While driving down the highway in the fast lane, the person in front of you appears to have no idea what the fast lane means. After running all over town with the kids, you arrive home. They know they have rooms yet insist that the entire house is their closet and drop things wherever they please. It’s your birthday and your best friend gets you just what you needed, nothing. It seems that in these instances, the first reaction is to take things personally. As if what was done was intentional, a personal attack.
As odd as it sounds, we often think that there are many forces against us and we are innocent bystanders. I don’t agree. While there are some truly random events, much of what happens is our own doing. How we feel and react to the things going on around us will largely determine what happens to us. In the preceding examples, what makes us think that the things that happen to us are directed at us? Instead of reacting with a “How dare you!” we often react with a “How dare you do this to me!” The truth of the matter is that each person is really more concerned about themselves than they are others. It’s survival of the fittest. The person driving slow in front of me in traffic is more concerned about having a wide open lane ahead of them than they are with me getting past.
A lot of our life is spent worrying about what others may think or feel about us. To paraphrase Dr. Phil, we wouldn’t worry near as much about what others thought about us if we knew how seldom they did. When we are emotionally reactive to things in life, we give up our power to choose. If we take things personally, whether intended personally or not, our reaction intensifies. All of the sudden we have to defend ourselves, though many times a response is not warranted. Instead it would be better if we could learn the art of self-soothing. To be able to calm ourselves in the midst of emotional reactions opens a whole new range of responses.
We all have this ability. We are born with it. Just the other day, my 2 year old was climbing up on a toy in the house for the first time. As I watched her, she had a moment of pause just before she stood up tall and proud. In that moment of pause, she gathered herself and found the internal courage to stand. We do the same thing just before we honestly speak our mind, or address an issue with our spouse or kids. Self-soothing can be enhanced and used in all situations. And doing so gives you much more power over life’s circumstances.
To put this another way; you teach people how to treat you. If you feel that many people treat you wrong or take advantage of you, it only happens because you let them. Learning how to self-sooth, then stand up will produce a different outcome. This in turn will change the way others treat you. If you demand respect, trust, love, honor, comfort, or whatever, accept nothing less. Whenever you receive less than you expect, rather than taking it personally and reacting as such, calm yourself and address the issue. Either put yourself in their shoes and see it from their perspective or stand up and be honest, or both. If this honesty comes from both your mind and heart, it carries much more weight than just emotional reactivity.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
Workers losing their tempers and yelling? Or worse, throwing something or damaging equipment, committing physical violence and even murder? Does this describe the modern workplace? Has “desk rage” now replaced road rage and air rage?
Integra Realty Resources, a national real estate valuation firm, which conducted a workplace survey, concluded that stress in the workplace had escalated in the U.S., reporting that 50% of respondents commonly skip lunch to keep working, and 52% indicating they worked up to 12 hours a day to complete their work. In Integra’s survey of American workers, 42% said yelling and verbal abuse took place where they worked, and 29% admitted they had verbally abused co-workers. More disturbing, 10% of respondents said they worked in a place where physical violence had occurred.
John Challenger, CEO of a Chicago based workplace consulting company, reports that their surveys show that up to 3% of people admit to pushing, slapping or hitting someone at work. With roughly 100 million people in the U.S. workforce, that’s 3 million guilty workers.
According to the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health and a report entitled Compensation and Working Conditions conducted by the University of Virginia , in 1998 alone, 700 homicides occurred in the workplace in the U.S. A U.S. News and World Report poll says that 89% of U.S. workers said incivility is a serious problem and 78% said it is getting worse. The cost of workplace violence to employers is estimated somewhere between $6 to $36 billion annually.
Along with the increase in “desk rage” has been the “Dilbertization” of the workplace–corralling workers into increasingly smaller workplaces in cost cutting measures. Integra reports that 1 in 8 office workers now work in a cubicle.
The Workplace Violence Research Institute reports that many workers have long and difficult commutes, and often arrive at the workplace already stressed and even angry. Anna Maravelas, author of How To Reduce Workplace Conflict and Stress, says that rudeness and anger has spread from the home to the workplace, and is so common that people are less and less embarrassed about it. According to C. Leslie Charles in her book, Why Is Everyone So Cranky? American workers are “overwhelmed, overworked, overscheduled and overspent.”
Harvard Professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter, writing in the Harvard Business Review, cites the recent case of a JetBlue flight attendant, who verbally abused a passenger and then made an angry exit down an escape ramp. His actions are reminiscent of the movie Network, in which a fictional newscaster, Howard Beal, stands up in the middle of the broadcast to yell that famous expression, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore.”
Kanter says that as a result of layoffs and cutbacks, fewer and fewer people are asked to do more and more, and then told to be happy about it, and that can lead to anger and rage. There is potential for workers to “go postal”–an expression indicating extreme physical violence. Kanter argues that the root causes for “desk rage” is anchored in the American culture and reflected in the media’s desire to feature if not stage rancorous political fights as public entertainment. Behind the lost desire to treat people with respect and dignity is the pressure for short-term financial gain at the expense of people, Kanter argues.
The Desk Rage trend is a not-so-hidden time-bomb that could have serious detrimental effects on both productivity and workplace culture. Whether it’s the result of austerity measures such as downsizing and layoffs, or a result of increased workloads and stress, or a reflection of a society becoming increasingly uncivil, remains to be seen. Needless to say it is a disturbing trend, one that employers and executives need to take seriously.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
Anger is a force that can move an organization forward to improve, or, it can be a force that destroys the organization’s ability to fulfil it’s purpose on an everyday level. Managers play a critical role in determining which of these results will come about. The way the manager deals with conflict and anger will set the climate for employees.
There are a number of different anger/conflict situations that managers will face at one time or another. Each of these situations is slightly different, and may require different sets of skills.
■one employee angry or in conflict with another
■employee angry or in conflict with manager (you)
■one employee angry at someone in another organization
■two factions that habitually square off
We are going to look at employee angry that is directed towards you as a manager.
The Anger Iceberg
You should be aware that the anger you see is much easier to deal with than the anger that goes unexpressed by employees. You should also know that the large proportion of employee anger is not expressed directly to the “boss”. It is this anger that is destructive to your organization since it will surface covertly through activities such as back-stabbing, un-cooperativeness, rumour spreading, and poor performance.
One important management/leadership task is to be alert to cues that indicate that there is anger sitting below the surface, unexpressed. While it may be frustrating to bear the responsibility of identifying and dealing with the “iceberg under the surface”, it is an important part of building a positive climate where conflict can be resolved. If you wait for an employee to broach the subject, when it is clear there is a problem, you may be sacrificing a great deal.
We are going to focus on how employee anger that is out in the open can be dealt with so that there is a potential for increasing the level of respect and harmony, and by extension, productivity.
