When you look back on the moments you regret most in your life, a fair number of them likely involved you being angry. And if these cringe-inducing, life- and relationship-damaging moments happen more often than you’d like, then it’s time to start thinking about how to get a handle on your anger.
My guest today offers help in that process. His name is Dr. Chip Tafrate, and he’s a clinical psychologist, a professor of criminology and criminal justice, and the co-author, along with Howard Kassinove, of Anger Management for Everyone: Ten Proven Strategies to Help You Control Anger and Live a Happier Life. Chip walks us through what anger is, how it’s distinctive from aggression, and how it can be both destructive and healthy. We then get into some of the strategies Chip recommends for managing your anger so it stays in that latter zone, including making changes to your lifestyle, avoiding anger-inducing triggers, reframing your thoughts, and doing anger exposure therapy.
Resources Related to the Podcast
- Anger Management for Any Situation — Chip and Howard’s Udemy course
- AoM podcast #614 with Steven Hayes on Acceptance and Commitment Therapy
- AoM Podcast #489: How to Get a Handle on Your Anger
- AoM Article: How Reframing Builds Resilience
- AoM Article: The Virtuous Life — Tranquility
Connect With Dr. Chip Tafrate
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Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Brett McKay here, and welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. When you look back on the moments you regret most in your life, a fair number of them likely involve you being angry, and these cringe-inducing life and relationship damaging moments happen more often than you’d like, and it’s time to start thinking about how to get a handle on your anger. My guest today offers help in that process. His name is Dr. Chip Tafrate, and he’s a clinical psychologist, Professor of Criminology and Criminal Justice, and the co-author, along with Howard Kassinove, of Anger Management for Everyone: Ten Proven Strategies to Help You Control Anger and Live a Happier Life. Chip walks us through what anger is, how it’s distinctive from aggression, and how it can be both destructive and healthy. We then get into some of the strategies Chip recommends for managing your anger so it stays in that latter zone, including making changes to your lifestyle, avoiding anger-inducing triggers, reframing your thoughts, and doing anger exposure therapy. After the show’s over check out our show notes at AOM.is/anger.
Chip Tafrate, welcome to the show.
Chip Tafrate: Thank you. It’s great to be here.
Brett McKay: So you are a professor of psychology, but you teach at a school of criminology, and you ended up co-authoring a book about anger management, so how did a professor at a criminology school, criminal justice school, end up co-authoring a book about anger management?
Chip Tafrate: Well, I’m a clinical psychologist by training, so I’ve spent much of my career sitting across from people who struggle with the complexity of making changes in their lives. So the question is really How did a clinical psychologist end up in a criminology department? And the story is that I did my doctoral dissertation on the topic of anger, and this was based on the advice of my dissertation supervisor at the time. His name is Howard Kassinove, and he suggested that I explore an area that was understudied, and at that time, anger was under-examined, and even today in psychology, anger is still the forgotten emotion. And so Howie and I have been studying writing and talking about anger issues for the last three decades. I say We a lot, and I usually mean Howie. But in terms of the connection between anger and criminology, the answer is pretty straightforward, and that anger problems drive all sorts of destructive and sometimes extreme behaviors. And so most of the listeners of your podcast, I would predict that for many of them, some of their most cringe-worthy moments of their lives occurred when they were angry, so even though anger is a common experience, anger is the emotion most likely to lead people to have problems with the criminal justice system. It’s not anxiety and depression as many people think, [chuckle] and the criminology department at Central Connecticut State University is very behavioral, so this line of research was a good fit.
Brett McKay: Well, so let’s talk about anger. I think everyone kind of understands what it is, they’ve experienced it, but as a clinician, is there a definition of anger that you all use?
Chip Tafrate: You know, it’s… [chuckle] It’s a bit untangible to define anger. It’s hard to define anger without using a synonym for the word anger, but maybe the best way to think about it [chuckle] is that anger is really our built-in threat protective system, and it’s a complex reaction to perceive threats. So in modern life, we can feel threatened by all sorts of scenarios, such as when our children are bullied by other kids, maybe when a driver cuts us off on the road, by our neighbors driving too fast down the street, and so on and on and on. So anger emerges when we perceive threat, but anger is complex because we have thoughts that go through our mind, there are physiological and biological reactions to threat, where our heart rate increases, our muscles get tense, we get ready to react, there are chemicals that energizes in the moment. We’ll also notice sensations in our body, there are urges to react in the moment, and of course, there are behaviors that we actually do. They include things like hand gestures, verbal arguments, screaming, hitting, pouting, and withdrawing. So anger is part of our evolutionarily useful fight/flight reaction, and so it’s really built into the fabric of human life.
Brett McKay: So it’s a physio-psychological experience, both experience in the body and in the mind?
Chip Tafrate: Yes, and I would also say that it occurs in a context of the environment that the person’s in as well.
