You Can Control Your Anger by Reading a List
This is how I learned to dissipate my outrage and find a miraculous center of calm
I was outraged. My darn co-worker Bob had just made a height joke about me.
I’m a short man among short people. At just 1.65 m (5.4 feet) I’m in the same league as Michael J. Fox, Daniel Radcliffe, and Frankie Muniz. And whether they’re friends or foes, there’s no shortage (pun unintended) of people willing to make witty remarks on my stature.
Joyfully giggling, Bob was savoring the moment as I was busy firing back an angry response at him, adorned with several words I’d rather not repeat here. I could feel the blood in my face boiling as I finished spitting venom, to the disapproving frown of Dan, another co-worker, sitting in a corner of the room:
“After all these years, I’m still waiting for the day Joe Donan will finally learn to let go.”
I turned around, trying to utter an angry comeback, but nothing came out. I just stared at him, mouth wide open. Dan’s disapproving words had left me speechless, vanishing my anger, and cooling down my hot temper. It was like being hit with a brick, only it didn’t hurt. In fact, it felt strangely liberating.
Maybe he was right. Maybe I had overreacted. Even better, maybe I shouldn’t have gotten upset at all. Whatever the case, there was one thing I was sure of: those words had soothed me by simply putting the situation into perspective, and I knew I needed more of that in my short-tempered life.
This is the story of how I managed to control my anger outbursts, and how you can do the same by simply reading a list. It’s quick, it’s effective, it’s free, and best of all, it works wonders for your mental and physical health.
My Experimental Anger-Management Session
On my way back home, as I kept replaying the incident in my mind, I started remembering similar past anger episodes and the feelings of frustration they had caused in me. I concluded that I never felt any better after blowing a fuse. If anything, I felt even worse.
I had just realized I had a problem, and I felt ashamed. I didn’t want to explode in anger anymore, especially in public. I remembered the spot-on observation from Dan and figured I could — and should — do something about my issues. I had to find a way to help myself out of the quicksands of my temper.
So, I did what any writer-to-be would: I took a piece of paper and penned down what had happened. Soon enough, I found myself expressing not only the details of my latest anger episode but also the reasons behind it. It wasn’t about me being angry anymore. It was about how I felt about being angry.
Basically, my free-writing exercise clarified the following points:
- What exactly I was upset about,
- The extent to which the situation affected me; and,
- The circumstances that had made me explode.
I felt considerable relief, but still, I thought the method was impractical and too time-consuming. That’s when figured I could write a list of introspective questions to examine my anger outbursts, as opposed to writing about them.
Twenty minutes later, I had finished formulating the inquiries of my prototypical, self anger-management session:
It was time to put my questionnaire to the test. To do this, I tried to evoke the scene from the morning: the insult, the anger, the comeback. Remembering was reliving. As my blood started boiling again, I lay down on my back, imagining a second me sitting on an armchair across the room, leg-crossed, with a notepad at hand.
Reading the questions and answering them felt like having a conversation with myself: a situation I was unfamiliar with, but a fascinating one nonetheless.
“Why are you upset?”
“Bob made a stupid height joke about me.”
“On a scale from 1–10, how upset are you?”
“Eleven. I hate it when people make fun of my stature.”
“How exactly does this situation affect you? Does it represent a form of material loss?”
“Does it hurt your self-love or your self-image?”
“It sure does!”
“Joking about someone’s height isn’t cool. Bob knew this, and he took a cheap shot at me. It’s just like Lieutenant Dan from Forrest Gump. He never wanted to be an amputee, that’s why he hated to be called ‘crippled’. Well, that’s exactly how I feel: I didn’t choose to be this short, and no matter how much I wish for it, I can’t grow any taller.”
“And why do you care?”
“Because I hate being short. I always have! Back at school, I was bullied for being small and skinny. I guess it brings back memories of bad experiences I wish I could forget. To be fair, though, Bob has nothing to do with those events. Maybe he wouldn’t have made the height joke if he had known what I’ve been through.”
“Did you cause this situation?”
“No… well, I might have made a not-so-subtle comment on his thinning hair. I guess he took offense first, just not as badly as I did.”
“So you did cause it. Well, what did you learn from this?”
“It’s rude to point out other people’s physical imperfections, even as a joke. If I don’t like it when people do that to me, then I shouldn’t do the same to them.”
“Can you prevent this from happening again?”
“Probably not. Even if I don’t start a fight, that doesn’t guarantee they won’t comment on my height again. I guess I should probably prepare mentally for these events instead of reacting to them on the spot.”
“Is Bob worth the resentment?”