1. Conflict/Angry situations become negative and destructive when they are not dealt with promptly and effectively. When the situations are dealt with properly, there is a tendency for a team to get stronger and better.
2. While angry employees may appear to want a specific issue addressed, they are looking for something else that they see as equally or more important. They want to be heard. If you don’t provide a means for them to be heard, they will find other more
subversive ways to be heard (and you won’t like it much).
3. Staff will watch very closely to see how you handle anger directed at you. Even if you have a private discussion with an angry employee, staff will know about it. Your ability to lead will depend on your behaviour, and the interpretation of your behaviour.
4. Most people react to anger directed at them with a fight or flight reaction. That is there is a gut reaction which, unchecked, results in “firing back” with an aggressive manner, defending oneself, OR, avoidance. Only in rare occasions will these gut reactions result in dealing with anger effectively.
Tips & Techniques For Dealing With Overt Angry Behaviour
1. When an employee expresses anger, deal with it as soon as possible. That doesn’t mean in two weeks! By showing a desire to make time to discuss the situation, you are showing that you are concerned, and value the employee and his or her perceptions and feelings. Many performance problems reach crisis proportions as a result of delay in dealing with anger.
2. Certain situations require privacy for discussion since some people will be unwilling to air their feelings at a public staff meeting. However, if anger is expressed in a staff meeting, you can develop a positive climate in the organization by dealing effectively with it in public. One technique is to ask the angry employee whether they would like to discuss it now, or prefer to talk about it privately. Let them call the shot.
3. Always allow the employee to talk. Don’t interrupt. If they are hesitant to talk, encourage them by using a concerned, non-defensive tone and manner, and gently use questions. For example:
“You seem a bit upset. I would like to help even if you are angry at me. What’s up?”
4. If an employee refuses to talk about what’s bothering them, consider adjourning by saying:
“I can understand that you are hesitant to talk about this, but we would probably both be better off if we got it out in the open. Let’s leave it for a few days and come back to it”
Then follow up on the conversation.
5. Respond to the employee’s feelings first, not the issue underlying the feelings. Use empathy first by saying something like:
“It sounds like you are pretty annoyed with me. I would like to hear your opinion”.
6. Before stating “your side” or your perception of the situation, make sure you have heard what the person said. Use active listening.
“George, if I understand you correctly, you are angry because you feel that I have not given you very challenging assignments, and you feel that I don’t have any confidence in your abilities. Is that right?”
7. If the employee’s perceptions do not match your perceptions express your perceptions in a way that tries to put you and the employee on the same side. Your job is not to prove the employee wrong (even if they are). Trying to prove the employee is
incorrect is likely to increase the anger level even if you are right.
“George, I am sorry you feel that way. Let me explain what I think has happened so you can understand my thinking. Then we can work this out together.”
8. A technique used by expert negotiators is to establish agreement about something. Before getting into the issues themselves, lay the groundwork by finding something the two of you agree on. Again, the point here is to convey the message that you are on the same side.
“George, I think we agree that we don’t want this issue to continue to interfere with our enjoyment of our work. Is that accurate?”
9. At the end of a discussion of this sort, check with the employee to see how they are feeling. The general pattern is:
a) Deal with feelings first
b) Move to issues and problem-solving
c) Go back to feelings (check it out)
Ask the employee if they are satisfied with the situation, or simply ask “Do you feel a bit better?” You may not always get a completely honest response, so be alert to tone of voice and non-verbal cues.
If it appears that the employee is still upset or angry, you may want to let it pass for the moment. Allow the person to think about the situation away from you, THEN follow-up in a day or two. This is important because someone who is angry initially may “lose face” by letting the anger go immediately. Or, the employee might just need time to think about your discussion.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
We all know “Road Rage.” As portrayed in the media, it is a potentially deadly, destructive roadway phenomenon. In fact, around the world, violent acts of road rage kill hundreds and injure thousands of people each year, and they cause millions of dollars of damage. These acts include ramming one’s car into another car; getting out of one’s car and assaulting another driver with fists, baseball bats, and tire irons; or attempting murder with weapons such as firearms and knives. However shocking and damaging these acts of violence are, they are extremely rare compared to the millions of safe, uneventful journeys taken each day around the globe.
For many of us, when we think about road rage, we conjure up mental images of other drivers’ anger-fueled expressions and behaviors—like “flipping the bird,” cutting someone off, tail-gating, shaking a fist, honking, and yelling obscenities. Witnessing these offensive displays stirs up intense feelings of shock, disbelief, and anger. When they happen to us, we can feel threatened, vulnerable, and furious.
For a significant number of drivers, it doesn’t take obvious, provocative, aggressive gestures and behaviors by others to set us off. In fact, many drivers report being frustrated, angered, and even enraged merely by what they perceive as incorrect, problematic driving by others. These acts might seem discourteous (e.g. not letting us merge, driving too slow, taking a parking space we wanted, etc.) or dangerous (e.g. speeding, running a red light, weaving, tail-gating, etc.). These and other driving behaviors may trigger feelings of frustration, injustice, or being threatened. Each of these feelings is a common trigger for anger, rage, and aggression.
Yet, these descriptions of road rage are incomplete. They focus on external factors that upset us emotionally yet allow us to maintain a victim stance. Feeling like a victim not only leaves us feeling powerless over our reaction and distress to others’ behavior; it ignores our role in on-road interactions that may anger other drivers. Are you shocked? Ironically, most of us are guilty at one time or another of committing some driving behavior that—often without our self-awareness—causes anger or even rage in other drivers. In my recent study on road rage, located at http://www.Marin-Psychotherapy.com, participants were surprised to discover they were not simply victims of road rage, but they at times were instigators of road rage. This insight can be helpful in recognizing that we are all responsible for driving safely and with consideration of—and compassion for–other drivers at all times.
What can we do to minimize driving in ways to anger other drivers? What can we do to bring down the volume of anger and rage inside of us while driving? Answers to both questions over-lap. The cycle of road rage isn’t simply one driver angering another. The roadway is a sort of moving community, and we are only one of many who are on our way somewhere to do something that is important to us. Just as we don’t all rush en mass into the local coffee shop and shout out our drink orders without any semblance of order, societal rules, and common courtesy, we truly can all get along and get to our destinations in an orderly, safe, and peaceful manner. Here are some helpful ideas:
Top Ten Ways to Avoid Road Rage (yours and the other guy/gal’s):
10. Think socially rather than selfishly, and try to imagine the other driver’s perspective (e.g., “I bet he’s late for work like I was yesterday. I’ll let him pass.”)