Brett McKay: Yeah. Well, I think you talk about this in the book when you’re kind of sussing out what anger is. I think we typically associate anger with aggression, but you make the distinction. There’s actually a difference between aggression and angry. Someone can be angry, but not aggressive, or aggressive, but not angry. Can you tell us about the distinction?
Chip Tafrate: Yeah, I think that this is a common misunderstanding, so people think of the word anger and the next word that pops into their mind is aggression, and the difference between anger and aggression is that anger is primarily an internal response, and we know we are angry because we feel it inside. We can be angry and other people may not know we are angry. On the other hand, aggression is behavior that can be observed, such as throwing things, hitting, kicking, and sneaky and direct action, such as vandalizing somebody’s property. But most people who become angry do not become aggressive, and I think that most often we just get angry. Another complexity is that aggression can sometimes occur without anger at all. So think for a moment about someone who snatches purses on the street. The person engaged in that behavior might grab the purse, pull the victim to the ground, maybe even harming the person. However, the aggressor may not have any anger at the victim. Here, she’s simply doing it as a way to get money.
I think one way to think about this is that in a lot of our anger training workshops, we sometimes do this exercise, and the workshops are comprised of practitioners of different types, and we ask the people in the room, “How many of you have experienced anger in the past week?” And so I should say that it’s normal for people to feel angry one or two times a week. That’s just typical. So when you ask a room full of people to let you know if they’ve experienced anger, pretty much all the hands in the room go up. Then we ask a second question. “Okay, how many of you have assaulted somebody, destroyed property, punched a wall, kick somebody in the past week when you were angry?” And there’s almost no hands that go up in the room.
But the most interesting question is the next one, “How many of you, at some point in your life when you were angry, have hit, struck, pushed or kick somebody?” It’s an uncomfortable moment and there’s a pause, but almost all the hands in the room go up again. And so what I’m saying is that aggression is the least common response when people are angry, and on studies where they actually count and measure this, aggression is the thing that is least common on these surveys, but the hands in the room exercise shows that all of us kinda know the connection between anger and aggression, and most of us had been there, and we understand this destructive connection that can occur when we’re angry, and most of us have a couple of personal and ugly examples of that.
Brett McKay: That anger-induced aggression is what gets people in trouble, what gets them involved with the criminal justice system, ’cause they typically lash out in a violent way. Okay, so if you express your anger through aggression, that can get you into trouble, can cause you get to go to jail, can cause problems to your relationships, but even if you don’t express your anger through aggression, what are the harms of experiencing anger?
Chip Tafrate: Well, there’s a lot of negative outcomes connected with anger. So aggression is one of the least common but more extreme examples, but I think that what most people do when they’re angry is some kind of verbal behavior, [chuckle] so we’ll say nasty things, we’ll criticize people, we might sort of yell and scream. And people damage their family relationships, their intimate relationships and their work relationships mostly through by what they say when they’re angry.
The other thing that sometimes occurs when people are angry is they withdraw, they’ll pout, they’ll pull away from situations, they won’t engage and solve the problem. And then there’s a whole another area that if you’re someone who experiences sort of chronic and strong anger reactions, you’re more likely to develop health problems, like high blood pressure, heart disease, and strokes.
Brett McKay: Yeah. So there could be a physiological consequence of your anger, ’cause anger again, as you said, It’s a response to a threat, it’s a stress response, and if you have that over and over again, that’s gonna have detrimental effects on your physical health.
Chip Tafrate: Yeah, absolutely. We get activated when we become angry, so our bodies are kind of preparing to deal with a threat.
Brett McKay: Well, is anger ever healthy?
Chip Tafrate: Yeah, you can think of emotions, like an internal GPS system, so some mild and moderate anger can definitely be positive. So operating like an internal GPS system, anger can signal that something isn’t right in your life. Anger might energize us to face a problem that’s being avoided or maybe stick up for ourselves in order to make something better. Also, anger can help us… Energize us to make important life changes. Also, anger can be a driving force for social movements. I would say anger leads to zest, excitement, and passion, and anger at the mild or end of the spectrum is life-enhancing, and we would be impaired if we could never experience any anger, and we wouldn’t wanna live in a world without anger.
Brett McKay: Well, so when does anger become a problem? How does someone know they got an anger problem?
Chip Tafrate: Well, [chuckle] anger can get out of hand. So anger when it’s too strong, occurs too frequently or last too long, it becomes a destructive force, and I think for some people, anger leads to significant loss and suffering, and such negative outcomes are all around us. So think about how many family relationship conflicts and career disasters you’ve witnessed that have resulted from anger, or think about the marital and family violence that has followed anger and verbal arguments. I think we’ve all witnessed the destructive results of feeling angry or being the recipient of someone else’s anger. But some of the negative outcomes include ruined relationships, derailed careers, impulsive and destructive decisions, road rage, cardiovascular medical problems, and criminal justice, just to name a few. I think the advice to listeners of this podcast is to start paying attention to the outcomes associated with your specific episodes of anger. So this can be accomplished by asking yourself, “What good came out of my anger in the situation? Did I improve a relationship? Did I damage a relationship? Did I make a situation better or worse?” Ask yourself, “What was not so good about my anger in this situation?”
