July 18, 2023

Beyond Anger: Taking Control of Your Emotional Reactions

We've all been there – feeling like our emotional reactions are direct results of someone else's words or actions. But here's the thing: nobody can 'make' you angry.

I often hear people say things like, “They’ve made me so angry.”

We’ve all been there – feeling like our emotional reactions are direct results of someone else’s words or actions. But here’s the thing: nobody can ‘make’ you angry.

The reality is, it’s not external events or other people that provoke our emotional responses. Instead, it’s our thoughts and perceptions of those events that determine our feelings. When someone does something that doesn’t align with you, or a situation arises that is less than ideal, it is down to how we interpret it.

Imagine this: You’ve spent all day meticulously preparing your living room for a fresh coat of paint. You’ve covered the furniture with protective sheets, taped the edges of the walls, and mixed your paint to the perfect shade. Suddenly, your overenthusiastic dog bursts into the room, collides with your ladder, and the paint can goes flying. In seconds, your perfectly prepared room is now a modern art exhibit of splatters and drips.

How you interpret and react to this situation could vary greatly.

Person A might explode with anger, focusing on the mess and the wasted time and resources. They might blame their dog, think, “This always happens to me,” or feel like their entire day has been ruined. They interpret the event as a disaster, and their emotional response aligns with this interpretation – frustration, anger, even despair.

Person B might sigh, shake their head, but then start to laugh. They see the absurdity of the situation, the comical timing. Sure, it’s a setback, but they view it as just that – a temporary inconvenience in the grand scheme of things. They interpret the event as a funny mishap, leading to feelings of amusement despite the initial shock.
Same event, very different reactions.

This perfectly explains how its not the event that causes our feelings but our interpretation of the event. The event itself – a dog knocking over a paint can – is neutral. It’s our thoughts about the event that generate our emotional responses.

Of course, this isn’t to say that you should simply stop getting angry or annoyed. Emotions are a natural part of being human, and it’s perfectly okay to feel them. However, recognising that we are in control of our own emotional reactions can be a game changer. It reminds us that while we can’t control other people’s actions or words, we can control our responses to them.

This shift in perspective is not just my personal opinion; it’s a fundamental principle of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). CBT is based on the understanding that our thoughts profoundly influence our feelings and behaviours. Therefore, by becoming more aware of our thought patterns and learning to challenge or change unhelpful ones, we can better manage our emotions and actions.

You might be thinking, “That sounds great, but how do I actually do that?”

The first step is to become more aware of your thoughts. When you’re feeling a strong emotion, try to identify the thoughts that are feeding it. For instance, if you’re feeling angry, ask yourself, “What am I telling myself that’s making me feel this way?”
Being stuck in traffic was often one that would get me. I would feel like my time was being wasted.

Once you’re aware of your thoughts, the next step is to challenge them. Are your thoughts rational? Are they based on facts? Are there other ways to interpret the situation that might lead to less intense emotions? This process, known as cognitive reframing, can help you develop more balanced and helpful ways of thinking.
When I am stuck in traffic now, I understand that getting angry won’t make it move any faster. And I can use the time to listen to a podcast, which turns the negative into a positive. The traffic is still there, but I can’t change that.

Additionally, developing emotional resilience involves learning to self-soothe when emotions run high. Techniques like deep breathing, exercise (even just a walk), or grounding exercises can help you regain your cool in the heat of the moment. These may be hard to do when you are fired up, but this is why pausing and taking a few minutes is a superpower.

There is an old Zen saying which is “You should sit in meditation for 20 minutes a day. Unless you’re too busy, then you should sit for an hour.”

Remember, building emotional resilience is a journey. It takes time and practice. So be patient with yourself, and celebrate small victories along the way. As you shift your mindset and employ these strategies, you’ll notice a change. You’ll feel more in control of your emotional responses and less at the mercy of others’ actions or words.
The power is in your hands. Because while we can’t control other people, we can control how we react to them.