9. Play it safe and smart (e.g., move to a different lane; pull over and calm down)
8. Don’t be a vigilante (e.g., let the highway patrol, not me, punish dangerous drivers)
7. Practice acceptance (e.g., “Let it go” or FIDO–“Forget it; Drive on”)
6. Use humor (e.g., Tell yourself, “She must be rushing to the hair salon. She needs it!”);
5. Exercise altruism (e.g., purposely allow others to merge and pass.);
4. Reduce your stress and anger triggers (e.g., practice mindful breathing; listen to relaxing music instead of aggravating talk radio; put down the phone; etc.).
3. Enjoy the ride (e.g., focus on the scenery; enjoy the company of your passengers, etc.)
2. Leave 10 minutes early, so you won’t be rushed and stressed.
1. Take public transportation or ride a bike!
I like to define assertiveness as the art of asking for what you want in a way that makes it easy for the other person to give it to you. If you think of it as a skill that can be learned by anyone, and can be learned easily by children at an early age when they are learning all kinds of communications skills, I can explain how it is preferable to the other ways of getting what you want.
Parents can teach assertive asking in two simple ways:
The next most important thing in assertiveness is timing, which requires some empathy for the other person so that your request can be heard. Children shouldn’t have to be too sensitive to their parents’ needs, though they often are acutely aware and can be quite naturally empathic. Parents can help the child develop this skill by coaching them: “I can’t read you a story right now, because I am fixing dinner, but if you remind me after dinner, I would be happy to.”
Some have noted a pattern of suspicion followed by silence among those who knew something about Sandusky’s behavior with young boys. Those who work with survivors of child sexual abuse know this pattern all too well and are often angered by it. How do we explain the reluctance of people to talk about their suspicions openly so that something might be done to stop these atrocities?
One of the explanations suggested is that the abuser is a person of power or status who could use that power to punish anyone who dared talk about what they suspected or knew. Though there is some truth to this, especially in the minds of the young person who has been manipulated and sometimes threatened into silence, I think there is a more basic explanation that comes clear in an understanding of the nature of shame and our responses to behavior that evokes shame.
Shame is one of the powerful survival emotions with which we are all hardwired. It is the emotion that compels us to surrender and try to hide when we are faced with an overwhelming threat or defeated in competition. It can save our lives in a primitive battle over status, and it has a complex function in forming our consciences and guiding our moral awareness. But although we use the word in a way that has many complex connotations, it is a fundamental and powerful basic emotion, and shares some characteristics with other survival emotions.
1. Shame compels an immediate behavioral response. Fear compels us to freeze first, then run. Anger compels us to attack. And shame compels us to surrender and withdraw, averting our gaze and trying to hide. We want to become invisible, and anything that draws attention to us makes the shame stronger. So when someone tells an inappropriate joke at a party, everyone wants to crawl under the table. And when someone in your group is behaving badly, no one wants to be the first to call attention to the problem. “For some people, the subject is literally unspeakable.”
2. Shame is contagious. Like the panic triggered in a crowded theater when someone shouts fire, or the rage evoked in a mob when it is focused on a target, shame over someone’s exposure evokes an emotional response in all of us. Depending on our relationship to the person shamed, the emotional response can be one of shame or anger, but if the person is a member of your family, tribe, or a group with which you identify, the shame will come first. When Dad is drunk and making a fool of himself, everyone in the family wants to leave the scene. A secondary
reaction of anger may set in soon, but the initial response is shared shame. If our political leader makes a gaffe, we all groan inside before we go into defensive action.
3. Shame is followed by anger. But the anger may be expressed toward almost anyone. After feeling the sting of shame, we may be angry at ourselves, we may be angry at the world, we may be angry at the easiest person to be angry at – which maybe the victim of the abuse – or we may fear the anger of others that we know is likely to emerge if we make a lot of noise about the shameful situation. So family members enable the alcoholic rather than confront, institutions shield and hide the abusers in their midst rather than share the shame of exposure, and people with suspicions of others, particularly leading members of the group with which they identify, keep their mouths shut and their heads down (the classic posture of shame). The fear of angry reprisals can extend to fear of legal action against the institution involved. But underlying this fear is the naive wish that it will all just go away if we can cover it up or keep quiet about it.
Understanding the nature of our powerful survival emotions, how they compel us to freeze, run, attack, or hide, can help us resist the self defeating behavioral responses that can arise in response to emotionally loaded situations and help us solve problems sooner. Wishing the problems and the feelings would just go away only prolongs the damaging situation.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
Over the past 30 years, I’ve spent nearly 25,000 hours counseling angry men, and until about two years ago, my enthusiasm was beginning to wane. If you’ve worked with angry male clients, you can understand why. These men are generally highly reluctant clients, who are often in your office only because they’ve gotten “the ultimatum” from their wives or girlfriends or bosses or sometimes court judges: “Get therapy for your anger or get out / you’re fired / you’ll go to jail.” Many, considered by everyone who knows them to have an “anger problem,” arrive in your office convinced that they don’t have an anger problem: the real problem is their stupid coworkers, annoying girlfriends, demanding spouses, spoiled kids, or unfair probation officers. However, they arrive at your office with a shotgun at their backs, so to speak, and know they have no choice. They hate the entire situation because it makes them feel powerless.
No wonder they feel powerless: they’re being coerced to lay down their anger, the only weapon they’ve ever had against feelings of powerlessness. They often trace their reliance upon anger to a childhood history of danger, trauma, shaming, and pain. Anger is the emotion they can trust, the one that might keep danger at bay. As they grew up, they continued to use anger to make people they regard as dangerous back away. By the time you see them, they regard just about every person in their lives as “dangerous,” including loved ones. These men have become habitually angry. I liken their condition to the default option on a computer: their anger goes on automatically unless they consciously turn it off.
Of course, it isn’t easy to turn off the default option when the way to do so is hidden deep within the machine’s (our brain’s) control panel. Furthermore, men for whom anger is a default emotional response to life’s vicissitudes are often relatively untrained in experiencing and communicating other emotions. For example, one of my clients “went off”–screaming and threatening bodily harm against his father’s doctors–when his father died, to the point the police had to be summoned, because he couldn’t handle his grief. Anger was the only emotion he could call upon in time of need. Not surprisingly, when these men come to therapy, whether as individuals or in couples or groups, they’re frequently defensive, argumentative, passive-aggressive, protective of their right to be angry, and doubtful about my competence to understand or help them in any way.