And many people don’t appreciate that their anger is usually more destructive for them than for the person they are getting angry at, and the negative parts of the world will always exist around us, but I think all of us can learn skills to produce successive anger, to negotiate better outcomes, and to manage our personal environments in order to live a better life.
Brett McKay: Okay, so when you’re working with someone who’s got an anger problem, because again, anger can be healthy, it becomes a problem when it becomes a detriment to your life. When you’re working with this person, what’s the goal? Are you trying to help them just not get angry at all? Are you trying to help them not express their anger? What is your goal with someone when you’re helping them with an anger problem?
Chip Tafrate: Well, first, I think because anger is sort of part of that useful threat protective system, the goal of anger treatment is anger management and not anger elimination, and so we wanna help people learn to experience anger in a more reasonable manner, and to develop skills to be able to navigate life’s challenges, and to manage the relationships more effectively. I think over time and with repetition, our anger reactions become automatic, and to change it, the trick is to get off autopilot. So when your anger threat system gets activated, recognize that you don’t have to go along with it and get swept up in the emotion. So just take a moment to stop and ask yourself the question, “Where is my anger taking me?” And then try on some new behaviors that may seem unfamiliar. When you’re angry, act in a way that is patient. Maybe kind or compassionate. Try to search for a solution that will not make the problem worse. With practice, this becomes easier and it kinda turns into your new autopilot setting.
I think people are familiar with the phrase that practice makes perfect, but that’s not really accurate. So if you repeat something over and over again, it becomes part of your behavioral repertoire, so what we kind of repeat in practice becomes automatic. And so in terms of treatment, there’s a lot of individual differences in people, and the context of how anger emerges in their lives. And so I think in our program, we have more of a kind of a menu-driven choose and use approach. It’s sort of like the way people make selections from a restaurant menu, and so this means that everyone can explore different strategies that might work within the context of the person’s real life, so if one strategy is not bringing about a reduction in anger, then move to the next one. And I should also mention that there’s definitely a reason for optimism. There have been a handful of meta-analysis, just kinda large analyses of anger treatment, and they all strongly converge around the same conclusion that people who get anger treatment do better than people that don’t. So treatment generally works, and people can definitely make improvements in this area of their lives.
Brett McKay: Yeah, and I wanna dig into some of these menu of treatment options that people have that you use. Okay, the goal is not to eliminate anger, is to manage it, have a reasonable type of anger, but on the flip side of this, this doesn’t mean that you’re trying to tell people like, “Well, one of the best options is to vent and just express your anger unabashedly by yelling into a pillow or smashing something,” correct?
Chip Tafrate: Well, correct. So that’s one of the options that we don’t recommend, so that is an intervention that worries me a little bit, and I think that the treatment landscape right now in the United States looks a lot like the Wild West. I think there’s a mix of credential practitioners, and there’s a whole bunch of other practitioners, such as life coaches, and then we have all sorts of advice givers and influencers, and anger is under-studied, and there’s a lot of myths in the anger area, and some of the advice is just plain wrong. And so some of the things that are delivered to the public may not be helpful, and the idea of venting is one of those. And so the problem with this intervention is that we’re telling people to practice the thing that will actually kind of make their lives worse.
And so Brett, I’d like to maybe just make an analogy to other emotions, right? So all emotions have an action tendency. So when people are anxious and fearful, they wanna avoid and run away. When people are depressed, they wanna hunker down and give up and just sort of sit and not do much. And if someone is suffering from anxiety, we would never tell them, “Hey, go out and practice avoidance.” Go with the tendency that that emotion pulls for. So with any emotional excess, we don’t tell the person to practice that thing, we tell them to push against it. Take depression, for example, we wouldn’t tell someone who’s kind of sitting there and they’re like, “Oh, I can’t get out of bed. I don’t really feel it today,” we wouldn’t say, “Hey, go with that, practice that, stay in bed.” And that’s kind of what catharsis is. We’re telling people, “Hey, when you’re feeling angry, yell and scream and hit something or punch something,” and this is a problematic intervention because again, what we repeat in practice becomes more automatic in our lives.
There have been people who studied catharsis. The idea has been around for a long time, and people have studied in the ’70s, in the 80s, in the 90s. Almost no one’s studying it from the year 2000 and beyond because we know the answer. This makes people worse, but yet it’s kind of popular out there, right?
Brett McKay: No, yeah, ’cause I think it makes intuitive sense to people. Well, I guess it depends on what… If your analogy of anger is that it’s this emotion inside your brain that is like a boiler that needs venting, and if you vent it, it’ll reduce the pressure in your psyche, people like, well, if they make that analogy, well, that makes sense, if you vent it, then you won’t be angry, but what the psychology is saying… I mean, William James understood this. Feelings follow actions, so if you act angry, you’re just gonna feel more anger, you’re just gonna habituate yourself to feeling angry.
