In the past we spoke of how changing your thoughts and attitudes is the main key to changing your emotions. This is especially true when the emotion is anger which is explosive or over the top. Imagine a scale of emotional upset from one to ten, where 1 is the lowest reaction and 10 the highest. If your reaction to situations is upwards of 6-10, we can say that your anger is excessive or over the top. Most all of the everyday things that occur in your life should be handled within the 1-5 range. (Remember we’re talking about everyday occurrences.) Not all of these will be handled with ease and grace, because a 4 or 5 is something to reckon with. But at the same time, a reaction of 4 or 5 is manageable. Thus the behavioral response is one that is much more measured and reasonable. It’s obviously much easier to have a rational verbal or behavioral response at an anger level of 1-5 than it is at a 6-10. Add to that the fact that once the freight train leaves the station with that 6-10, it is much harder to call it back and get to a lower number. So not only does the thinking lead to behaviors and emotions, those same emotions and behaviors can then reinforce the rage-making thinking that started it all.
So how do we effect change here? Challenging your thinking is how we do that cognitive restructuring we mentioned. Let’s take a common situation. Road rage has become much more prevalent in the past couple of decades. These folks are obviously in the 6-10 range. If so, then there must be some type of thought or self-talk that is happening in your head that brings you from a manageable 1-5 to a 6-10. Here are some thoughts you may be thinking that would cause this: “That driver just cut me off! People should never cut me off! I can’t stand it when they do that. He must be taught a lesson…by me!” If you were to tell yourself this most of the time after someone drives poorly, you would most certainly be in that 6-10 range. And perhaps act accordingly. But if you had different self-talk, the level of your anger would be different. For example, you would probably be much less angry if you thought: “That driver just cut me off! That’s dangerous, so I’ll give him room. Sometimes people drive like that. I can’t stop them from doing it. Even though I don’t like it, I can tolerate it.” Anger is largely about expectations. If you have a lot of “should never” and “must always” kind of thinking, then the anger level will naturally be higher. In my practice I work at educating clients about their self-talk and then move to disputing (and getting them to dispute) their shoulds and musts. When this happens, the anger level most always lowers to a more manageable level.