HE LOOKED AT ME WITH A SMILE that obviously
wasn't full of happiness. "I hate this job," he said,
"I'm getting to the place where I can't stand these
customers!" He was no longer smiling. "There's no place
for me to vent. I can't tell the customers anything. I'd lose
"John," I said, "Let me
tell you a story a true story. Once upon a time (a few
years ago), a team of researchers wanted to find the best way
to deal with anger. They experimented with children at school.
In one group, whenever a child got mad at another child, they
had him act out his anger with toy guns and stuff. With another
group, they had an angry child express his anger verbally. In
the third group, all the researchers did was give the angry child
a rational explanation for why the other child did what she did.
And you know what? The method that worked the best was the last
"The rational explanation?" asks
John, obviously needing a rational explanation.
"Yes. There's been a lot of research
showing that anger isn't really something that 'bottles up' inside
you, and 'venting' increases your feelings of anger. Isn't that
surprising? I didn't believe it at first. But you watch yourself
next time you get angry and 'vent.' It makes you more angry.
Anger is caused by the way you're thinking at the moment you're
angry, and it seems like it's building up because you're running
those thoughts through your head over and over, getting madder
and madder. But it's the thoughts that are making you
"Imagine you're in a restaurant with
a friend," I continued, "and you order dinner. Your
waiter takes your order and goes on about his business. You wait
for a long time. You look for your waiter but don't see him.
You're getting angry. By the time your waiter walks up (empty
handed), you're really mad. 'Where have you been!' you demand,
'And what happened to our dinner?' The waiter says, 'I'm sorry.
I forgot to give the cooks your order until only a few minutes
ago. I'm really sorry. I am not doing well tonight. I just got
the news that my brother and my nephew were killed in a car accident
this afternoon.' On hearing this, what happens? Your anger disappears
almost instantly. Where did it go? If it was bottling
up, it would still be there, right? You've had no way to 'vent
it.' But you are suddenly not the least bit angry. The idea that
anger builds up and needs to be released is just another commonsense
idea that's been proven wrong.
"The reason you are suddenly not angry
is that your anger was being produced by the thoughts you were
thinking, and you are now no longer thinking those thoughts,
so the anger is no longer being produced."
"So what am I supposed to do?"
asks John. He isn't smiling, and he isn't frowning, "What
do I do with my thoughts? Say my customer is being a jerk. Do
I think to myself, 'My customer is a nice person; I love my customer?'"
"Good question," I said. "No,
it won't help to think positive, because saying things to yourself
you don't believe has no impact. If you've ever tried it, you
know that's true. What you need to do is argue with your negative
thoughts. Don't think positive; tear apart the negative.
When you're angry, you take your thoughts for granted, as if
you believed, "I think it, so it must be true." But
if someone else came up and said exactly the same thing out loud,
you could take the statement apart no problem. But you
said it, so you just accept it.
"You should treat the thoughts in
your head with as much skepticism as you would the words of a
fast-talking salesman. 'Hold on there, buddy,' you might say,
'Slow down and say that again...(he says one sentence)...Can
you prove that? Who says? Has a study been done? Who conducted
the study?' You don't take everything at face-value. You question
"As soon as you start arguing with
your own thoughts, you'll find it pretty easy to tear them to
shreds because the thoughts you think when you're angry are almost
always exaggerations and distortions and unsubstantiated claims.
Almost always. Like 99 percent of the time. And when you take
your thoughts apart, your anger disappears."
John looked unconvinced.
"Give me one," I say, "Tell
me something you were thinking awhile ago some thought
you were thinking about your customer."
"Let's see..." John recalls,
"This lady was being really condescending and the other
"Wait," I interrupt, "Let's
take one at a time. You can't argue with several thoughts at
once. 'The lady was being condescending.' That's a good one.
Do you think you could argue with that?"
"Well, maybe she wasn't being condescending."
"Good. Are there other possible explanations
for the way she was talking to you?"
"Yeah. Maybe she was in a bad mood
when she came in and I had nothing to do with it."
"That's a good one. Give me another
"Uh...I remind her of her son, and
she's in the habit of being condescending to him."
"Good. You're good at this. Both of
those explanations have nothing to do with you. In other words,
with either of those explanations, you wouldn't have to take
it personally. And if you're not taking it personally, you're
not going to get as angry. Come up with another one."
"Okay. Let's see...How about: She
was actually having strong sexual fantasies about me and had
a hard time controlling herself and her effort to control herself
looked like 'condescension.'"
"Okay. Good. Now which explanation
do you settle for?"
"I don't know."
"None!!!" I say, a little too
loudly. "You have effectively destroyed the thought. You
have proven to yourself that there are other theories to explain
what you experienced besides 'She is being condescending.' Since
you don't know what is the 'real' explanation, just leave it
at that. It is unknown. And when there are several possible theories
to explain things, and they all explain them just as well, you
won't be too upset by any one of them. You have become more rational.
You will act more effectively because of it. And you will feel
"Cognitive Therapy and Rational Emotive
Therapy, two of the very few kinds of therapies that have been
proven effective, both use this idea of learning to argue with
yourself. As you can imagine, though, it takes some practice."
"Yeah," says John, "You'd
probably have to go to a therapist."
"You wouldn't, not for everyday stuff
like this. You're verbally competent and not out of control.
You could learn to do this on your own. Just argue with your
own thoughts when you get angry (or depressed or nervous). Argue
on the basis of facts and logic. Argue simply and pragmatically.
Nothing fancy is required. Argue like you would if somebody else
was saying to you what you're saying to yourself."
"I can do that. This is good,"
he says, looking a little hopeful.
"It works really well. How do you
"What do you mean?
"Do you feel angry?"
"See, it's working already!"
WHEN SOMEONE MAKES YOU ANGRY, it seems
that the cause of your anger is the person's actions. But what
really makes you angry is what you think the action means.
If you look closely at the meaning of an event, your certainty
about it will fade. You'll realize it doesn't necessarily mean
what you think it means. This uncertainty will make your anger
diminish. Let's say I interrupt you while you're talking and
it makes you mad. You "know" I am being disrespectful.
Let's look at this closely: 1) an event happens, 2) you figure
out what it means, and then, 3) you feel an emotion in response
to the meaning. Step number 2 happens very fast so it seems the
event directly caused your feelings. But that isn't so. And you
can prove it to yourself.
Wait until the next time you get mad at
someone. Then try to discover one thought you have about what
they did. Since the meaning of an event occurs to you so quickly,
it's very hard to see. So you have to backtrack. You have to
do a slow-motion replay. Ask yourself, "Why am I mad?"
Your answer is probably, "Because he did such-and-such."
Ask yourself another question: "Why would that make
me angry?" Your answer to this second question is probably
a statement about the meaning of the action. Now you have something
to work with.
Take your statement and look at it skeptically.
In our above example, I interrupted you. You thought, "He
doesn't respect me." Looking at that thought skeptically,
you realize it's only a theory to explain why I interrupted you.
Once you look at it, you also realize it isn't the only possible
explanation. Try to come up with other explanations. Maybe I've
never thought much about interrupting, and no one ever said anything
to me about it, so I'm in the habit of interrupting people
those I respect and those I don't. Or maybe I interrupted you
because I have a poor memory and didn't want to forget my thought,
so I blurted it out. You can never really be sure why another
person does something. Sometimes the person himself doesn't know
why he's doing it.
After you create two or three good theories
(this will only take a few minutes you'll be surprised
how easy it is), your anger will fade, you'll feel better, and
you'll deal with the situation more rationally. Argue with yourself
this way and everyone wins!
When you feel a negative emotion,
argue with your negative thoughts.