Chip Tafrate: Correct.
Brett McKay: Yeah.
Chip Tafrate: Yeah, the notion of the boiler or that something’s building up inside your body is a simplistic idea that doesn’t really make a lot of sense. We wouldn’t say that about any emotion, and so what we want people to do is to push back against those tendencies. I think the reason that catharsis persist is that it feels right, so when you’re angry, you’re activated to yell, scream, protect yourself in some ways, and so it kind of feels right. And so when you tell people to practice this, they come back and they feel good in the moment, but if you really sort of follow them along to see, “Are they really improving and getting better?” The answer is a pretty strong no for most people. Just the way if someone was socially anxious, we wouldn’t tell them to keep walking out of the cocktail party or the room that they’re in with other people. They might say they feel good in the moment, but they’re not learning how to improve themselves in that type of environment.
Brett McKay: We’re gonna take quick break for a word from our sponsors. And now back to the show. Okay, so catharsis doesn’t work. Let’s talk about what does. So you mentioned one of the first things that someone needs to do when they have an anger problem is to understand what their anger patterns look like, and you in the book and your coauthor say that there’s a six-step pattern that most anger episodes follow. Briefly, what is that pattern? What are the steps of an anger episode?
Chip Tafrate: Well, I think that to get into understanding anger, yeah, you have to get into the fabric of people’s lives, so you’re absolutely correct. We do an in-depth analysis of individual anger experiences, and that’s a starting point, but here’s what we avoid, we avoid having fuzzy and philosophical discussions about anger. We also avoid having the person endlessly complain about poor treatment at the hands of others, and so we wanna analyze anger as it occurs in the person’s real life. And when you initially ask people about anger, it’s sort of a confusing mess. It’s made up of a swirling away of triggers and thoughts and sensations and reactions. And so anger does emerge in a predictable sequence, and that’s the good news. And so what we wanna do is kinda look at the components of our own anger experiences, right? And so anger, as I’ve mentioned, is a complex network of components that includes triggers, thoughts, sensations, urges, behaviors and outcomes. And so I think that everyone who’s listening to this, if you are interested in doing better with your own anger experiences, one of the first things to do is to kind of examine a recent and strong episode of anger. Try to describe for yourself, “What triggered my anger in the situation?” And be specific.
What were some of the initial thoughts that went through my mind when I encountered the trigger? What did I notice in my body? What was the experience like, how strong was it, what sensations were there? And what did I wanna do in the moment, what was that urge? What was my auto-pilot telling me to do? And then what did I actually do? What behaviors did I engage in? And then finally, that outcome piece again, what was the outcome of me getting angry? And that’s sort of the starting point for us. And once you kind of figure out what the building blocks of anger episodes are, that opens up a whole array of different places where you might intervene. We might work with people on changing some of the triggering events around them, we might help people work on the way they think when they’re confronted with the challenges, we might help people learn to relax and calm their bodies or learn social skills to express themselves better and negotiate outcomes that they want in life. So I think the analysis of anger episodes is sort of like a lighthouse that tells, that guides you where to go when you’re sort of working in this messy area.
Brett McKay: Okay, so by understanding the pattern that anger follows, you can find places where you can start tinkering with things to start managing your anger, whether it’s at the trigger point or how you think about things, or the behaviors you expressed when you experience anger. So let’s talk about some of these things. I thought was interesting, before you really got into like, “Okay, what can you do about these anger triggers, you have?” Your first bit of advice was just make some lifestyle interventions that I think are geared towards reducing the likelihood of you getting angry, and it’s just stuff, eating right, exercising, getting enough sleep. In your experience with working with people with anger problems, what’s their diet, exercise, and sleep, like typically?
Chip Tafrate: You know, people who struggle with anger difficulties often have multiple problems and difficult lives, and they’re often not taking care of themselves, and so this isn’t… So I think, not considered a specific element of an anger episode, they’re a variety of environmental factors and habit patterns that can make episodes sort of more likely to occur, so you can think of episodes kinda like wildfires, right? They’re environmental conditions that make wildfires more likely. If there is a drought and heat, if there’s an accumulation of brush in the area, if there are problems with power lines or lightning strikes, you’re more likely to have wildfires. So I think we sometimes ask people to just take a step back and look at their lifestyles and consider factors that make it more likely that their own anger wildfires might ignite.
The major culprits, as you mentioned, are poor nutrition, lack of sufficient sleep, alcohol misuse and also other drugs, and maybe just unpleasant kind of background noises and smells and things like that. And most professionals rarely consider changes in the client’s environments and routines and other background factors, and these lifestyle issues are often important, and it may help just to kind of re-arrange your life in a way that makes negative reactions less likely. So we sometimes ask people to plan to face challenging situations or have difficult conversations with others once they’ve eaten properly and slept well, right? We also ask people to be honest about their drinking habits and whether that’s fueling their anger episodes and affecting relationships with family members, friends and colleagues, and we ask people to be kind to themselves and think about their daily environments and try their best to arrange things in as nice a way as possible.