It’d be misleading to say that my most difficult clients are unmotivated. More accurately, they’re antimotivated, committed to undermining any behavioral programs or specific anger management tactics I offer. Meaningful change takes many repetitions: “Practice, practice, practice” is a hallmark of anger-management training. For example, taking the time to put a problem into perspective (“On a 1-10 point scale, Joe, how important is it for your teenage daughter to get home every night by 8 p.m.?”) works well, but only if the client is motivated enough to practice putting things into proper perspective perhaps as often as several times a day. It stands to reason that trying to argue such men out of their commitment to anger is pointless. I long ago realized I couldn’t beat them in face-to-face combat; they’re better at in-your-face challenges and making contemptuous remarks than I’ll ever be. I needed a tool that allowed me to sidestep their oppositionality and create a therapeutic alliance.
At a deeper level, chronically angry people have become lifelong victims of what’s sometimes called negative neuroplasticity. They’ve unintentionally trained their brains so well, through countless repetitions of undesired behavior (at least, undesired by the rest of the world), that they’re primed to think, feel, and say things that increase their own anger. For example, Joe may well think that if his daughter gets home after 8 p.m. it means she’s probably having sex with some male punk. That kind of thought pattern is automatic.
So now we have two major concerns. First, some of my clients enter treatment antimotivated. Second, their brains have been programmed to react automatically with anger and hostility to a wide variety of situations. What kind of therapeutic intervention can address these issues?
Focusing on the Brain to Increase Motivation
About six years ago, I stumbled across the answer when I attended a session about the brain at the Networker Symposium in Washington, D.C. The controversial brain researcher Daniel Amen was just beginning his lecture when he mentioned in passing that he’d been browsing through the books on anger in the sales area. “None of them said anything about the brain,” he noted somewhat dismissively. Now many of those anger books he was trashing were my books, so at first I was defensive. But by the end of the talk, I realized he was right, at least about the books I’d authored. I hadn’t mentioned anything about brain processes for a simple reason: I didn’t know anything about them. That led me to immerse myself in the subject of the brain, and as I did so, my enthusiasm for working with angry clients increased exponentially.
How can learning about the brain–particularly the angry brain and how it got that way–possibly influence clients who have a hard time taking in therapy or sticking with anger-management techniques? Aren’t concepts drawn from brain research simply too abstruse, too abstract, and apparently unrelated to daily life to make much difference to them? In fact, what I’ve found is just the reverse: these men are fascinated by information about how anger develops in the brain and why it’s so hard to control, and they consider it far more relevant to their lives than many standard therapy concepts. Getting to understand a bit of what happens “inside their heads” when they get angry resonates deeply with them. In one way, they can cling to their defensiveness and denial systems, since they certainly can’t be accused of deliberately messing up their minds. Sidestepping their defensiveness and emphasizing their opportunity to do something right that will retrain their brains gives them a positive direction and a possible source for well-earned personal pride. Furthermore, hearing me explain how, by regular, committed behavioral practice of various anger-management techniques, they can literally change their own brain circuits, stimulates both hope that they can change and desire to begin. For the first time in their lives, they feel they might be capable of literally using their own brains tochange their brains. It is a real revelation to many angry men.
My own enthusiasm for brain science and my belief in angry men’s inherent capacity to reorganize their own neural circuitry are probably another key to revving up their motivation to try. My “brain talk” to them isn’t just a lecture about applied neurophysiology, but in truth a kind of triggering mechanism arousing their own curiosity and interest. Clearly, my enthusiasm evokes–in their brains–a mirroring enthusiasm for this process. It may well be that my sheer enthusiasm for this endeavor, my joy and excitement about the brain, triggers left-hemisphere mirror neuronal activity that bypasses right-hemisphere negativity and cynicism.
Devron Johnson is a 40-year-old male who’s been divorced for 10 years, partly because of his anger problems. An intelligent but not highly educated man, he works as a heating and cooling technician. He has two adolescent sons, with whom he barely converses and seldom visits. He’s now in a new relationship with Sheila, a 36-year-old mother of three younger children who live with them. Although Devron has never been physically violent with the children, he often frightens them with his angry outbursts.
This man grew up in a tough part of Detroit, where survival was the name of the game. His parents separated and reconnected several times during his childhood. The family atmosphere was markedly hostile–full of negativity, accusations, and occasional violence. Devron said he hated his father because he was never there for him, not even when he became a star athlete on his high school’s baseball team.
Devron sought therapy because Sheila had threatened to end their relationship unless he became much nicer to her kids. He added that he was also in trouble at work because “I gave the finger to my boss once too often.”
Here’s how Devron described his anger: “Man, I had a bad attitude in school. I beat people up if they looked at me wrong. But I gave that up. I don’t hit nobody anymore. But Sheila says I still have a bad attitude. She says I look for problems with her kids. Then I blow because I have a really short fuse. And I have a hard time letting go of my anger, too. Once I get pissed at someone, they stay my enemy forever.” Still, Devron does want to change. He loves Sheila and even grudgingly admits he likes her children. He doesn’t want to lose them. However, he doubts whether I, or anybody else, can help him. A few years ago, he attended an anger-management program for about 10 weeks, but says, “I didn’t get nothing useful from it.”
Like many angry clients, Devron came to counseling under duress–the “get help, or get out” final call. This isn’t a formula for success, since such clients often arrive for counseling thinking that they’ll more or less passively go through the motions to get the wife/boss/law off their backs, and then they’ll be free to revert to previous behavior. By contrast, Devron was directly skeptical and dismissive–derisive, in fact. Instead of pretending to buy the package, he openly challenged me to prove I had something new to offer. It’s uncomfortable to be sneered at by your client, but I’ve learned to recognize an open challenge as a positive indicator for success. Devron’s disdain was a sign of energy that might be used in counseling, if I could develop an alliance with him.
“Actually, Devron, I do have something to offer you that you probably haven’t run into before,” I told him, “I can help you change your brain.” I proceeded to explain with the enthusiasm and energy I usually feel when talking about the brain that he was actually capable of making fundamental, long-term changes in the way he thinks. “Devron, all it takes is commitment and persistence. I know you’re capable of both of those things because you’ve told me how much you love Sheila and the kids–that’s commitment–and how you’ve stuck it out with them when it would have been easier to walk away–that’s persistence.” I emphasized to him that he’d developed lifelong habits of anger that had become deeply rooted in his brain. But I assured him that he and he alone could make changes in those habits if he so desired. However, I cautioned him that real brain change doesn’t come easy. I said he’d need to make a strong commitment to practice new behavior for at least several months, so he could build, improve, and expand new circuitry inside his brain while reducing the power of his negative brain circuits. I briefly mentioned such concepts as neuroplasticity and myleinization, but only as a tactical move, to assure him that I did, in fact, know what I was talking about. I told him I didn’t just believe this brain stuff might work, I was absolutely convinced because I’ve seen many other angry people change their brains in just this way, and because I myself had changed my brain to become much more optimistic and generous.