“Well, we work together, and it’s uncomfortable to hold grudges against people you see every day. Plus he’s usually fun to be around and nice when he wants to. I suppose there’s a good side to him as there is a not-so-nice one, just like everyone else. I should probably just forgive and forget.”
“Okay. Finally, on a scale from 1 to 10, how upset are you now?”
“Maybe one or two. Yeah, what Bob said wasn’t cool, but neither was my comment about his hair. I shouldn’t have done that, to begin with. And even if I hadn’t given him a reason to joke about my height, it was wrong of me to explode in anger like that. Maybe next time, I can take it a bit easier. If I can’t do anything about it, I might as well play along with it.”
By the time my experimental self-therapy session ended, I felt okay. The healing effect of that conversation was like nothing I’d ever experienced before, as I’d gone from being extremely angry to being slightly annoyed.
It was a remarkable achievement toward my well-being and my happiness. I had just let go of something that, just a few hours before, had been killing me inside. I had moved from knowing I was upset to analyzing the underlying reasons why I was upset. Upon recognizing them, I could understand the actual causes of my anger, and that helped me manage my emotions more effectively.
The experiment had borne fruit. But, would it prove effective the next time anger resurfaced? After all, this was a controlled-situation in which I even had to recreate the frustration Bob’s remark had caused in me. I would need to wait for another anger episode to find out.
A String of Successful Trials
A few days later, while I was riding the bus to my girlfriend’s (now wife) workplace, the conductor refused to give me my change. He adamantly said he had already given it to me, when in fact, he hadn’t. In the end, I got off the bus, raging at being 50 cents poorer, and muttering curses at the shameless man who had just robbed me.
Suddenly, I remembered the list. Realizing it was a perfect opportunity to test it again, I went through my little therapy a second time.
“Yes, that conductor just robbed me, and I’m beyond angry right now. He took fifty cents of my money! I bet he’s laughing right now, telling the driver how he made a fool of me. That crook! How dare he?”
As I kept questioning myself about my feelings, more details and possibilities started to emerge.
“Wait… What if the conductor confused me with another passenger and thought he had actually given me back my change? That would have been an honest mistake. I mean, it’s unlikely, but still a possibility. But if that wasn’t the case, and he took my money on purpose, could there have been a reason for it? Did he need that extra cash? Was less than a dollar worth the hassle? Come to think about it, he looked pretty poor. Maybe he doesn’t make enough to feed his family, so he resorts to stealing coins from distracted passengers. Sure, that’d be dishonest, but justified. Anyway, it’s not like I’m bankrupt now. Why did I get all worked up over fifty cents, to begin with? How silly.”
By the time I got to my girlfriend’s workplace, I had already let go of my anger and frustration. On a different day, I would have been fuming the moment I met her, my mood would have ruined our encounter, and I would have stayed upset for hours after that. But thanks to my little self-therapy experiment, I was as cool as a cucumber just minutes after the incident.
The introspection was working. I started using it more and more often, always with positive results. What’s even more amazing, I started to become more resistant to anger fits. Situations that would normally trigger me made me slightly annoyed at best. I even took a habit of laughing at my own mistakes and dismissing otherwise distressful events, deeming them minor setbacks.
I discovered the less I cared, the happier I felt. Also, I came to the realization that not worrying about trivial stuff redirected my attention to actually important matters I use to take for granted: my health, my family, my career, my relationships, and my future. I had found a new path to happiness, one that had always been there but I was too short-sighted to even notice.
The Benefits of Questioning Yourself Using a List
Besides the evident perk of improving your mood, using an introspection list offers a series of non-obvious benefits to their users:
It can save your day
We talk a lot about things that can make or ruin our day, but surprisingly, not enough about the things that can save it. A quick introspection session can effectively do that: the moment you encounter one of those day-ruining events, you can promptly turn the tables and save yourself hours of unnecessary suffering.
It only takes a few minutes
Perhaps one of the greatest benefits of using an introspection list is how practical this technique is. Since it is a mental process, you can do it anywhere and even while doing something else — as long as it doesn’t distract you. You can do it during your lunch hour, during a quick coffee break, or even while sitting on the toilet. It’s that fast.
It prevents future anger episodes
According to Andrea Brandt Ph.D. M.F.T., emotional health requires that anger be processed and digested, or it’ll keep recycling and resurfacing. You need to understand the origins of your anger and why you’re feeling it if you want to make progress at managing it. A quick introspection list is a handy tool to do that.
It prevents bad mistakes with long-lasting repercussions
An angry mindset is far from ideal for decision-making. Psychotherapist Amy Morin from Psychology Today explains that anger impairs self-regulation skills, making you vulnerable to making high-risk, low-payoff choices. Also, according to criminologist Scott A. Bonn Ph.D., fear-based anger has been identified as a primary reason for violence. I’m sure many people in jail can attest to that.
