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Anger Problems? Find the “Should” Behind Your Anger

We experience anger when our unrealistic demands, conceptualized in our minds as “should” or “musts,” are not met. Examples include, “I should work harder,” “People should treat me fairly,” “You must do what I tell you to do,” “I shouldn’t be angry,” etc. “Should” and “must” statements arise from either moralistic rules or perfectionistic demands that we hold ourselves and others to. Irrational should statements rest on your assumption that you are entitled to instant gratification. However, life being what it is, does not respect your “shoulds” or “musts.” Moreover, there is no law that says we should get what we want, any more than other people always get what they want.

How do you handle the “shoulds”?

1. Eliminate the words “should” and “must” when talking about expectations and replace them with “I hope,” or “I wish,” or “I prefer.”  For example, “I wish things were different,” “I hope I can do well, but I can tolerate not being perfect,” “I wish things were different,” etc. In contrast to a perfectionist philosophy, a preferential philosophy of desires, wishes, and hopes makes you approach situations with less fear of failing, makes you resort to less self-blame, and makes you more open and agreeable in other peoples’ eyes.

2. Become more accepting of reality and stop feeling entitled: A lot of your anger stems from you being unwilling to face the reality about yourself, other people, or the world. In the same vein, you have to set your expectations in line with reality. For example, you arrive at a hotel and find out that they don’t have the kind of room you had requested. You get angry because you feel that you are entitled to get what you had booked. The hotel reservation clerk tells you that there is a convention happening in the hotel and the kind of room you had requested is sold out. What are your choices?  You can either sulk or give the clerk your piece of mind. However, the room you had requested will not magically reappear and this will only add misery to your already frustrated state of mind. Or you can use some self-compassion to accept the reality, let go of the entitled mindset, and use your energy to problem-solve. A useful question to ask in a situation where your anger doesn’t change the outcome of the situation is, “What are the advantages versus disadvantages of holding on to my anger?”

3. Rethink your notions about fairness: Moralistic “shoulds” and “musts” are driven by your desire that you have to be treated fairly, that others have to be treated fairly, and that the world should be a fair place to live in. Thus, when you perceive unfairness or injustice in a situation, it leads to frustration and anger. There is nothing like “absolute fairness.” What appears fair to one individual may appear unfair to another individual. People have different moral, cultural, and social rules, which they use as a yardstick to judge a situation. Anger results in situations where you start believing that your rules are applicable to others and anyone not abiding by your rules are being unfair. Of course, there are generally accepted moral and ethical codes and the laws of the land that everyone has to follow. The rules that generally lead to conflict and anger are the more personal ones that you have created based on your past experiences and observations. To save yourself from getting frustrated and angry due to perceived unfairness, you need to broaden your definition of fairness to include what is fair to other people and to get rid of the concept of “absolute fairness.” Useful questions to ask yourself in situations where you perceive unfairness are below:
“Am I interpreting this situation as being unfair based on rules or standards that are mostly personal to me?”
“In what ways is the other person perceiving this situation differently than me?”
“Do I really need to feel this entitled?”
“Is this demand for fairness helping or hurting me?”
“Do I really have control over how others should think or behave?”
“Why must things be only as I expect them to be?”
“Am I perceiving this conflict situation as a personal attack on my worth or other things?
“Is my need to be in control making me angry and pushing people away?”

4. Avoid the “common sense” trap: Another reason why you may resort to “shoulds” and “musts” is that you perceive that it is common sense for you or others to think and act in certain ways in certain situations. This notion of common sense is a cousin of the notion of fairness in that what appears common sense to some may appear non-sense to others. The definition of common sense according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary is “sound and prudent judgment based on a simple perception of the situation or facts.” The problem here is that this “simple perception” varies amongst individuals, which then leads to a variety of “sound and prudent” judgments. Therefore, common sense isn’t that “common” as you may think. Hence, the next time when you are getting angry because somebody didn’t do what was “common sense,” pause and reflect if you are falling for the common sense trap.

To learn more about evidence-based self-management techniques that are proven to work for depression, check out Dr. Duggal's Author Page.


HARPREET S. DUGGAL, MD, FAPA


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