As I spoke, I watched Devron’s “show me” expression change to hope and wonder. “You mean I can really change the way I think?” he asked. It turned out that Devron’s oppositionality obscured a deep sense of pessimism and hopelessness. He’d believed that change was impossible, in effect dooming him to a lifelong anger career. But now, maybe because of my own sense of conviction, he began to see possibilities. We talked a little more before the hour ended, and I asked him to think about how much he wanted to change his brain and in which ways. I also asked him what positive goals he wanted to pursue–for example, what other emotions he might be willing to experience if his brain wasn’t dominated by anger. A positive goal is important with all clients, of course, but especially with angry clients, who often mistakenly set only the negative goal of being less angry. I explained to Devron that only setting a negative goal like quitting being angry was like deciding that a car that currently could only go in reverse would be just fine if you could get it to stay in neutral. The idea is to move forward in life, to get that car moving ahead. Of course this same idea applies to only quitting drinking (instead of leading a sober lifestyle) or stopping being critical (instead of giving praise).
Finally, I cautioned Devron again that real brain change doesn’t come easy. I told him he’d need to make a strong commitment to practice new behavior for at least several months so he could build, improve, and expand new circuitry inside his brain while reducing the power of his negative brain circuits. I then sent him home with two pages of examples of possible brain change plans he could implement. One example was converting criticism and pessimism to praise and optimism. Another was to convert resentment into forgiveness. A third was to look for the good in people (and himself) instead of the bad.
When Devron returned a week later, he said he’d thought a lot about changing his brain and his life. He’d discussed it with Sheila, who’d told him she’d stick around for a while if she saw him really working to change his behavior. Now he was eager to make a six-month commitment to brain change. I then gave him some handouts I’ve created to help him name his brain-change plan. A person with a good brain plan has given it a name that means something at an emotional level, includes specific initial behaviors to maximize the opportunity for immediate success, and at least speculates about longer-term improvements and additions, and how achieving these changes might affect him or her. I also gave Devron the chapter on neuroplastic change from my book to reinforce the idea that changing his brain was realistic, if and only if he’d make a strong commitment to it.
Devron returned the next week in a quandary. He told me that he and Sheila had had a big disagreement about what his brain-change plan should include. She wanted him to be nicer to her children. Devron told me that he wanted to be nicer to them, but that his first concern was quitting thinking so pessimistically about the world. “If I can’t quit thinking that everyone is out to screw me over, I don’t think my changes will last,” he said. I thought Devron had hit upon a clear understanding of how he needed to change at an existential level. Brain-change plans aren’t simple behavioral alterations: they really change your brain, and in doing so, ultimately affect your connections with yourself, those you love, and the universe. So I affirmed Devron’s insight. However, I did point out that his goal and Sheila’s weren’t contradictory. Being nicer to the kids could well become one way that he altered his mindset of hostility and suspiciousness. After all, deeply held beliefs don’t change completely on their own. Devron needed to try out new behavior and receive positive rewards for doing so in order to give his brain the opportunity to be transformed.
I’d like to offer a side comment here. We often expect our angry clients to act as if they were living in a safe world, a world in which people are pleasant, trustworthy, loving, and consistent. This false belief on our part sets clients up to fail. Devron’s siblings, for instance, regularly engaged in felonious behaviors, such as drug dealing and robbery, and expected him to join them as he often had in the past. He told me during therapy that he’d begun declining these invitations. When I asked him if he’d practiced being assertive with them, he laughed. “I guess if telling my brother to go to hell when he attacked me for not going along with some scam he was into, then yes, I was very assertive.” The result of his new “good” behavior was that his family ostracized him for several months. Fortunately though, Sheila and her children were dependably in his corner, so that Devron could practice new, prosocial behavior around them without being criticized or ridiculed.
Devron named his plan “Learning to Trust.” I was tempted to add “and take in love,” but Devron would have labeled that phrase unmanly. When I asked him how he planned to begin this plan, he suggested he could go to his father to see if he could learn to trust the man he most distrusted in the world. Needless to say, this was a palpably rotten idea: in all likelihood, his father would once again have demonstrated his complete untrustworthiness, potentially undermining everything Devron was trying to do. I talked him out of it with some difficulty by pointing out that he was betting his whole stake on one roll of the dice. “Besides, it’s a bad bet,” I said. “You’d be better off investing in a smaller stake, like letting yourself trust Sheila more.” That reminded him of his real priorities.
He decided to open up emotionally a little more to both his family and a few trusted coworkers. For example, he told some of his history to two of his coworkers, the ones he felt most comfortable with, and they responded positively with their own self-disclosures. Then he took a bigger chance by admitting to Sheila that he had cheated on his first wife. Much to his shock, she told him she’d known about it for a long time–his ex-wife had thoughtfully given Sheila that information when she’d begun dating Devron–but she’d chosen not to mention it and trust that he’d be faithful to her.
Shiela’s disclosure and assertion of trust brought him to tears. At that very moment, his brain-change plan spontaneously expanded to include being trustworthy to others. Since Devron had a long history of lying by omission (“Oh, I must have forgotten to tell you that”) this expansion was quite significant. It had proved harder for him than the initial goal because he’d had to retrain himself not to leave out some of the truth “so nobody could pin me down.” He kept expanding from his core commitment to develop trust. He realized along the way that he’d been mean to Sheila’s children because he didn’t want to get close to them and then lose them. But Sheila came through by rewarding his obvious changes with reassurance that she’d stay with him.
I regularly review a client’s brain-change plan with him or her, rather than just assume it’s working fine. It’s important to challenge clients quickly if they’re letting their plan drift.
The final addition to Devron’s plan was learning how to be more empathetic. Devron acknowledged that empathy was strange territory for him: “Frankly, I never gave a damn what anybody else felt.” But now that he felt safer, he could do what safe people do: care about and take a real interest in others. Like many angry people, he has some difficulty being empathic. Empathy partly depends on automatic attunement processes usually learned in infancy through parent–infant synchronic movement. He experienced few such experiences as a child. We talked together about this deficit, a deficit he was determined to challenge. He immediately made a real effort to put himself in the shoes of others. It’s just that he had trouble first taking off his own shoes. For instance, he told his 12-year-old daughter, Amy, who was being teased by classmates, that he knew exactly how she felt, even though he’d been the bully, not the victim, when he’d been in school. But here again, the principles of neuroplasticity apply. Devron realized he’d misunderstood the situation when his daughter got mad at his reply. He then consciously took the time to listen better. Gradually, this behavior was becoming faster, smoother, and more automatic.
