Anyone who’s watched Roger Federer in action knows that here is a man unruffled by feelings of anger. Cool, smooth, calm, collected. No rackets thrown, no yelling at umpires.
But did you know he was a racket-smashing brat in his youth? The story goes that he saw footage of himself throwing tantrums in his early years, and swore off anger for life (and women have been swooning ever since…)
According to two psychology researchers at Sydney University, “the Federer cure” can address some of the misconceptions about anger – watch yourself in angry mode, and see yourself how others see you.
“It’s worth seeing or hearing yourself genuinely angry at least once in your life,” says Sydney University clinical psychologist Steven Laurent. “If it’s difficult to catch yourself in a spontaneous fit of rage, it’s worth replaying an angry scene in front of the mirror.”
Laurent and fellow psychologist Ross Menzies released a book recently, exploding myths about anger being something we humans cling to out of necessity. It’s a fallacy, they say, that anger can be helpful in motivating others and achieving results and is even beneficial to one’s psychological health.
Anger is rarely helpful, good, or constructive, despite what we think.
In The Anger Fallacy (Australian Academic Press, $24.95) the authors explore the reality that anger is everywhere – on the roads, in our homes, in our parliaments, in our warzones, and yes, on our tennis courts.
This is not new. So is it really realistic to envisage a world without anger?
The authors believe it is – once it is understood that it is not necessary or healthy to “let off steam” or get the angry feelings out – that anger as an emotion can actually pass if you do nothing.
Laurent and Ross suggest ten steps or tips that they say can set you on your way to substituting empathy for righteous angry judgments.
1. Understand that anger is a problem: Anger is a problem first and foremost because it sabotages relationships. Surveys tell us that 85% of day-to-day anger actually occurs at home — with family and loved ones, whom you care about, by definition, and who aren’t necessarily that intimidated by you. For this reason, anger just isn’t that effective; and even when it is it comes at the cost of warmth and intimacy, and has a tendency to return to bite you.
2. Feel the anger and DON’T do it anyway: Anger interferes with problem-solving and judgment and makes you rash and rigid in your thinking. This is why even the smartest person you know can be reduced to repetitious expletives when enraged. I would recommend you: go to bed angry (despite your grandmother’s advice); sit on the angry email for a day or two before sending it; walk away from a fight where possible; and seek advice from a (non-angry) third party before taking any hostile action.
3. Watch yourself angry – the Federer cure: The angry are often proud of their anger. Even if they leave a scene having achieved nothing, they appear to believe they’ve just accomplished something tough, powerful and righteous. This is not, of course, how they are perceived by their victims, or spouses, or children. It’s worth seeing or hearing yourself genuinely angry at least once in your life. If it’s difficult to catch yourself in a spontaneous fit of rage, it’s worth replaying an angry scene in front of the mirror. In his junior years tennis great Roger Federer watched himself throwing tantrums on TV and that put him off it for life.
4. Look after yourself: All other things being equal, the state you’re in as you enter an anger-provoking scene will influence the likelihood and severity of an anger episode. If you are stressed, tired, sick, hung-over, agitated, or in any kind of emotionally compromised state when you encounter a provocation, then you are more likely to blow a gasket. These constitute what anger experts call the pre-anger state: the background variables that prime a negative mindset, key you up, shorten the fuse. Alcohol abuse is the most common co-existing condition of people presenting to psychologists with anger problems. Fatigue and stress would have to come next — 96% of Aussies wake up tired, according to a recent sleep survey. Other known anger exacerbators include unmet needs (hunger, thirst, discomfort, lust, etc.); sickness; and PMS. Reducing background variables is a good, easy start in the fight against anger. Get some sleep; take some time off; streamline your week; delegate; relax; improve your diet and so on. In short, look after yourself.
5. Understand the ultimate source of your anger – “should-ing”: Most people believe that it’s other people’s behaviour that makes them angry. For example — your son is texting at the dinner table, you find it irritating, anger ensues… End of story. The problem with this oversimplified model is that it doesn’t explain why the other people at the dinner table aren’t irritated by your son’s behaviour (your son first and foremost of course). It doesn’t explain why something can annoy you one day, and not another, why pet peeves can come and go. It all comes down to their individual expectations, or ‘shoulds’. You don’t get angry because of external events alone, but because of how you appraise those events. Anger always involves framing behaviour as ‘wrong’ — not-as-it-should-be. Anger is should-ing.
6. Challenge your rules: If anger is driven by internal rules of how others ought to behave, this makes it a very ‘self-righteous’ emotion. But if you can see some of your rules for what they are — ‘just the way I was brought up’ or ‘my way of doing things’ — then it will naturally seem silly to judge others for not following them. It helps to remind yourself of the many different ways in which humans around the world operate. If you walk around convinced your opinions on how people must behave are right and universal, you’ll live a restricted life, as well as an angry one.
7. Think like a scientist, not a lawyer: The angry speak a lot about the bad ‘choices’ people make, and what people ‘should’ or ‘shouldn’t have’ done differently. Logically speaking, if you believe someone should have acted differently, you must believe they could have acted differently. To do something else they would have had to have been a different person with a different brain and different beliefs, probably someone more like yourself. If you can get your head around this, and make a habit of explaining people’s behaviour rather than simply condemning it, then you will be a good deal wiser as well as calmer. You may shake your head rather unsympathetically at your uncle’s gambling problem. But a scientist asks, ‘What causes this person to gamble?’ Taking a scientific explaining approach rather than a moralistic blaming one makes people’s behaviour more understandable and more fixable.
8. Empathise: Empathy overlaps somewhat with ‘thinking scientifically’, except that it’s more intuitive. Empathising means living in the skin of someone else. It is an antidote to anger, because it’s hard to condemn someone if you really understand where they’re coming from. Anger almost always involves an inability to ‘get’ the person you’re angry at.
9. Get your facts straight: Angry people often display a bias toward interpreting others’ behaviour as hostile, or nasty, even when they lack the information to really be sure. They’re occasionally right, of course, but very frequently they’ve gotten something wrong, or taken something the wrong way. The simplest first step in reducing your anger is to take a moment and make sure you’ve got all your facts straight. Are you sure she snubbed you and didn’t just not see you? Can you be certain that your wife’s forgetting to pick up the milk is really a personal sign of disrespect, and not just an oversight? Are you positive your neighbour is playing that music just to spite you? If you aren’t 100% positive and the jury’s still out, why not suspend your judgment, pending further evidence. Chilled people tend to presume innocent until proven guilty. This little habit alone can save you a lot of unnecessary grief.
10. Monitor your anger: We strongly recommend keeping an anger log over at least two or three weeks. This raises insight, as well as creating an incentive to reduce your anger (accountability), and hopefully helps you to take an ‘observer stance’ more readily. Monitor any and every episode of anger, from fleeting moments of frustration to extreme rage. Note the situation, the intensity of your anger, any other feelings you experienced, what you were imagining, and what you actually did. Then when all has been said and done, tally up the worthwhileness of the episode (did you gain anything out of it), and have a guess at which one of your ‘shoulds’ – your internal rules – was being broken. This habit of systematically describing your angry outbursts is often all someone needs in order to gain a little perspective. Give it a whirl.