I WAS RECENTLY VISITING a friend of mine
at his workplace. He looked at me with a smile that obviously
wasnt full of happiness. I hate this job, he
said, Im getting to the place where I cant
stand these customers! He was no longer smiling. Theres
no place for me to vent. I cant tell off my customers.
Id lose my job!
John, I said, Let me
tell you a true story. Once upon a time, 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.
With another group, they had the child express his anger verbally.
In the third group, the researchers merely gave 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? asked
John, obviously needing a rational explanation.
Yes. Theres been a lot of research
showing that anger isnt really something that bottles
up inside you, and that venting doesnt
help in fact, venting increases your feelings of anger.
Isnt that surprising? I didnt believe it at first.
But pay attention next time you vent. It makes you
more angry! Anger is caused by the way youre thinking at
the moment youre angry, and it seems like its building
up because youre running those thoughts through your head
over and over, getting madder and madder. But its the thoughts
that make you mad, not the event itself.
Imagine youre in a restaurant
with a friend, I continued, and you order dinner.
Your waiter takes your order and goes on about his business.
After awhile, you wonder where your food is. You look for your
waiter but dont see him. Youre getting angry. By
the time your waiter walks up (empty handed), youre really
mad. Where have you been! you demand, And what
happened to our dinner? The waiter says, Im
sorry. I forgot to give the cooks your order until only a few
minutes ago. Im really sorry. The hostess just had an epileptic
seizure, and I was calling the paramedics and trying to keep
her from hurting herself.
On hearing this, what happens? Your
anger disappears almost instantly. Where did it go? If
anger really bottled up inside you, it would still be there,
right? Youve had no way to vent it. But youre
suddenly not the least bit angry. The idea that anger builds
up and needs to be released is just another generally-believed
idea thats been proven wrong.
The reason youre suddenly not
angry is that your anger was being produced by the thoughts you
were thinking, and youre no longer thinking those thoughts,
so the anger is no longer being produced.
So what am I supposed to do?
asks John. He isnt smiling, but he isnt frowning,
When a 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.
I doubt if that would work, because saying things to yourself
you dont believe doesnt do much good. Have you ever
Did it work?
Right. Sometimes it does, but not
very often. What you need to do is question your interpretation.
Dont try to pump yourself up and tell yourself a bunch
of positive stuff you dont believe. Tear apart the negative.
When youre angry, you take your thoughts for granted. If
you thought it, it must be so, right? You can trust your own
thoughts, cant you? But if someone else came up and said
exactly the same thing out loud to you, 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 treat the words
of a fast-talking salesman. Hold on there, buddy,
you might say, Slow down and say that again...(let him
say one sentence)...Can you prove that? Who says? Has a study
been done? Who conducted the study? You dont take
everything a salesman says at face-value. You question it. You
should do the same thing with the thoughts you have that bring
As soon as you start arguing with
your own thoughts, youll find it pretty easy to tear them
to shreds because the thoughts you think when youre angry
are almost always exaggerations and distortions and unprovable
interpretations. 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 said, Tell
me something you were thinking about a customer.
Lets see... John recalled,
This lady was being really condescending and the other
Wait, I interrupted, Lets
take one at a time. The lady was being condescending.
Thats a good one. Do you think you could argue with that?
Well...I dont know.
Was she being condescending?
Yes. She was.
Are you sure? Can you read minds?
No. I guess its possible she
wasnt being condescending.
Maybe she wasnt. How could
you know for sure? Maybe you misread her tone of voice and body
posture. It happens, you know. Dont you hate it when someone
misreads your tone of voice? It happens. Maybe you misread hers.
Are there other possible explanations for the way she was talking
Yeah, I guess. Maybe she was in a
bad mood when she came in and I had nothing to do with it.
Thats a good one. Thats
certainly possible. Give me another one.
Uh...I remind her of her son, and
shes in the habit of being condescending to him.
Thats pretty good. Youre
good at this. Both of those explanations have nothing to do with
you. In other words, with either of those explanations, you dont
have to take it personally. And if you dont take it personally,
youre probably not going to get angry. Can you think of
Lets see...How about: She was
actually strongly attracted to 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?
Hmm...let me think...
None!!! I say a little too
loudly. You have effectively destroyed your original interpretationthe
one that was making you angry. Youve proven to yourself
that there are other equally possible theories to explain what
you experienced besides, Shes being condescending.
Since you dont know what the real explanation
is, you can just leave it at that. It is unknown. And when there
are several equally possible theories to explain things, you
wont be too upset by any one of them. And youll feel
better. And youll act more effectively because of it.
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, its working already!
MOST OF THE MEANINGS we make automatically are given to us during
our upbringing. Were using the meanings weve been
given without ever suspecting we have a choice. Were somewhat
passive receptacles of the culture we grew up with.
We dont realize our power to make
meanings, so we dont exercise it. But the meanings we make
have a tremendous impact on our lives.
If you think when you and your spouse get
mad at each other it means your marriage is on the rocks, that
meaning will affect the outcome of your life. It will affect
how you feel. If you become afraid of conflict because you think
it means The End, and you avoid conflict (maybe you dont
speak the straight truth in order to avoid conflict), youll
create misunderstandings. Things s/he doesnt know about
you will start accumulating. Confusion and distrust will accumulate
right along with it. This, in itself can lead to what you feared:
the eventual demise of your marriage.
The meanings you make have an impact on
By experimenting with different meanings,
you can improve your attitude and ability to handle problems
in your life because a different meaning gives you different
feelings and different actions, and that gives you different
results in your life.
Meanings are not facts. When a meaning
causes you dysphoria or ineffectiveness, question it. Make up
Youre in the drivers seat.