Devron’s plan, then, began with developing some basic trust in the world, which led to being trustworthy himself, which morphed into increased empathy and actually caring about others. He quit working with me after approximately nine months. Our last session included Sheila, who affirmed that Devron had become much less angry, more caring, and far more present in their lives. She’d previously doubted his changes would endure, “But he’s only becoming nicer,” she admitted. “I don’t doubt him any longer.” Devron added that he now felt deep inside his soul that he could trust Sheila. He felt safe in a relationship for the first time in his life. “So now I have no reason to be mad all the time.” Of course, he and Sheila still argue from time to time, as do almost all couples. But Devron controls his initial burst of anger far better than before, calms down quicker, and lets go of his anger sooner.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( 1 so far )
From the moment news broke of another shooting, the question reverberated: why? As the tragedies continue, our collective national frustration has boiled over: Aurora, Columbine, Tucson, Virginia Tech … Why does this keep happening? Why can’t someone explain?
In the 80 interminable hours it took to get a glimpse at the suspect, a second question emerged: what was a look at James Holmes going to reveal?
When he walked into court Monday morning, one thing was immediately obvious. Something was wrong with this guy. Which was weirder, the dazed expression he wore most of the 11 minutes of the hearing, or the sudden bursts of wild eyes, matching his ridiculous orange hair?
The obvious explanation, which many viewers and commentators embraced, was that he was out of his mind or, medically speaking, undergoing some sort of psychotic break. But a minority view pushed back, and hard: the hair, the eyes, the sensational getup for the attack were a little too cute: a cold-blooded killer, playing crazy.
You will never understand this man if you leap to either of these conclusions. Do not look for a unified theory of mass murder, a single coherent drive. It doesn’t exist. Examining all the mass murderers together yields a hopeless mass of contradictions.
Forensic psychiatrists are not baffled by these tragedies. One drive will never explain them. Instead, experts have sorted them into types, which bring the crimes into remarkably clear relief. These researchers find that aside from terrorism, most of these mass murders are committed by criminals who fall into three groups: psychopaths, the delusionally insane, and the suicidally depressed. Look through these lenses, accept the differences, and some of our worst recent tragedies make more sense: Seung-Hui Cho, who shot up Virginia Tech, was delusionally insane; Dylan Klebold, at Columbine, was deeply depressed; and Eric Harris, his co-conspirator, was the psychopath.
Occasionally, there are combinations, or rare exceptions, involving brain tumors or substance abuse. The substance danger has made a resurgence with the abuse of bath salts, recently implicated in many violent crimes.
Mass murderers do share a few common traits. The best meta-study on the subject is an exhaustive report by the Secret Service in 2002, which studied all school shooters for a 26-year period. In this cohort, all the shooters were male, 81 percent warned someone overtly that they were going to do it, and a staggering 98 percent had recently experienced what they considered a significant failure or loss.
Despite this last fact, the ubiquitous question “what made him snap?” leads us astray. The Secret Service found that 93 percent planned the attack in advance. Hardly spontaneous combustion. A long, slow, chilling spiral down. Early evidence in the Aurora case suggests it fits this pattern. James Holmes apparently spent months acquiring the guns and ammunition he used, and it’s likely his descent began much earlier. What set him off down that path?
Psychopaths are the easiest to explain. They seem to be born with no capacity for empathy, a complete disregard for the suffering of others. The sadistic psychopath, a rarity, makes a cold-blooded calculation to enjoy the pain he inflicts. Killing meant nothing to Eric Harris at Columbine—humans were as disposable as fungus in a petri dish. “Just all nature, chemistry, and math,” he wrote.
Harris was witty, charming, and endearing—like most psychopaths—but he artfully masked his hate. “I hate the f–king world,” his journal begins, a year before the attack. Hate roars from every page, but it is contempt that really comes through. “You know what I hate?” he posted on his website. “People who mispronounce words, like ‘acrost,’ and ‘pacific’ for ‘specific.’ You know what I hate? The WB network!!!! Oh Jesus, Mary Mother of God Almighty, I hate that channel with all my heart and soul.” What an ordeal for him to tolerate all us inferior beings.
Harris’s burning desire was a command performance to show us how powerful he really was: “I have a goal to destroy as much as possible,” he wrote in his journal. “I want to burn the world. KILL MANKIND. no one should survive. ”
For those bandying about terms like “evil,” “bad seed,” or “born bad,” this is who you have in mind. Sadistic psychopaths are callous, vicious creatures, probably born that way, with cruelty to animals and a fascination with fire typically showing up by grade school. There is no known effective treatment or cure. It is what the otherwise eloquent Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper was describing when he went briefly astray and called the Aurora killer “delusional,” “diabolical,” and “demonic.”
Can we spot these killers? Of the three types of mass killers, psychopaths leave the fewest warning signs. They are master manipulators who delight in deceit. People see them as kind, trustworthy, and endearing. But it is an elaborate ruse. Harris bragged that he deserved an Oscar for duping his parents.
Families who met with Wayne and Kathy Harris told me the Harrises realized in retrospect their boy was a psychopath, but were oblivious to that danger at the time. They knew he had anger issues, and legal run-ins; they were punishing him sternly, restricting his freedom (the surest way to infuriate a psychopath). They thought if he could find an interest or vocation in which to immerse himself, his idle hands would be out of the devil’s playground. How were they to know he was flexing his creative muscles, staging an elaborate death ritual?
Those who saw Holmes’s bizarre courtroom behavior as a calculated ploy to appear insane are describing a psychopath, also called a “sociopath” by clinicians. Psychopaths are not crazy in the sense that they don’t know what they are doing. They are hyperrational—they just don’t care about our pain. Psychopaths are remarkably like Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight, if you strip away the costume and theatrics. But psychopathic killers have one Achilles’ heel: they revel in glory and like to brag. Look for clues as James Holmes’s history comes to light.
While psychopaths kill for their own amusement, severe psychotics—a very different category of sufferers—are driven to slaughter to extinguish their torment.
Their agony is typically apparent to everyone. The official report on the Virginia Tech killings documented Seung-Hui Cho’s steady disintegration, beginning in third grade and reaching homicidal ideation by eighth. It listed a dozen pages of “aberrant behavior,” from “pathological shyness and isolation” to stalking women in the dorm. Cho wrote weird, angry plays for creative-writing class, which he refused to discuss. He sat silently, spurning eye contact, with his ball cap pulled down to shield his eyes.
Since the tragedy, Cho was widely diagnosed as psychotic—the clinical term for a broad spectrum of deep mental illnesses including schizophrenia and paranoia. Psychotic killers are, most commonly, suffering from schizophrenia, a disease marked by delusions, hallucinations, and loss of emotion, speech, or motivation. Schizophrenia seems genetically predetermined but generally lies dormant until the late teens or early 20s. Alleged Tucson killer Jared Lee Loughner, 22, and Reagan would-be assassin John Hinckley, 25, were both diagnosed as schizophrenics.