Brett McKay: Yeah, the alcohol thing is important ’cause of what alcohol does, it disinhibits you, right? So you… If you feel angry, you’re more likely to express maladaptive, anger behaviors, so cutting back on your drinking can reduce a lot of not good anger episodes.
Chip Tafrate: Yeah, and there’s a connection between alcohol use and anger, so… One of our early treatment studies, we did the study in the 1990s, and we advertised for men who had anger problems between the age of 25 and 50, and we asked them to give us a call, and if their anger was high enough, we were gonna give them a free treatment. And what we wanted was a sort of pristine treatment group, we wanted a group of people that just had an anger problem and didn’t have other problems. [chuckle] And so we got a lot of calls, but I have to tell you, three months later there was nobody in our study, because the lives of people with anger problems are very messy, they have multiple problems, and one of the leading problems was substance abuse. And I think that anger is a negative experience generally, right? So there’s probably nobody listening that is thinking when they wake up in the morning, “I wanna have a really angry day today,” right? And so early on in people’s lives, they learn that if they take a drink, take a drug, take a pill, that they can kind of sometimes reduce that internal activation, and so anger problems go along with substance misuse.
Brett McKay: Okay. So don’t do drugs, don’t drink. If you’re feeling angry, that whole advice, “Don’t go to bed angry.” Sometimes I think the best thing you do is just, if you’re feeling angry, just go to sleep, ’cause then the next day you’ll feel awesome and you can take on the issue. But if you’re hungry, eat something. You mentioned the study on men, that made me think about another potential factor in anger: Gender, sex. Have we found a difference between how the sexes experience or express anger?
Chip Tafrate: You know, anger seems to be an equal opportunity emotion, and so I’ll go back to that 1990s studies. We were so naive back then, so we placed these advertisements for men who had anger problems, right? We got a couple of calls that sounded like this, “You know, I have an anger problem, and I would like free treatment, and you people are sexist, I’m a woman.” And I have to tell you that those callers were right, I think that we used to think that anger was just a male problem, but there’s been a couple of descriptive studies that have been done that kind of look at how anger emerges in people’s real lives, and what we have learned is that anger is actually more similar than is different for men and women, so men and women get angry at about the same rate, they get angry about the same things, they express themselves in similar ways, so I think that both men and women can experience anger problems.
Brett McKay: I guess the issue with men is that when they do express it with aggression, because they’re bigger, typically, that it causes more damage than women.
Chip Tafrate: Yeah, that’s absolutely true. So men, their behaving with aggression will cause more physical destruction.
Brett McKay: Okay, so let’s talk about… So we took some lifestyle things to help maybe reduce the chances, we’re clearing out the brush so we don’t experience as intense anger when it does pop up. Let’s talk about the interventions we can make with the anger triggers, what are some things there that you coach clients on or recommend to your patients?
Chip Tafrate: Well, I think that in terms of triggers, a lot of people who struggle with anger difficulties have this pattern of confronting every injustice, their lives just become full of conflicts. For example, does the person who cuts you off on the road need to be tailgated and approached at the intersection and given a piece of your mind? Does the clerk at the coffee shop need to be scolded because she’s texting instead of quickly getting you your cup of coffee? If you’re never gonna see the person again, and there’s no way to get a resolution with someone, you might be better off just walking away. So sometimes in terms of just thinking about triggers, we try to encourage people to practice letting go of the small things, right? Some problems will, of course, get worse with the passage of time, and those may need to be dealt with, and there’s an art to knowing which people and situations are worth dealing with, which to let go, and deciding when to and how to engage with certain challenges in one’s life.
Brett McKay: So this might mean for some people, if it’s really… They have a really extreme anger problem, they just avoid the trigger or the provocation in the first place, but that, again, that’s gonna take some judgment to figure out, “Can I do this and have a good outcome? Or if I keep avoiding it, we’ll just make the problem worse?”
Chip Tafrate: Yeah, exactly. So there might be a family member that when you show up at a family picnic or holiday that you have a negative history with, and that there’s often ends in an argument, you might decide not to go to that event, right? Or if you do to try to limit your actual contact with that person or to limit the amount of time that you spend there. There’s different ways to sort of navigate that. I think that if you’re at the workplace, there might be certain employees where it might be better just to side-step the person instead of having the conversation face-to-face, maybe you really think about a thoughtful email. But of course, be careful with emails and electronic communications, because when people send angry communications, those are often part of the record. So I think there are different ways to respond to people that don’t necessarily mean responding in the moment, so I think looking at your life and figuring out, “What do I really need to face here? What kinds of things need to be resolved and which ones can I let go?”
