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Reality Testing and Anger Management

Harry Mills, Ph.D.

Controlled Thinking

People stop thinking clearly when they are angry. Angry people tend to make up their minds about a situation right away, and then spend so much time focusing on how they feel and how the situation affects them that they forget to pay attention to anything else. You have a much better chance of keeping yourself under control if you can manage to keep your attention from turning completely inward towards your hurt and/or angry feelings, and instead keep yourself focused on understand the situation you're faced with.

Do what you can to 'squeeze the meaning' out of your angry impulses. Ask yourself what the anger is telling you and what you can learn from it. What about this particular situation is making you angry? How can you improve the situation and improve your anger at the same time? Then, use your relaxation techniques to reduce your arousal.

Importantly, do not believe that you must respond to the anger-provoking situation right away. Most situations are flexible enough for you to take some time to gather yourself together, calm yourself down and really think about the situation before you must act. You might even take time to talk a troubling situation over with trusted advisers. The more you can approach a troubling situation in a prepared and relaxed manner, the greater are your chances of getting what you want from that situation.

Reality Testing

When an accused criminal goes to trial in America, there is an assumption that he or she is innocent until proven guilty. Angry people do not make this assumption, however. Instead, they presume that people they are upset with are simply guilty. Angry people blame others (or themselves) for things that have gone wrong. Underlying this blaming is an attribution that angry people make, which is that the target of their anger has caused things to go wrong. But this is not always the case! Sometimes the target of an angry person's wrath is an innocent bystander who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time and got blamed for something he or she didn't do. In order to better manage anger, then, it is important for angry people to slow down and not simply act on their aggressive first impulses, and instead do some reality testing so as to know whether their anger is truly justified or not.

The first step towards building good reality testing habits is to give up your assumption that your first impression of a situation is always accurate. It is hard to know the objective truth of situations. Each of us sees only one side (our own) of every interaction. Reality is often more complex than our simple senses are capable of appreciating.

By way of illustration, consider that that for thousands of years educated and intelligent people thought that the world was flat. They thought that if you were to sail too far away from land you could fall over the edge of the world and be destroyed. We know better than this today, but not because the appearance of the situation has changed. In fact, the world still looks quite flat if you simply look at it. We only know it is round because we've sailed around it and have returned to our starting place, and because we've been into space and have looked down on it from above. In this case, our simple senses deceive us, and we must rely on fancy techniques to know the truth of the situation.

The first scholars to propose that the earth was round were dismissed as cranks. It was only as evidence began to mount in favor of a spherical earth rather than a flat one (e.g., as explorers circumnavigated the earth in boats) that public opinion shifted to favor the view we hold today. People who thought the world was flat were not stupid - they just didn't have access to the evidence they needed to know the truth. Angry people need to recognize that their first impulses to be angry in a given situation might very well turn out to be as misguided as was our ancestors' belief in a flat earth.

In short, angry people need to stop and gather more complete evidence before passing judgment if they want to better manage their anger.

Black and White Thinking

It is easier to accept that your first angry impressions might not represent a complete and accurate picture of a troubling situation when you understand the world to be a complex place. Recognizing complexity is difficult for some angry people who are in the habit of seeing the world in either "Black" or "White" terms. Many angry people speak in polarized generalities, insisting that things must "always" be a certain way, or that people should "never" behave in a particular way. They may concentrate on the negative sides of things instead of acknowledging the positive aspects that may also be present. They may rapidly jump to conclusions without bothering to verify whether or not their understanding is correct. These polarized black and white habits of thought need to be broken down so that shades of gray can be recognized before anger management progress will occur in a lasting way.

Talking It Out Helps

Once you are open to the possibility that your first impressions might be incorrect or incomplete, there are several ways to test those impressions so as to gain a better, more complete understanding.

One of the best ways to reality test is to talk with other people who have witnessed the angering situation or event. What do they think happened? How do they think the problem was caused? If you believe that a particular person has damaged you, for example, and other people strongly tend to see the situation the same way you do, then you are more justified in feeling angry at that person then you would be if other people saw the situation very differently than you. Other people's input can help you to appreciate more of the complexity of the situation than you can know on your own.

The Benefit Of The Doubt

A quick alternative reality testing method to consulting with others is to use the venerable "Count to 10 before you act" rule, otherwise known as giving the target of your anger the benefit of the doubt. As your angry reaction rises to meet a situation, put the breaks on it for a while. Do what you can to calm yourself. Then look for alternative explanations that might account for the situation you're upset about. Take for example a situation where someone is driving slowly in front of you on the freeway, blocking you from getting where you need to go in an efficient manner. Your first impulse might be to scream at the slow driver for being incompetent. By counting to 10 before you scream, you give yourself time to consider alternative possibilities that might account for the situation. Perhaps the slow driver has faulty breaks or some other mechanical problem with his car and needs to drive slowly so as to maintain control while on his way to the repair shop. Perhaps the slow driver has had several tickets recently and is driving at exactly the speed limit so as to avoid losing his license. If either of these alternative explanations turn out to be true, it would be harder to stay mad at the slow driver, even though it would continue to be frustrating to be stuck behind him.