The Orange County Register perpetuates an anger myth.

On May 21, The OC Register, wrote an article entitled:

Focus: A look into what makes Americans angry.

In the article, the register started out noting that “Anger is an emotion characterized by antagonism toward someone or something that a person feels has done them wrong, according to the Encyclopedia of Psychology. Anger isn’t always bad; it offers a way to express negative feelings and can drive you to solve problems.” and noted that sometimes anger can lead to more anger.

The article highlighted American’s anger at the government and at their political parties.  I am sure that there are are many other issues which elicit anger in Americans. I know that, today, there are many issues with elicit my anger.

While I think that the article is good as far as it goes and I understand that the author wasn’t interested in how people can master their anger, there is an inherent danger in the article’s headlines.

There are several anger myths, some of which I discuss in my book Beyond Anger Management: Master Your Anger as a Strategic Tool. One of these myths, and the one that the Register article appears to support and perpetuate is that something “makes us angry”.

That something outside of me makes me angry is a myth because each individual “causes”their own anger by how they interpret what is happening to them.

The emotion of anger is a primitive threat detector. As a survival mechanism (which helped us survive as a species), we constantly scan our surroundings for threats.  When we perceive a threat we see as one we can go to battle with and overpower, the emotion we experience is anger. It is our perception of a threat that causes our anger The perceived threat elicits (does not cause) the anger. Mastering one’s anger involves assessing the nature of the threat and choosing an appropriate response.

Here is the potential problem with the myth.

If you look at this literally, the implication is that something happens that controls us.  How else can one interpret the word “makes”? If something makes me angry, it is a relatively easy step to the next assertion which is that the thing that made me angry, caused me to take whatever action I took to eliminate the “thing” that made me angry.

If I believe that you made me angry, I do not have to take responsibility for the actions I take toward you.  I can act out aggressively and blame you for what I did.

We see this when a celebrity attacks his girlfriend and blames her.  In another example, Donald Trump disavowed the aggression at his political rally recently but negated his disavowal when he validated the actions of his supporter. If we are such an angry nation as the map in the Register implied, then we should not perpetuate myths that, by implication, allow angry people to avoid responsibility for their actions.

I know that it is entirely possible that most people won’t interpret the article’s headline in this way. However, some (perhaps many) will and, as we have seen, these folks can be problematic.

Master Your Emotions as Strategic Tools: Why bother?

Three examples of not mastering one’s emotions.

  1. Recently, a very close friend of mine died. As we later found out, he skipped getting a blood test which would have discovered the raging infection which killed him.
  2. The daughter of a good friend complained at a recent gathering of our two families that her boss was taking credit for work she had done by publishing that work in an email and not crediting our friend’s daughter as the author of the report. My friend’s daughter felt agitated, angry, and stressed out.  She felt she was powerless in that situation, was aware that she had to avoid doing something she clearly wanted to do and knew she would regret and, later, got physically ill.
  3. My students tend to procrastinate and wait until the last minute to prepare a paper or study for an exam. While this sometimes works out okay, the work produced with this strategy is often of lesser quality than if it had been thought about, planned out, and completed absent the stress of an impending deadline.

In each of the above cases, not understanding what an emotion is and how to both master and strategically deploy the energy associated with that emotion led to unwanted results which most likely could have been avoided.

There is a myth that says “What I don’t know can’t hurt me.”  A myth is a statement that, while it may have some truth to it in some situations, is largely false.  The modicum of truth in the myth allows the myth to persist.  Thus, while some might argue that not knowing about a spouse’s one-time indiscretion which the spouse regrets and will never repeat might be better than having the marriage be threatened, not knowing about tainted drinking water, identity theft on the internet, toxic gases being released into the air, or your body’s response to pain could be a disaster waiting to happen.

Why bother to master your emotions?

Well, the short answer is that if you don’t master your emotions, they will control you and lead you to take action.  In today’s world that is usually something you may later regret.

