I got a few nasty messages this week. One person called me an asshat and a mediocre white man. I’m still wondering whether the two insults were redundant.
The day before, I had asked my audience what topics they wanted me to address in the future. One of the more popular themes was how to deal with anger, and it turned out to be timely (thank you, Ricardo Martinez).
I don’t get mad often. In fact, people who know me well have told me I don’t get angry often enough. Apparently I have a habit of taking things in stride that should make my blood boil. Which either means I know little about pure rage or a fair amount about how to avoid letting it consume me.
When psychologists study emotion regulation, they often highlight two effective strategies: distraction and reframing. Anger is a full frontal assault on your amygdalda. You try to warn someone, “You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry,” but a split-second later you’re stomping around: “Hulk smash!” Anger makes distraction difficult. It narrows your focus to the person who’s wronged you, to the point that it’s hard to shift your attention to anything else.
Reframing isn’t a cakewalk, but it’s what I find most helpful when I start fuming. My first instinct is to ask, “How do I engage my prefrontal cortex?”
Kidding. Not even neuroscientists think like that.
Reframing begins with recognizing that although you can’t control the event, you can change your interpretation of it. When drivers cut her off on the road, emotion expert Sigal Barsade reframed it by imagining that they were on the way to the hospital for an emergency. But rethinking the other person’s behavior isn’t the only option. You can also look differently at your own response.
Anger isn’t an irrational emotion. It doesn’t stem from the absence of logic—it rises up from the presence of threat or harm. Getting mad is a signal that something important to you is at risk. Understanding what makes you angry is a prism for understanding what you value.
When the insults came in, I asked myself what principle was being threatened. There were at least three. Status: I’m sensitive to signals of social rejection, and this felt like middle school all over again. Competence: one of my core missions in life is to share knowledge, and now my judgment was being questioned. Freedom: my intellectual autonomy matters deeply to me, and there were other people trying to dictate whether I had a voice.
Once I recognized the roots of my anger, it started to melt away. Yes, I care about being respected and liked, but do I really care what someone who stoops to calling me an asshat thinks of me?
Suddenly I felt relieved, not mad. I should thank my lucky stars that it’s not up to them to judge my competence or decide my freedom! So why am I giving them power over how I feel?
That’s a question we could all ask more often when we get angry. Has this person earned the right to dictate my emotions? If not, it might be time to return to sender.