Why Am I So Angry?

Conflict happens. It happens every day for every one but it doesn’t always become a problem. We have ways of managing it.

The problems with conflict happen when we don’t manage it. The pain comes when “we” avoid it, escalate it, give in in unsatisfactory circumstances without resolving the cause of the problem..and so on.

Then you might be asking yourself: Why am I so angry?

When we see things going on, we process it as information,  We refer to things we know, have experienced or believe to make sense of it.  We are making an unconscious judgment about what we notice (and we don’t notice everything) to work out if there is a problem for us.

If our brains evaluate the situation and conclude that there is a threat here, to something I value or need then we will feel the response to that in our bodies. The brain is getting us ready to attack, to defend.  Or to flee the scene.

The interpretation of what’s going on, is where the hot-buttons come in.  They are patterns.  We are programmed to react.

In summary this is the pattern.

Something happens.

That Something is noticed.

That Something is interpreted as a problem.

Our bodies react instantly and we go into the autopilot mode that we have learned for expressing our fears about that particular problem.

It’s all said and done in an instant.

Someone says something (are you attacking me or something I value?), or looks funny at us (are you judging me?) or does not do something we wanted them to do (are you ignoring what I want?).

It’s a trigger for us making a rapid interpretation of what is going on.  And that interpretation, the one that makes me angry, always revolves around my Self.

We use our past experience, our beliefs, our prejudices – what we know of the World and ourself, how things work.  We are on the lookout for what is not safe.

And this is heightened if we are in a situation, context or place where we have felt very unsafe in the past.  It puts our risk-radar into overdrive.

We don’t carefully evaluate every aspect of what’s going on – in fact we don’t even notice every aspect of what is going on.

We really only notice the headlines or the key parts to which we have some kind of sensitisation, an existing mindset or set of expectations.

Our pre-existing mindset frames what we notice.  It’s a small bandwidth of protection.

In other words – we don’t see the whole picture of the Hotbutton.  And the details we miss – we jump over.  We don’t stop to think about alternative explanations, or checking the facts, or what else might be going on that isn’t about Me, actually.

We leap the gap with assumptions, usually ones that line up with our beliefs and expectations of threat, fear, damage, attack, insult, blocking.  We fear a deep need we have will not be met.

But because we are unaware of this deeply sitting inside our Self, we are not connected with it. We just attach it to the Other person. We don’t pause to question our assumptions, to test our story or stop to think.

This is because actual thinking is really hard work.   Our brains have developed some ways to make things easier, to be more efficient at keeping us safe. Mental short-cuts.

Fast decisions have to be made. There isn’t time to tell if that thing right there is a snake or a stick or a a shadow – just jump, right now baby, jump high and don’t ask how or why!!

Our brains have us programmed for fast action – at the expense of accuracy.

We are leaping at things that might be a risk, to keep us safe.  To meet our need to be safe, loved, recognised.

We are ‘frighting’ at the potential snake-stick-shadows on our life path.  We get angry.  We blame. We attack. We judge.

Someone also wants the last carpark.  I really need to park this car.

This person with tattoos looks like a criminal.  I need to feel safe and that tattooed unfamiliar person scares me.

That person in the suit is not treating us fairly.  I fear you think I am less valuable as a person when I am not in a suit.  I need you to recognise me as equal.

The meals are so late, here; do they think I’m not noticing.  I need to have lunch served in a timely manner.

What do you mean, you have none left?  I need one.

And why is this dishwasher not emptied – again!!  I need to have the chores shared.

Our mindset about ourselves and our expectations of the world frames what we believe could be a problem for us.  There can be many layers to this.

We respond instantly and emotionally to a perception of that underlying threat. Response feelings rise up to keep us safe.

They turn up when we fear that an action or inaction will stop us from getting something that we deeply need or we fear may be taken away.

And, if we are more pessimistic in our outlook and less exposed to difference then we likely see more threats from the world, than if we are more exposed to diversity and more positive.

Look under the surface issue.  See what it is that really matters to you in this.

It might be a value that is offended: hard work, independence, equity, obligation, dignity, fairness.  It might be a need blocked: security, life essentials, recognition, inclusion, love, meaning.

It might be something that you attach strongly to your sense of who you are, some part of your identity. Your opinions, your ‘tribe’ of politics. Who I am is attached to who I love, who I hang out with, what I like to do, what I believe in, what I have experienced.

These shape my mental image of who I am and what matters, and How the World Is.

Why am I so angry with you?  Because I have an unseen fear that you are threatening something that really matters to me.

Often, in fact mostly, this process is subconscious and we don’t realise what is driving our anger. We focus on the Perceived Thing that happened and the meaning we found about it.

Not the underlying need or value or challenge being triggered.  We just know that our inner emotions rise up.  We feel fast – we jump!

Emotions drown out rational thinking. We speak or act without working through the fact that there may be other possible explanations; we act in seconds without analysis or weighing up consequences.

By then, we are locked into a position – and that leads to a whole other set of problems.

Mindset drives Story.  Story drives feelings. Feelings drive actions. Our primitive brain gets going with the neural and hormonal responses firing up the adrenalin and so forth.

And all of this, happening in micro-seconds, primes us for action!

Our survival is imperative to that most primitive part of our brains.  We act to protect or defend against the interpretation of a perceived threat.

One way of understanding the patterns,  triggers and hot-buttons is to reflect on conflicts to see if there are patterns.

Be curious.

When you responded in that particular way, what was really your concern.  Why was it important to you?  What mattered?  What did you really want?

Understanding what is really happening in any conflict builds personal awareness. When you have a better insight into what is going on under the surface, you can take different choices, instead of being at the mercy of your pre-programmed primitive brain.

When you feel those red-flag feelings, you can check your Story, early, before it sets off your emotions, before it drives you into actions that may be unnecessary and unhelpful.

You can test your interpretation, the meanings you are making.

You can even explore what the Other is really intending or needing.  Ask questions.

Recognise that what you ‘feel’ is a threat, when you think about it – might not be one.

And if it is – what is the best way to protect your Self?  It may not be by causing a conflict.

Anger is not a bad thing.  It’s there to keep us safe from threats.

Understanding what is going on, what is really worrying you, is a first step in taking back personal communication power and not being driven into Autopilot Anger.

When you know what you really need, you can more consciously choose your response.  And possibly save a lot of pain.

Saleena Ham

Mayer, B. (2012). The Dynamics of Conflict – A Guide to Engagement and Intervention. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass

Seligman, M. (2006). Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life.  New York:Vintage Random House

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