Anger is an energy
John Lydon, aka Johnny Rotten, lead singer Sex Pistols and Public Image Ltd
One day I woke up angry.
I stayed that way for two years.
Eventually, we diagnosed the phenomenon as Sudden Onset Grumpy Old Fart syndrome (which shortens to the delightfully onomatopoeic acronym, SOGOF).
This is my anger management story. It is a survival story – with fart jokes.
Anger Management (Well, mostly)
Old fartness snuck up on me, as the worst farts do.
I’m only in my late 40s, I thought. On reflection, more like my very, very late 40s. In fact, I was so close to 50 there was really nothing left to be late for.
My withering 40s coincided with a bad career move that lodged me in an ill-fitting job. This acted as an accelerant for my anger. I came home from work angry and sulked all evening. I went to bed angry and dreamt about murdering my bosses with a giant cartoon mallet. I woke up angry before shuffling off to work like a man about to swing from the gallows.
Sleeping with the Enemy
My family suffered. Anything out of place in the kitchen or living room would catch my constantly-scanning eyes and trigger compulsive agro-tidying.
Kids’ shoes left lying around would be melodramatically thrown into their closets. Dirty dishes idle for seconds would be snatched up with a huff and noisily washed.
Here’s some of the many things that made me angry:
- A bit too much water in the kettle (takes longer to boil)
- Polished floorboards (pretentiously unpractical in colder climates)
- Needing to poo more than once in any 24 hour period
- Everything that happens in, around, or as a result of driving my car
- Not enough water in the kettle
- Tupperware containers with square lids that only fit onto the base in two of the four possible ways (increasing the probability of putting the lid on the wrong way by 50%)
- People being nice to me
- The entire eastern seaboard of Australia, except for Merry Beach (which is just delightful)
- And the granddaddy of them all, Yard Day
Needless to say, the thing that pissed me off the most was myself. My childish, irrational self. Oh, and hipsters. Fuck them.
The Anger Spiral
After a while being angry makes you more angry.
You become embarrassed of your petulant and self indulgent behaviour, so your mind protects you by justifying your anger-induced childishness.
The more time you spend angry, the more justifications you need.
Over time I’d created a catalogue of justifications and I believed every one of them. I thought it entirely appropriate to chastise the kids for getting into the car with sand on their feet.
It was reasonable to react with fury when the sandwich maker was left out in the bench for more than the 10-12 minutes it take for it to cool down. Utility bills were rightly met with howling indignation, which began at the letterbox and hit peak outrage at the front door.
When you’re angry all the time, even good things upset you. It’s difficult to justify anger when someone stops to let you cross the road, but it’s essential for SOGOF suffers as the only alternative is to accept they’re behaving like an asshole. So the kind driver that gives way to you, becomes the dickhead holding up traffic.
My family put up with my SOGOF much longer than anyone should have to. They endured because:
- They knew I was having a rough time at work
- They love me and they assumed that deep down (Mariana Trench deep) my normal kind-hearted self was still breathing
- And Maggie is contractually obligated through marriage to stay with me (but also because she is fiercely loyal and endlessly selfless, for which I love her deeply)
Overcoming SOGOF: The Winds of Change
Under threat of revolt, I began a quest to change.
Being an introvert, the quest didn’t begin with a bold announcement or a rousing speech, instead I retired to a quiet corner of the house for several months and read everything I could find on anger.
Then, in the same corner, though sitting slightly more composed, I thought deeply for several more months.
Finally, after developing a 234-point SOGOF Management Plan, I was ready to begin the quest.
How to Overcome Anger
Around 230 of the 234 points in the plan didn’t work, and were angrily (of course) discarded. But in finding 230 things that didn’t work, I found four things that work really well (and none of them require writing shit down).
Over 3-4 months, I’ve made noticeable progress on my SOGOF. Positivity is up and agro-tidying is way down. Chilling out to audiobooks has replaced fuming at traffic lights on the way to work. Swearing is limited to use during flat-packed furniture assembly, blog writing and responding to Trump tweets.