In fact, from a psychoevolutionary point of view, leading you to take action is exactly what emotions evolved to do, have done since we lived in caves and, absent mastery on our part, continue to do today. Our cave ancestors did not have sharp teeth or claws for survival.  What they did have were emotions which functioned as primitive threat detectors.  These emotional tools (4 of the 5 primary emotions of mad, sad, glad, fear and disgust), subconsciously alerted them to a threat and prepared their bodies to deal with that threat.

I discuss the Emotions as Tools Model  and the emotional myths in my books  Emotions as Tools: A Self Help Guide to Controlling Your Life not Your Feelings and  Beyond Anger Management: Master Your Anger as a Strategic Tool

For our ancestors, all threats were survival based and would kill them if not dealt with.  Today, most of the threats we face are psychological threats which may result in unwanted consequences but are not fatal. Traffic jams and rude clerks in stores are inconvenient but they are not the same as a saber toothed tiger that wants to eat us.

Please note that while some people may use their emotions as excuses, what I am saying does not, in any way, absolve them of responsibility for their actions.  While one’s emotions may push them to react in certain ways, the actions they take are always the result of decisions they made.

All emotions are tools.  Some emotions like mad, sad, anxiety, fear, disgust, guilt alert us to, and prepare us to deal with, situations (threats), which need to be addressed.  Other emotions such as happy alert us to a situation which is pleasurable and push us to to keep our attention focused on and ourselves engaged in that task.  The “message” of the emotion is  the action we feel “compelled” to take and the nature of the specific task we are facing.

Mastering an emotion involves three main steps:

  1. Learning how to identify, through your body’s physical reaction, and correctly label which emotion you are experiencing and the thoughts/perceptions which maintain that emotion.
  2. Managing, in the case of a threat, that emotion and your reaction to it by lowering your immediate arousal and preventing yourself from REACTING and doing something you later regret
  3. Going beyond emotional management to emotional mastery. This involves analyzing the nature of the threat, adjusting your thoughts/perceptions of the situation if necessary, and choosing how to appropriately RESPOND to that threat.

In example A above, it is entirely possible that had my friend allowed himself to feel anxious about his health instead of rationalizing how “strong” and “resilient” he was in order to avoid the reality of his situation and had he mastered his anxiety, he would have gotten the medical attention he needed.  And, he might be alive today.

In example B, my friend’s daughter, after discussing her situation, mastered her anger and its energy and developed a strategy which was designed both to deal with the supervisor, without using direct confrontation, and successfully eliminate the threat to her professional integrity.

In example C, once my students began to understand both how procrastination was masking anxiety and how to master that anxiety, they approached upcoming assignments from a different and more adaptive point of view.

To conclude, “bothering” to master one’s emotions is important because to do so…

  • gives you back control of your life,
  • prevents you from feeling, or being, victimized by others
  • allows you to take advantage of the information your emotions provide,
  • sets you up to make more adaptive decisions about how best to interact with your environment, and
  • improves your life and your relationships.

I welcome your comments,

Dealing with Procrastination as Anxiety

We have been talking about anxiety and how to deal with it.  While you may not think about it in terms of anxiety, procrastination may be linked to anxiety about some future unwanted outcome.

Many people have written about procrastination and the suggestions they offer are directed at starting the project or overcoming inertia.  Breaking a task down into smaller components, setting S.M.A.R.T  (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, Time-bound), goals, and rewarding yourself for your accomplishments are very good techniques and can effectively help you to either get past the obstacles which seem to surround a new project or eliminate the distractions that lead you to focus on tasks that grab your immediate attention rather than go after the project you are avoiding.

Sometimes, however, inertia is not the issue underlying your procrastination. If the above techniques for overcoming procrastination do not get you back on track, the issue may involve the emotion of anxiety.

Anxiety can overwhelm you and prevent you from taking action.

As I discuss in my book  Emotions as Tools A Self Help Guide to Controlling Your Life not Your Feelings, anxiety is a future based emotion which alerts you to a possible undesirable future and leads you to avoid that future as if it is not only likely but also the only possible outcome.  Procrastination facilitates this avoidance.