Severe psychotics like Cho are delusional, way out of touch with reality. And yet most who suffer from these mental illnesses, even some severely, pose no threat to anyone but themselves. So how does a mentally ill man like Cho make that awful journey to the trigger of a gun? Slowly. Days or months of planning are preceded by years of mental unraveling. As the disease sets in, the victim is typically perplexed and then distraught by the alarming thoughts ricocheting around his brain. Occasional flutters build to a chorus of angry chatter. “Schizophrenic delusions are usually grandiose and persecutory,” noted psychiatrist Dr. Frank Ochberg explains. “There can be terror as a teen or young adult feels he is losing his mind.” Cho was a red-flag assembly line. Everyone around him could see. Cho even checked himself in for a psych evaluation.
What we fail to grasp about killers descending into this kind of illness is the fear. Picture yourself waking up this morning, coherent enough to see that yesterday you were off your rocker. Likewise, three days ago. And two days last week. In and out, but drifting deeper into what you see quite clearly as the crazy pit. Could you get help? That would require confessing. Too dangerous. If you shared what you were up to yesterday, you’d land in a padded cell, electrodes attached to your head, medications administered to obliterate your personality. No way.
Most schizophrenics survive the internal terror, but for future killers, the delusion can be a coping mechanism: I’m not losing my grasp, you people are just out to get me. Arm yourself. Oh God. Which way to point it? Me? Them? For most mass murderers, it will end up being both.
“Do you know what it feels to be spit on your face and to have trash shoved down your throat?” Cho railed in his manifesto before killing at Virginia Tech. “You have vandalized my heart, raped my soul, and torched my conscience. You thought it was one pathetic boy’s life you were extinguishing. Thanks to you, I die like Jesus Christ, to inspire generations of the weak and defenseless people.” Cho found a way to help everyone. He would be the hero of this tragedy.
“There was pleasure in planning such a grand demonstration of ‘justice,’” wrote Roger Depue, former chief of the FBI’s Behavioral Sciences Unit, in the official report of the Virginia Tech Review Panel. “His thought processes were so distorted that he began arguing to himself that his evil plan was actually doing good.”
These tortured minds can lurch momentarily from one extreme to the next, an exhausting ride. Ochberg explains that the flat affect tends to be rather constant, while the bizarre impulses and behavior tend to come and go in bursts. It can puzzle the untrained observer. Psychiatrists who consider Holmes, the alleged Aurora killer, psychotic, would not have been surprised to see him looking catatonic for most of his court appearance, with fits of crazy eyes. It’s unclear whether Holmes is schizophrenic, but his behavior would fit neatly with the profile if he is.
The third type of killer is the hardest to fathom. Depression, for mass murder? We’ve all tasted depression, or some version of it, so we think. But it’s not even close.
Dylan Klebold, before his rampage at Columbine, felt his soul dying. Hopeless. Helpless. Unrelenting despair. He documented it in a private journal for two years. He also left telling school essays and notorious videotapes. The wealth of information provides one of the most enlightening portraits of the depressive descent to a killing spree.
“Such a sad, desolate, lonely unsalvageable i feel I am,” Klebold confided to his journal. “not fair, NOT FAIR!!! I wanted happiness!! I never got it!!! Let’s sum up my life. the most miserable existence in the history of time.”
Other days, Klebold’s spirit soared. He dreamed of a blissful world, with himself vaguely superhuman, “this tranciever of the everything.” It’s glorious. Tranquil. Radiating with love. Klebold fills entire pages with elaborate hearts. “OH MY GOD,” he gushes between suicidal gasps, “I am almost sure I am in love. Hehehe.”
The despair returns. His writing grows erratic, fevered all-caps: “F–KIN DUM-ASS SHITHEAD…F–K!” He grows quiet, returns to his tidy penmanship to close out the entry: “No emotions. not caring. Yet another stage in this shit life. Suicide.”
A startling wake-up call came three years after Columbine. The Secret Service found that 78 percent of shooters had a history of suicide attempts or suicidal thoughts. Sixty-one percent had a documented history of extreme depression or desperation.
The difficulty is not in recognizing a problem, but its severity. An angry, moping teenage boy? That describes much of the high-school population. Dylan’s mother, Sue Klebold, wrote movingly about her experience in an essay for O Magazine in 2009: “I believed that if I loved someone as deeply as I loved him, I would know if he were in trouble.” She saw only sadness. “He did not speak of death, give away possessions, or say that the world would be better off without him.” Sue Klebold used the piece as a plea to other moms to take what appears like recurring sadness seriously. Good advice. The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force estimates that 6 percent of American adolescents—2 million kids—suffer clinical depression. Most go undiagnosed.
With one quick skim of Klebold’s journal, suicide is easy to understand. But why take others with you? Murder instead of suicide comes down to whom you blame. Through much of his journal, Klebold blames himself (he talks about suicide on the very first page). Sometimes God. But slowly, gradually, he focuses the blame outward.
Most vengeful depressives blame their girlfriend, boss, or schoolmates. Some just aim to kill those targets. But the eventual mass murderer sees it differently: it wasn’t one or two mean people who drove him down, it was all of us. Society was brutal, the whole teeming world is mean. We all need to understand what we did to him; we all need to pay. “In 26.5 hours ill be dead, & in happiness,” Klebold finally wrote. “The little zombie human fags will know their errors & be forever suffering & mournful. HAHAHA.”
Two months before Columbine, he wrote a chilling short story for a creative-writing class—after Harris had already assembled the guns and some of the explosives. The story involved a single killer very much like Harris shooting down random “preps” in cold blood, with many of the same atmospherics planned for Columbine. The first-person narrator, apparently a stand-in for Klebold, is just an observer. He watches the gunman intently, and in the final moments, gets a good look and sees right into him. “I not only saw in his face, but also felt emanating from him power, complacence, closure, and godliness.” Sounds pretty appealing. Especially compared to “the most miserable existence in the history of time.”
These seem strikingly similar to Cho’s rants, but Klebold understood what he was doing. Cho had lost the ability to discern reality from fantasy. In his reality, he was helping the world. Klebold knew he wasn’t. He was just getting even.
Most mass murderers intend to die in the act. And most do. James Holmes was an exception, meaning a trial, a psychological evaluation, and answers about why it happened this time.
If Holmes is a psychopath, he probably had a ball Friday. He would have been gleeful through the months from conception to planning and attack. If he’s not a psychopath, he may have spent months or years descending into his own private hell. But which hell? Insanity or suicidal depression? Anyone who claims they can answer these questions this early is ignorant or irresponsible. But we will learn.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
There once was a man in a boat enjoying the serenity of the river at dusk. He sees another boat coming his way and is glad that someone else is sharing his pleasure. Then he realizes the other boat is heading toward him. He starts yelling to the boatman to turn aside, but the vessel just keeps coming faster and faster. By this time he’s standing up in his boat, screaming and shaking his fist, and then the boat smashes right into him. He sees that it’s an empty boat.