I’ve learnt a lot. The big lesson is the buck stops with me.
Anger has a way of deflecting blame to others.
But we choose to let it take over, so ultimately we’re responsible for the damage it does.
With this in mind, I tried a bunch of techniques to keep my rational self in control. Here’s what worked best.
Anger Management Tip #1: Know Your Anger Triggers
Famed military strategist and notably angry old man Sun Tzu said, “know your enemy”.
You can’t fight what you can’t see.
Suffers of SOGOM (great name for a rock band) will breeze right past their anger triggers, luxuriate in the ‘justified’ reaction, then launch into a full-blown expletive-ridden tirade before returning to the morning paper without even noticing.
The best time to counter anger (with Anger Management Tips #2 and #3) is as soon as you see it coming. The sooner you see it, the easier it is to counter.
But some triggers you may never beat. Avoid these ones. I’ve found though I can now handle IT problems in general, all the anger management in the world won’t help me cope with IT dramas first thing in the morning. No matter how Zen I get, I’ll always lose my shit if I try to download a new app, having just woken up, and it goes wrong. So I just don’t do it.
Anger Management Tip #2: Wait
You can’t (and shouldn’t) avoid all your triggers. Most triggers need to be tackled head-on, else we find ourselves hiding under the bed for the rest of our lives.
Knowing your triggers is half the battle.
When you recognise one, often just waiting a few moments before reacting can be enough to win the battle (or at least postpone it until you can bring in reinforcements).
Waiting creates a circuit breaker between an anger trigger – say, an elderly gentleman in the supermarket paying for his denture glue with a pre-WWII penny collection – and your reaction – throwing yourself on the checkered laminate floor, screaming uncontrollably about the injustice of it all.
Waiting a moment (remember the old count-to-10 trick?) gives the grown-up part of your brain (cerebral cortex) a chance to grab the brattish parts of the brain (limbic) by the scruff of the neck and haul its petulant little butt outside to give it a good talking to.
Anger can be addictive. When you’re angry, you’re right. Everyone else is wrong, and it feels good.
Add to this the joy of venting and the wonderfully cathartic art of swearing and you can find yourself addicted to anger.
Teaching yourself to not automatically react to triggers will help break the habitual part of the addiction.
Anger Management Tip #3: Self Talk
Anger is a child. It’s immature.
It comes from the old, reptilian part of the brain.
But the justification for anger comes from the newer part of the brain, the reasoning part. This part of the brain can also call ‘bullshit’.
The same powers of reasoning that decided the driver who stopped to let you cross the road was a dickhead for holding up traffic, can also decide the driver is in fact a minor saint for doing you a solid.
When I recognised an anger trigger, I wait (and sometimes physically remove myself from the situation to make the wait easier), then when the anger ‘justification’ pops into my head, I challenged it.
If you can keep your emotions low enough by waiting a moment, there is enough rational brain operating to win a challenge with your reptilian brain.
How hard can it be? It’s a lizard brain.
Anger Management Tip #4: Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff
Or as Mark Manson advises, give less fucks.
By reminding myself that I had better things to worry about than whose turn it was to do the dishes, I reduced my number of anger triggers.
Not sweating the small stuff also helps to lower background stress, which builds resilience and positivity. This lowers your base level of negative emotions, including anger, and lets the positive emotions rise.
But best of all, not sweating the small stuff has a surprising benefit. I noticed that if I didn’t react to small stuff like the kids leaving their bags in the kitchen or not doing their homework, often they’d do the jobs anyway in their own time.
All that ranting and stress and drama was for nothing.
I could instead have been polishing my ornate spoon collection or taunting police about my next overly-complicated serial killing. Or writing this post.
It’s probably best to work through the tips in order because changing angry behaviour starts with knowing your triggers then breaking the cycle. I found that once I had Anger Management Tip #1 and #2 in action, the big paydays came with self talk and keeping my mind out of the small stuff. If you want read more on controlling anger, there’s some book recommendations in my Midlife Check-Up post.