain works: 1) the brain has the amazing ability to see a pattern with minimal clues, and 2) our brain has a tendency to look for evidence that confirms an already-existing beliefs. So once we have concluded something, we have a strong tendency generalize that conclusion by noticing evidence that supports our pre-existing belief. So angry, cynical, or hostile feelings, causes our mind to look for negative evidence and selectively ignore any positives. In this way the pain comes from making negative events larger and more awful than they really are.
Let’s look at another example. Dave gets home from work and snaps at his wife. Then he picks up a book that his two-year-old had left on the floor and tosses it across the room. His head is pounding and he can feel the tension coursing throughout his body. He looks in the mirror and punches the wall. Dave is experiencing a raging storm of intense emotions. His fists tighten, his heart races, and his jaw in clenched. He finds it difficult to focus, to think. His emotions seem to paralyze him.
Dave’s experience is common. What can any of us do in such moments? Do we just have to let the emotions run their course? Do we try to get a moment’s relief by guzzling down a can of beer, or by retreating into restless sleep? Do we call a friend and complain about how trapped and unhappy we feel, adding there is nothing we can do about it? But is that really true? Is there nothing we can do? Is anger outside our control? In one sense yes. But in a more important sense, no! Anger is an automatic, physiological response. In that sense, it is outside our immediate control, like our eyes blinking. But we can become aware of our blinking and similarly we can become mindful of what triggers our anger. If we can take control over our automatic reactions like blinking, breathing and memory, it is also possible to take control of our anger.
We need to look carefully at our angry thoughts and try to see if we are making errors in the way we interpret situations. It can help to examine long held beliefs about anger and challenge those, which are unhelpful. Distorted thinking involves angry thoughts that flash into our minds and makes us feel worse.