One of the most common and mundane reasons to get angry is that somebody else is getting mad at us for “no good reason”. In some part of our brain we think, “It is unfair they are upset. I will stand up for myself! If I get angry, they will realize their misplaced ire and repent.” Of course, if you take just a few seconds to think on this, you’ll find that this has an extremely low success rate. In fact, usually it just prompts them to get even more irate. Because from their perspective, often they didn’t even realize that they were expressing anger (or it was at least justified irritation), and all of a sudden you just got mad out of nowhere or are becoming defensive instead of hearing their important grievances.
The bright side is that in your anger is the seed of a solution. Say the person said, “Stop being angry!” what would you say? You’d probably say something along the lines of, “I can’t.” Either it’s justified and so won’t just go away, or you can’t just “turn off” your anger. If you could, maybe you would, but that’s not how your emotions work.
And therein is the lesson. Just as you cannot turn off your anger, neither can the other person. Using this empathy to realize that they cannot stop their flashes of annoyance any more than you can, that they feel they are right as much as you do. That emotions are not like light switches where one can simply turn it off.
Of course, this insight won’t instantly make you stop getting angry in response to others for that very reason. You cannot just stop having reactions. However, if you work on internalizing this idea, you’ll find yourself reacting less frequently, with less intensity, and you won’t feed your anger as much. You’ll be less likely to ruminate forever about how unfair it is that that person got mad at you and realize that we’re all just imperfect humans, doing our best, with emotions that are far more complicated than a light switch.
When you’re feeling anxious, upset, angry, or otherwise in a bad emotional state, a good general approach to fix it, in escalating levels of time and probability of success, is to do emotional CPR. CPR stands for cognitive, physiological, and reset.
Cognitive refers to cognitive approaches, using just your mind. They’re usually the quickest and least intensive ways of fixing something. They aren’t necessarily easy per se, but they are not very disruptive. If you’re having a bad time at the office or in a difficult conversation, you can do it without anybody noticing. They also are often quite quick.
These involve things like:
If those don’t work, changing your physiology will often do the trick. Sometimes your thoughts cause your feelings, but sometimes your feelings cause your thoughts, and a way to kickstart your feelings is to change your chemistry. This can be things like:
Lastly, if none of those work, you can do what I call a hard emotional reset. If physiology is like closing a program and restarting it to see if it stops glitching, an emotional reset is restarting the whole computer. What constitutes an emotional reset will vary from person to person, but the general approach is to pull out all the stops. Some examples might be:
Whatever your cup of tea is, it’s one of the things that reliably gets your mind off the problem (perceived or actual) and gets you in a good mood. This, understandably, should be saved for last because it takes more time and energy investment. Sometimes it can be short, but from what I’ve seen, for most people, if the things before haven’t worked, usually it takes at least an hour to fully reset.
So the quick recap is:
I hope that the next time you’re feeling down that following this method will help you.
I'm an effective altruist who co-founded Charity Science Health and Charity Entrepreneurship.