Brett McKay: And I think the big, I mean, the biggest benefit of just paying attention to your triggers, is like just knowing what makes you angry. I think a lot of people go through life angry, and they don’t even know why they’re angry, ’cause you ask like, “Why are you angry?” “I don’t know, I’m just angry.” And paying attention would help you… I don’t know, it does something once you know.
Chip Tafrate: Yeah, and so that’s sort of why we sort of start with that analysis of anger episodes, and so… You know, and everyone just feels anger, so let’s just look at your anger and let’s just kinda dissect it and see how it looks in your real life.
Brett McKay: Okay, so everyone experiences that, that sort of flash of anger. It’s automatic, ’cause it’s part of that fight or flight response. What can intensify… So that’s kinda… When you experience like that anger, that initial anger, it’s like a lightning bolt that strikes a forest. Now it can kind of smolder and just sort of extinguish itself, but it can start growing and getting more intent into this raging fire because of our thoughts. So how can thought, how the way we think when we experience that flash of anger, make anger grow out of control?
Chip Tafrate: Yeah, I think that in terms of thoughts, we wanna sort of reverse engineer the rules and assumptions that people live by that drive their anger, and so there are a number of cognitive interventions that involve looking at what people are saying to themselves at the moment when they’re angry, and then trying to talk back to that inner voice and try to replace those anger prompting thoughts with thoughts that are gonna lead to less anger. But maybe a better way to think about it is sort of to imagine the scenario. Imagine that we are visited by an alien race, and they come and they land on Earth, and they’re very curious about human beings, and they don’t experience emotions the same way that we do, and they’re wondering about anger, and your job is to write a rule book on how to become a really angry person. And so what would your rule book look like? Like, what would some of your rules be? And I’ll share with you some of the rules. One rule might be to jump to negative conclusions about the actions and intentions of others, so interpret any potentially negative or ambiguous behaviors as being deliberately and maliciously targeted at you.
Maybe another rule might be demand that people act in a way that you want them to, and insist that situations turn out the way you want. Another rule might be, don’t make a distinction between life’s minor hassles and inconveniences and those things that are really important, treat every difficulty and challenge as a significant setback. And so what we wanna do is figure out what are the self-statements? What’s the person saying when they’re angry? What rules of life are they living by? And we wanna kinda know the inner world of the person a little bit and help them learn to sort of change those thoughts in the moment.
Brett McKay: No, you can see these cognitive bias, I will call them biases, like using the example like, someone cuts you off in traffic. So we feel that flash of anger and then we start… We have this demandingness, “No one should ever do that, they should be really thoughtful and never… They should have thought about getting to the other lane before they did at that moment,” and then, “This guy did that on purpose,” you know, you see…
Chip Tafrate: Yeah, exactly.
Brett McKay: “And he’s just a jerk, and he’s just trying to get my goat,” and then like, it’s a low frustration tolerance, ’cause it’s a minor thing, it’s not that big of a deal. I like the word awfulize you guys use, you’re like, “Oh, this is just the worst thing that could ever happen to me, what a way to start my day off.” All that thought process is just making you more and more angry, it’s not helping.
Chip Tafrate: Right, it’s sort of fueling your anger and ramping it up. And for those folks that aren’t familiar with the term awfulizing, it just means kind of exaggerating any adversity or hardship that you might experience, and all of us experience setbacks in our lives. So people that do awfulizing a lot, they’re actually saying to themselves in their heads, “It’s awful, it’s terrible, it’s horrible,” and what they lack is wisdom. They don’t seem to have the wisdom to know what’s a big deal in life and what’s not, right?
Brett McKay: And this is where a therapist could come in handy, ’cause they help you challenge or reframe that type of thinking.
Chip Tafrate: Yeah, they do. And I think when it comes to awfulizing, what it does is it takes energy away from solving your problems, and awfulizing also makes you unpleasant to be around because no one really wants to be near a complainer. So what are some things you could say to yourself, instead of saying, when the person cuts you off, “This is awful and terrible and horrible?” Just say to yourself, “You know, bad drivers exist. This is part of life, I’m not the policemen of the universe. Let it go.” I can give you another example just in terms of trying to change some of those thoughts, that I think that for many people who struggle with anger, they’re like injustice collectors, they’re constantly scanning for disrespect and seeing the worst in others and situations. So one alternative might be practicing forgiveness in everyday situations as they come up in your life. It’s possible to practice this in the scenario you just mentioned, so if someone cuts you off in traffic, the next time you’re faced with this kind of behavior, you can recognize that you’re having the same old angry thoughts in your head, that might sound like, “He’s a real jerk,” and, “What an asshole,” and, “I’m gonna show him,” and try to catch yourself, right?