This is the classic story of our whole life situation. There are a lot of empty boats out there.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
Shortly after settling into his seat on a Manhattan commuter train one morning, Richard Laermer heard a familiar sound. A man across the aisle was tapping on his smartphone. Clickclickclick. Clickclickclickclick—for 45 minutes.
Fellow passengers rolled their eyes, sighed heavily and craned their necks to glare. Mr. Laermer, a 51-year-old Ridgefield, Conn., business-book writer, tried to bury his head in a book. But there was no escape from the annoying sound, and finally he decided to speak up. “Excuse me, would you please turn off the clicks?” he said.
The man’s response? “It was like I’d kicked him or scalded him with coffee,” Mr. Laermer recalls. He jumped up and shouted, “Is this what it’s now come to? People want you to type more gently?” He ranted for several minutes and ended with, “Who do you think you are? Do you really think you can tell me what to do?”
“Yes, that’s exactly right,” answered Mr. Laermer, who had remained quiet during the tirade. “Please turn the clicks off.” People nearby began clapping, and the angry man sat down, red faced and turned his phone off.
Why do adults throw tantrums over seemingly trivial provocations? Sure, the decline of common courtesy is appalling, and some people aren’t as nice as others. But times are stressful enough for us all. Shouldn’t we have learned by now that indulging in a fit of yelling, whether at a customer-service rep or a spouse, never helps?
Researchers at Duke University, in a yet-to-be-published study, looked for explanations of why people melt down over small things. Their findings suggest we are reacting to a perceived violation of an unwritten yet fundamental rule. It’s the old, childhood wail: “It’s not fair!”
Researchers call these unwritten laws of behavior “social exchange rules.” We’re not supposed to be rude or inconsiderate; we are supposed to be polite, fair, honest and caring. Don’t cut in line. Drive safely. Clean up after yourself.
“We can’t have successful interactions in relationships, mutually beneficial to both people involved, if one person violates these rules,” says Mark Leary, professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke and lead author of the study. “And we can’t have a beneficial society if we can’t trust each other not to lie, not to be unethical, not to watch out for our general well-being.”
The feelings that linger after an angry outburst usually make the person who exploded feel worse. David Katz, 38, founder of a social-network start-up in Toronto, was walking a friend’s elderly Shih Tzu recently when a well-dressed man, typing on his BlackBerry, nearly stepped on the dog.
Mr. Katz knocked the phone out of the man’s hand and told him to watch where he was going. The two men swore at each other. The man with the BlackBerry said, “What’s your problem? It’s just a dog.” Mr. Katz threw the man against a parked van and said if he saw him again, they would “have issues.”
“I’m not proud of how I handled the situation,” Mr. Katz says. He does often see the man in his neighborhood, and they each look at the ground without acknowledging the other. “It’s really awkward,” he says.
I am ashamed to admit that I once became so worked up, after a long time on the phone with a help desk trying to get my laptop unlocked, that I began to bleat over and over, “This is unacceptable!” The kind and exceedingly patient woman on the phone with me said, “Madam, please, can you breathe? May you take a glass of water?”
Dr. Leary at Duke decided to study people’s overreactions to inconsequential events several years ago, after he witnessed the Pickle Incident. He was at a fast-food restaurant and saw a man in a business suit march up to the counter, throw his hamburger down and yell: “Why is there a pickle on my sandwich?” Loudly, he said he would have the counter clerk fired because she was “too stupid” to work there. The clerk looked as if she would cry. Another employee handed the customer a new hamburger, and he left.
The scene made Dr. Leary think there must be something critically important about unwritten social rules if we feel so deeply violated that we need to let the world know when someone breaks one. “It’s not the pickle,” says Dr. Leary. “It’s that you are doing something that makes me not trust you, that you may harm or disadvantage me because you are not playing by the rules.”
Often both parties perceive they have been wronged. Michelle Tennant, 43, chief creative officer for a Saluda, N.C., publicity firm, was waiting at a “Line Forms Here” sign at a Barnes & Noble when a clerk signaled for her to step forward. Right then, a woman who had been waiting four registers away snapped, “Hey! The line forms here!” Ms. Tennant pointed out the sign. The woman, with a young daughter in tow, bellowed, “That’s right. I was standing in the wrong place and so what? Now I’m checking out. Get over it!” Ms. Tennant moved to the next register, where she and the clerk rolled their eyes about the other woman’s behavior. Meanwhile, the woman kept yelling, “Get OVER it! I’m checking out before you!”
Experts advise people who are prone to outbursts to recognize the behavior, then learn to be “personal scientists,” identify “triggers” and work on changing their response. Hate slow drivers? Leave for work earlier, so you’ll be less rushed. Or practice anger management. Breathe and count to 10. Think of something pleasant. Remind yourself that tantrums aren’t worth it and if you have one you will probably feel worse. “You can’t avoid the noxious stimuli of life,” says Stephen C. Josephson, a clinical psychologist and faculty member at Weill Cornell Medical Center in New York. “You need to not respond to every provocation.”
In the Duke study, Dr. Leary asked 200 people in romantic relationships to think of something their partner does that is annoying or upsetting but fairly inconsequential. Then he asked them to rate the degree to which the behavior affected their lives—involving money, job or overall happiness—and the degree to which it seemed unfair, rude, selfish, disrespectful or otherwise violated social-exchange rules.
He found that, regardless of gender or personality, everyone could name something that drove them over the edge, although people who were more “rule-bound” tended to be more upset. Social-exchange rule violations had a 30% greater effect on the magnitude of a person’s anger than the amount of tangible harm the person felt had been done, he concluded. In an earlier study, he found a third of the time, people who overreacted to a small annoyance said it was the last straw in a string of events.
Jonathan Yarmis was pulling into a shopping mall one afternoon, and he cut off a guy driving a dual-cab pickup truck. Mr. Yarmis pulled into his parking spot, and the truck came to a stop right behind his car. “Never a good sign,” says Mr. Yarmis, 57, a technology-industry analyst in Stamford, Conn.
The irate driver, a large man, yelled, “What do you think you are, a race car driver?” Mr. Yarmis, who has driven in several amateur auto races, replied: “Yes, as a matter of fact, I am.” The man seemed taken aback but replied, “Well, you’re still an a—,” to which Mr. Yarmis replied: “You’re right about that, too.”
“He laughed, I laughed—and we actually had lunch together,” says. Mr. Yarmis. “My treat.”
Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
« Previous Entries