It’s self-help, literally
There’s a reason why we’re good at counseling others but terrible at following our own advice: when we’re not the ones in distress, we have the advantage of a cool-head perspective, enabling us to think clearly. The introspection list allows you to be both the offended and the friend coming to your rescue, so there’s no need for a third party to be involved, especially when there’s no one trustworthy around to confide in.
It’s the closest you can get to an honest therapy process
When we’re in distress and someone else is trying to help us, we tend to lie and omit certain details about our past and psyche to avoid judgment. However, when you’re the one examining your own feelings, there’s no point in being dishonest or hiding information to yourself. That’s why the use of an introspection list ensures your therapy will be 100% true, thus maximizing its healing effect.
The Physiological Benefits of Letting Go
Besides the peace of mind it can bring to you, learning to let go has several health benefits:
It reduces your stress levels, improving your overall health
John Hopkins Medicine warns that anger puts individuals into a fight-or-flight mode, resulting in changes in heart rate, blood pressure, and immune response. Subsequently, those changes increase the risk of depression, heart disease, and diabetes, among other conditions.
It is an effective way to manage stress
According to Charlotte van Oyen Witvliet, Ph.D., when people think about their offenders with resentment, they tend to experience strong negative emotions and higher physiological stress responses. In contrast, when they think about their offenders in forgiving ways, they experience great positive emotion, greater perceived control, and less stress in the short term.
It protects your respiratory system
A 2006 study presented in BMJ Journals concluded that resentment is associated with compromised pulmonary function and accelerated rates of decline of the respiratory system. This is due to an increase in stress hormones, causing inflammation in the airways and making breathing difficult.
It can save your life from sudden cardiovascular events
According to a study by the European Society of Cardiology, anger outbursts can lead to the onset of acute myocardial infarction, acute coronary syndromes, ischaemic and hemorrhagic stroke, and ventricular arrhythmia. Another study found that people who frequently lose their temper are three times more likely to have heart attacks than those who don’t, even after factors such as smoking, diabetes, and weight have been taken into account.
How to Create and Use an Introspection List to Let Go of Your Anger
- Write your list. Even if you’re not a fan of writing, there’s a feeling of empowerment that comes with penning down your thoughts. It’ll also help you visualize your ideas in an organized and specific way.
- Although you can create your own list from scratch, you’re free to use the introspection list I presented in this article. You can also modify it to suit your needs, as long as it serves its intended purpose.
- Your first question, “Why are you angry?” is the only item on your list aimed at identifying the event that triggered your anger outburst. Don’t expect to get a revelation out of it. It’s there to get you started only.
- Formulate the rest of your questions aiming at identifying the deep origins of your resentment, rather than people to blame for it. Remember: don’t focus on your anger. Focus on why you’re feeling it.
- Once your list is complete, try and memorize it. It isn’t practical to carry a physical list around all the time, as it could create confusion, especially when read in public.
- Whenever you feel you’re about to explode in a supernova of overwhelming rage, take a deep breath, and focus on answering each question of your list in proper order.
- Don’t skip any questions, no matter how uncomfortable they are. Doing this may lead to incomplete data as to why you’re experiencing your anger episode, and therefore, to the wrong conclusions.
- Needless to say, be honest. There’s no point in lying or hiding the truth since you cannot trick yourself into ignoring what you already know deep inside.
- Don’t overthink your answers. The idea of introspection is to get a clear understanding of your feelings, not become even more confused about them.
- Consider your first list a draft rather than a final product. When you’re using it, you may discover it is flawed or incomplete. Use this data to improve it so you can make later introspection sessions more effective.
Despite being thousands of years old, the idea of questioning our feelings is almost alien to many of us. This is a shame indeed, as introspection is a powerful, natural mental and physical health-boosting mechanism we all possess, but few are aware of.
Of course, even though writing and resorting to an introspection list is a quick way to keep our angry demons at bay, this process will never be a replacement for a session with a licensed anger-management therapist. Therefore, if you fail to get relief from your anger when using the list, I strongly advise you to leave it to the mental health professionals. They definitely know better.
I do, however, recommend constantly questioning your negative emotions. You can learn a great deal about yourself and your psyche in the process. And as a byproduct, you will find a shortcut to your well-being and peace of mind.
Several years after discovering this technique, I still practice it regularly, and I’ve become quite good at it. As a result, I feel happier, healthier, and more emotionally balanced. All it takes is a few minutes and an honest mindset to work miracles in your life.