But then try to guess what might be happening, or what may have happened in the other person’s life that’s causing him or her to behave in that way, or in this case cut you off, right? But this is hard to do and you don’t know for sure, but maybe the person who cut you off is going to the hospital to visit a friend. Maybe they have some kind of cognitive impairment. Perhaps they’re having a really bad day and they’re distracted by something, going on in their world. And so you can silently in your mind wish the person well, let go of your anger and move on with your day. We sometimes ask people to practice the simple sequence of just practicing kind of forgiveness in small situations. It’s not what they’re doing naturally, and so this will seem very sort of foreign to many, many people who are acting automatically, but slowing down and just sort of practicing forgiveness in small ways and changing those thoughts in your head over time can pay dividends.
Brett McKay: As you mentioned earlier, that we often resort to these maladaptive thinking patterns, you know, this awfulizing, low frustration, tolerance, demandingness, etcetera, when there’s situations that are ambiguous, so we’re not sure if this person meant ill or good or there’s neutral. I think this is why digital communication could be so fraught because oftentimes it’s ambiguous as like intent behind a typed message on a computer screen. So that’s why when someone types in there, our initial response is like, “Man, this guy means this awful thing,” but really they probably didn’t.
Chip Tafrate: Yeah, I think we’ve all done that, right? Yeah, it’s probably better to give people the benefit of the doubt and to not look for the worst in terms of other people’s intentions. And so we know that if you analyze anger episodes for many people, there is this distortion and there’s this sort of kind of looking for malicious intent in other people’s actions that maybe isn’t there. And so that occurs for many people, and we try to slow them down and get them to think of what are some other possibilities, maybe this person doesn’t mean this, what might they mean?
Brett McKay: Okay, so this looking at your thought patterns and kind of challenging it, this is the basis of cognitive behavioral therapy, and so this is one option…
Chip Tafrate: Right.
Brett McKay: Of managing anger, but as you said earlier, you offer sort of like a menu of options, so you can find the one that works best for you, and another option you highlight in the book is acceptance and commitment therapy, and we’ve had Steven Hayes on the podcast a while back ago.
Chip Tafrate: Oh really?
Brett McKay: Yeah. But for those who aren’t familiar, what is acceptance and commitment therapy and how can you apply that to anger?
Chip Tafrate: So, yeah, this is an approach that is helpful for many people, and from an acceptance and commitment therapy perspective, angry behavior results from unskilled attempts to fulfill one’s sort of personal values and cope with their life’s challenges, right? So this style of intervention incorporates elements of Buddhist philosophy, it emphasizes mindful awareness and values-based actions. So just to get a little bit more concrete about this, the focus in this approach is not on eliminating or changing your thoughts and feelings, but rather learning to accept those thoughts and feelings as they are, but acting in a way that moves you in a productive direction. And to do this, often we have conversations with people about their personal values to establish kind of anchor points, like, “How do you wanna be as a parent? What do you value? Do you wanna be a calm parent? Do you wanna be a parent that models a productive behavior for your kids?” And so I think that in this approach, there is this idea that people do not have to act on every thought, emotion, and urge, in fact, during a typical day, all of us have impulses that we don’t automatically translate into behavior, such as, “I’m hungry.”
You might think, “I wish he’d shut up,” or, “I’d love to take a nap right now,” or something like that, right? But from this perspective, the problem is less about the thoughts, but it’s more about the behavioral kind of expression. And so what we try to do here is we explore what clients want out of life, so we sort of try to identify their values and life priorities. And by the way, values are like big life directions that require ongoing attention in your life, you might value being a nurturing parent, you might value being excellent at work or being involved in your community, but I think that what we try to do here is explore the degree to which your everyday decisions are consistent with what you say your core values are, and so that means kind of fostering values-based actions. And so what we’re trying to do is align people’s everyday behaviours with the things that they value most in life, and from an acceptance and commitments therapy standpoint, a meaningful life is sort of defined by living in accordance with what you value. Often your angry reactions are the opposite of that.
Brett McKay: Yeah, so again, I think the point to reiterate here is that these are options, so if you try the CBT root, the Cognitive Behavioral Therapy where you’re challenging angry thought patterns, maybe that works for you. For some people it doesn’t, it kind of has like a backfire effect, the more they fight it, the stronger the thought pattern becomes. It’s like, “Okay, I’ll try acceptance and commitment therapy, maybe that will help me manage my anger,” so again, I think there’s no silver bullet here, you have to experiment and try to figure out what works for you.
Chip Tafrate: Absolutely, and there’s a whole range of options. And, you know, this is actually a big area, we could talk for hours about the different types of interventions that people have, we just touched on a few of them. There’s definitely more than one way to work on reducing your anger and improving your effectiveness in the world.
Brett McKay: One thing you mentioned in the book is this idea of exposure therapy, and I think we’ve heard people talk about exposure therapy with phobias and extreme anxiety, so the idea is, if you have a fear of spiders, then you kind of gradually expose yourself to spiders until the point where you no longer… You kind of extinguish the fear. How does this work with anger? How can you use exposure therapy, just… You put yourself in angry situations? Like, what do you do here?