Your anxiety will show up in the questions you ask yourself and the focus of the answers to those questions when you think about your project.

If  you find yourself asking questions such as: “What if (the project)  … Doesn’t turn out the way I want it to?,   Isn’t well received, or Is criticized by the team? and all of your answers focus on the worst possible outcomes, then you are experiencing anxiety as “distress” and you are acting as if the project will turn out bad, the team will not accept it, or the new client will reject you. You will rationalize and justify your procrastination in order to support and reinforce your view of the future and your anxiety.

There is a solution.

Three steps to utilize your anxiety as a strategic tool and move past procrastination.

Step 1: Accept and Validate  your Anxiety

These are the Validate and Examine steps, I mentioned in an earlier post.

The focus of this step is to both accept, rather than fight, and validate, or assess, your anxiety. The message of anxiety is that there MAY be a threat out there that MAY harm me. You strategically use your anxiety as a tool when you acknowledge the message of anxiety and assess it. So take a look at your concerns to see if maybe there is some real issue about the project that you need to address.

If there are issues, then address them. In many cases which involve procrastination, however, there probably is no real issue other than your unsubstantiated anxieties.

Step 2: Turn anxiety into anticipation and excitement.

Anxiety looks ahead to an undesirable future and acts “as if” the projected future is the only possibility.  The flip side of anxiety is anticipation which also looks forward to, but gets excited about, a possible desirable future.

You change your anxiety to anticipation by  asking a different “What if..” question.  Examples include: “What if the project works out successfully and everyone is pleased? or “What if I get the book done and it really helps (non-fiction) or entertains (fiction) the people who read it?  These “what-ifs” will elicit excitement.

Step 3: Let the excitement motivate you and move you past your procrastination.

This involves the Motivate and Act steps I noted in an earlier post.

While it may sound simple, it can work with practice and, once you do this, you can then set goals and complete the project.

If you find this post helpful, or you don’t, I welcome your comments.



Four Anti-anxiety techniques Part 2

FOUR anti-anxiety techniques for strategically using your anxiety. (V.E.M.A)

1.VALIDATE:  Validate (accept) your feeling.

“I am really anxious right now.”

The point here is that your anxiety is telling you that you are facing a big challenge and must prepare for it.  Accepting (validating) your feeling opens you up to the opportunity to examine your anxiety and benefit from its message.

2.EXAMINE:  Use your anxiety as a wake-up call to examine the “reality” of the threat.

Ask yourself these questions:

  • What is the “threat” that I’m facing?

In the above example, the threat is the slow internet connection which was preventing my colleague from uploading his information. The threat was real. It was not catastrophic.

You may discover that there you have misunderstood or misperceived the situation and there is no threat.

  • How important is for me to eliminate the threat and get the “job” done?

If the “job” is very important, then you will need to figure out a plan of action. If the “job” is not really that important, then choose to let the feeling go and move on.

  • What do I need now in terms of skills and knowledge, what resources do I have that I can call upon to move forward, or what do I need to do to get the resources I need?

My colleague needed a network connection. With his focus on solutions, he realized that he could borrow a network at a friend’s house or Starbucks.

The point is that you have knowledge and resources upon which you can draw to help you move forward.

Your anxiety, if not used as a tool, can distract you from identifying these resources.


Use your anxiety as a motivator or energizer to charge up your creative juices and push you to making plans to use the resources you have or will develop.

“I can use all this nervous energy as motivation to get this “project” back on track.”

4. ACT

Take action, NOW.

Answer these four questions, determine where you need to change, get the information you need, and move forward in strategically applying your anxiety. 

  1. I validate my feelings… Yes / No
  2. I examine the “reality” of the threat that might exist.. Yes / No
  3. I use my anxiety as a motivator.. Yes / No
  4. I am taking action on what I have learned… Yes / No

I look forward to your comments.