Lately I’ve been getting comments from friends on how my temperament has changed. Apparently I’ve “chilled out” and no longer get irritated or lose my temper as often as I used to.
Looking back on my former, ill-tempered self, it seems I did indeed have an anger management problem. It was not uncommon for friends to witness me yelling at waiters, drivers, colleagues and basically anyone unlucky enough to have annoyed me in some way or another. On several occasions, employees have left my office in tears after feeling my wrath, and I’m not proud of it.
I never want to go back to being angry and annoyed all the time. It’s pointless, distracting and extremely draining.
But when I observe the people around me, I see so many who remind me of my former self. They go about their days reacting to trivial annoyances and allowing anger to consume them at any moment.
This is a problem that particularly plagues those of us living in large cities where we are constantly bombarded by annoyances that we can either choose to ignore or let ruin our day.
So in an effort to better understand this struggle with anger that so many of us live with on a daily basis, I began to explore why I had an anger management problem and what changes helped me to overcome this problem.
Why did I have an anger management problem?
After much introspection and replaying past scenarios over and over again in my head, I arrived at two primary reasons for why when given the choice to either stay calm or tear someone’s head off, I chose the latter.
1. Underestimating the costs
When we think rationally, our brains weigh the costs and benefits of each decision and tend to avoid choices in which the costs outweigh the benefits. Given my brain’s proclivity to press my anger button, one would assume there would be solid benefits to doing so. Curious, I put together a cost-benefit analysis on losing my temper:
The real and potential costs to my tirades were many, and these costs seemed to always far outweigh the benefits. Notice how I listed ego massage and vanity on both sides. It may feel great in the immediate term when we give ourselves a little ego or vanity boost, but in the longer term, being egotistical and vane certainly aren’t beneficial traits. After I canceled these out from both sides, the benefits column was then left with nothing but the adrenaline rush one feels during bouts of extreme anger.
But without significant benefits to losing my temper, why then did I repeatedly go down that path?
What in the world was my brain thinking?
Confused, I looked to Google for an answer. Most articles I came across offered uninspired tips such as “take a deep breath”, “think happy thoughts”, and even “seek professional help”, while failing to shed light on the root causes of anger. But I eventually came across an explanation that described anger as an animal instinct that the primitive parts of the brain trigger when we feel threatened.
In other words, anger is part of our “fight-or-flight” response.
I thought this was interesting since it helps to explain the adrenaline rush. It also seems to explain my irrational, animal-like behavior.
But it didn’t address why I was constantly feeling threatened in the first place. The things that caused me to snap were typically trivial events and certainly far from anything life-threatening.
As I thought about this more, I realized that the threats my subconscious so often perceived were not physical threats, but rather threats to my ego.
This then brought me to the second reason for why I was so anger prone.
2. Thinking that I was the center of the universe
By digging into the topic of ego, I was able to identify the root cause of many of my explosions.
My ego used to be out of control and it’s taken years of introspection to become aware that this was even a problem.
When I was a hotshot investment banker, I felt like I was on top of the world and my ego was at an all-time high. This was also the point in my life when my temper was at its worst.
Everything was about me, me, me.
I expected people to prioritize my needs and values above their own.
I expected everyone to treat me with respect.
In a nutshell, I was a selfish, empathy-lacking narcissist who expected to be treated as if I was the center of the universe.
And when people inevitably failed to meet my ridiculous expectations, I took it as a personal attack or threat to my ego. These threats would then trigger my fight-or-flight response and uncontrollable anger would often ensue.
Why do I no longer struggle with anger management?
To be clear, I still get angry — just not as often as before. I’m human and anger is an instinct that we can’t completely control. But we often can control whether we allow our feelings of anger to simmer down or boil over. Here are the three things that have helped me overcome my anger management problem:
1. Becoming aware of and appreciating the costs involved
Having thrown my fair share of temper tantrums that I’ve come to regret, I've learned first-hand that when all is said and done, losing one’s temper simply isn’t worth it.
Sometimes it may appear in the short-term that yelling and screaming has worked in your favor, particularly when it comes to situations where the stakes are small and thus the negative repercussions are less obvious. But in hindsight, the costs (including potential costs) always outweigh the benefits.
One example involving small stakes might be throwing a fit to get better service at a restaurant. Initially, it may seem like you've come out victorious after the manager apologizes and offers you a free dessert. But do you really come out ahead when you spend the rest of the meal distracted and self-conscious? Do you really come out ahead when embarrassment prevents you from returning to the restaurant in the future?
You most certainly do not come out ahead when “special sauce” makes its way into your entree.
2. Allowing my ego to get beaten up
When I was working for others, I played it safe, stayed within my comfort zones and accumulated small wins that fed my ego.
As the years went by and my salary continued to grow significantly, I could sense within myself that I was becoming complacent and risk-averse.
Everything in my life up to that point was smooth sailing. My abilities and ego had yet to be truly tested.
In early 2008, I hastily quit my comfy job to try my hand at being an entrepreneur, and the six years since then have left my ego battered and bruised.
Without a job, it was as if my ego was suddenly stripped of its foundation, and I needed to figure out how to rebuild that foundation with more durable and meaningful material.
And over time as I made tons of mistakes, learned from those mistakes and began to accumulate wins as an entrepreneur, I gradually built my ego back up.
But I noticed something different this time around. It was as if my ego was being weighed down by something. This something was the scar tissue that I had accumulated from past mistakes and failures that prevented my ego from climbing back to unhealthy levels.
I suppose when you allow yourself to fail enough times at anything, your ego can’t help but be humbled — provided sufficient introspection, of course, so that you actually learn from those failures. As an entrepreneur, I am “fortunate” to have plenty of ego-deflating opportunities to make mistakes and accelerate this learning process.
3. Talking to my inner self
I’ve found that the following questions have worked well for me in preventing anger from boiling over. Answering “no” to any one of these questions is my signal to chill out.
Can I do anything about it?
We often get upset about things that are in the past or out of our control. If there’s nothing you can do to affect the outcome, just move on.
Is it really personal?
I've realized that there are many reasons why people behave the way they do, but rarely do the reasons have anything to do with me. Learn to take things less personally.
Is it worth it?
Recall the cost-benefit analysis. By reminding myself that the costs to losing my temper always outweigh the benefits, my answer to this question is invariably “no”.
Conclusion: what can you do?
We all get angry, but how we react to anger differs. Some of us like to keep things to ourselves and bottle in our anger. Some of us express our anger in the form of incessant complaints. And some of us choose to announce our anger to the whole world.
Regardless of which group you are in, I bet you can recall times in your life when you let your temper get in the way of things. Try to take yourself back to those moments and identify the root causes of your anger. Be sure to dig deep so that you can really get down to the roots.
Only after you've identified the root causes of your anger can you then figure out ways to manage it. By working on one’s self, I believe anyone can cure a bad temper.
Of course, if introspection isn’t your thing (or perhaps you skipped right down to this conclusion), go ahead and try these three things the next time you feel the urge to tear someone’s head off:
- Remember that the costs outweigh the benefits.
- Leave your comfort zones and allow your ego to get beaten up.
- Learn to ask yourself: “Can I do anything about it?”, “Is it really personal?”, and “Is it worth it?"
Thanks to these methods, I now have much less desire to make heads roll. Can I guarantee that these methods will work for you? Of course not. But you’ll never know until you at least try. Good luck!
What did you think about this post? Comments are always welcome.