Chip Tafrate: Yeah, exposure practice is one of the more attention-grabbing techniques, and so I think if you wanna understand exposure, the idea might be this, if… On the anxiety side, if you watch a scary movie and you feel some kind of anxiety watching the movie, what would happen if you saw the movie 10 times?
Brett McKay: Yeah, it’ll be not scary, and, “Okay, I know it’s coming.”
Chip Tafrate: Right, not scary. Yeah. So the idea here is that we want people to practice new skills in their lives, and it’s one thing to maybe practice your tennis serve against the wall in a gym, but it’s another to have a real live opponent kinda hit the ball back at you. And so with exposure, we’re trying to give people the opportunity for simulations and practice, and there’s different ways to do exposure techniques, one way to do it is to sort of send people out to do exposure type of assignments, and so I’ll try to describe this briefly, but we have people sort of spend some time thinking about and imagining maybe some real life anger scenarios, and think about the things that people might say that typically trigger your anger reactions in those situations. The second step is to sort of practice some relaxation techniques. There’s different sort of ways to kind of tense and release your muscles, practice breathing techniques. Sometimes we ask people to practice coping statements in response to some of these triggers, that means, what can you say to yourself in your mind that would lead to less anger? So like, if someone cuts you off, you can say, “You know what? Bad drivers exist.
I’m not the policeman of the universe, I’m gonna let it go.” But the final step is to transfer whatever skill you’re practicing, whether it’s breathing, staying calm, coming up with a new statement in your head, is to transfer this to real life, and the goal is to get to the point where you can intentionally put yourself in some of these situations and handle yourself with less anger. It’s that practice makes automatic idea again, right? But essentially, we try to get people to the place where they can do a live practice round. Now, I do need to say that it’s important not to react to your anger triggers by making angry statements and using provocative body language and gestures. And your goal is to tolerate triggering situations, stay calm while hearing things you don’t like, then try to exit gracefully, right?
And so this could be done with a difficult topic with your kids or maybe your partner, interacting with a co-worker, dealing with a rude salesperson, the goal is always the same, stay calm, keep your angry autopilot response turned off, use your new coping skills, and try to make a graceful exit. So when people do this, we ask them to gauge what went well and what could they do to improve this. And we ask people to start small, don’t pick a situation that if it goes poorly, it’ll result in a significant loss like, you’ll lose your job if you, you know, put yourself in a situation with a critical supervisor. And if you don’t think you can deal with a difficult situation, then you may need to spend some more time practicing an imagination. And if people think that facing a particular situation in real life is likely to result in a significant problem or loss, then maybe skip the live practice and think about getting some professional guidance.
Brett McKay: Okay, so the idea is just… Again, we’re trying to minimize the intensity of anger and how… And minimize the response that we have when we have that anger.
Chip Tafrate: Yeah, and take new skills out for a test drive, actually try them out.
Brett McKay: Yeah, try them out. And, you know, it’s funny, as I’ve listened to our conversation, and whenever I’ve talked to other psychologists about how to manage emotions, strong emotions, I always keep on… I’m sure my listeners are tired of hearing this, but I’m like, this sounds like Aristotle. Aristotle had this down 2500 years ago. When you speak of anger, Aristotle would say, “Anger is not good or bad. It’s good if you expressed it in the right way, at the right time, for the right reason, the right intensity. If you don’t do that, then anger is bad.” It can become maladaptive, and like, that’s what you were saying, it’s like, anger is not necessarily bad, it can just… It becomes bad when you express it too much or in the wrong place, at the wrong time. And then Aristotle, I was talking about, okay, well, how do you learn how to manage your anger? He says, “Well, you practice it, that’s the only… You have to, you can’t just think about it, you actually have to practice the virtue of managing your anger.” So I always think that’s interesting, whenever I talk about it, “Well, man, Aristotle got it right.”
Chip Tafrate: Yeah, the early philosophers did get it right, and so they wrote about anger as something that can get out of hand and derail people’s lives and also be a destructive force for societies and nations, and that to live a truly effective life meant that you had to sort of master your own anger reactions.
Brett McKay: Well, Chip, this has been a great conversation. Is there some place people can go to learn more about the book and your work?
Chip Tafrate: Yeah, people can get the book, it’s called Anger Management for Everyone: 10 Proven Strategies to Control Anger and Live a Happier Life. It’s an inexpensive paperback, and you can find it on Amazon. Also Howie Kassinove and I developed a comprehensive online Udemy program called Anger Management for Any Situations: 10 Ways to Control Anger.
Brett McKay: Fantastic. Well, Chip Tafrate, thanks for your time, it’s been a pleasure.
Chip Tafrate: Thank you for having me.
Brett McKay: My guest today was Dr. Chip Tafrate, he’s the author of the book, Anger Management for Everyone, it’s available at amazon.com and book stores everywhere. Check out our show notes at aom.is/anger where you can find links to resources and we delve deeper into this topic.
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