Early in my research on anger, I was asking prominent professors and psychologists to explain the anger process to me. Their answers of course were never simplistic in nature because they went into a level of detail that I knew the lay-person would have difficulty understanding. After I wrote my book, Street Negotiation – How to Resolve Any Conflict Anytime, I had a much greater understanding of anger and I found that anger really amounts to two things: Pain and Blame.
Pain is Like Gasoline
Think of pain as the fuel for a fire that is anger. Pain is your gasoline for your anger. When I refer to pain, I mean both physical or emotional pain. Pain is a warning signal or stimulus to your mind that you are about to get injured, either physically or emotionally, and that it's time to place as much distance from that pain as possible in the act of self-preservation. This is what generates the famous "fight or flight response" from our sympathetic nervous system.
Now let's go back to the gasoline analogy. We know that gas is very dangerous near an open fire. But is gas in and of itself something to be feared? Not really. It's controllable and we bottle it up and ship it all over the world. We sit right underneath about 15 gallons of it everyday on our way to work. Gasoline, just like pain, does not start fires by itself. Gasoline only becomes deadly when the fire has begun and the gas is fueling that fire to burn hotter and more out of control. Remember that a fire can't be put out if gas is still being fed to that fire. To stop a fire that has already started, that source of fuel must first be shut off.
Blame is Like the Lighted Match
So if pain does not start anger, then what does? Well, it's the combination of pain and blame which make anger happen. Blame is the act of choosing to make yourself a victim and the other person the villain. Blame creates the channel from which you can project all your pain out towards another person. A lot of psychologists will refer to this as trigger thoughts, but essentially it's the act of defaulting responsibility for your actions onto another person and assuming the role of a victim. Blame is the lighted match that sets the pain on fire. Blame on its own, in absence of pain, is like a wooden match – you can light it up in the beginning, but without any source of fuel, it quickly burns out on its own. However, if you bring blame in direct contact with pain, then what you get is one heck of a fire.
To give you an example: I once hit my shin on the corner of a wooden coffee table as I was walking through the living room of my house one day. It hurt like hell. I was so pissed off at the table for "hurting me" that I kicked it and broke one of the legs to the table. Yeah, inside I felt an evil sense of revenge because I told that table who was boss … that was until I tried setting a glass of juice on that same table later that day only to have it fall off and onto the carpet because of the broken table leg. Blame makes us feel good in the short run, but the long-term effects it has on our relationships can be devastating. Just like when I broke my coffee table, blame can make us feel great and in control because we are venting our pain away, but it can also permanently damage our relationships – or, in my case, my nice coffee table.
Pain Can't be Avoided, Blaming Can
So then you might ask – how can I manage my anger? Well, we have very little control over the amount of pain that we experience our lives. We can never truly avoid accidents, or headaches, or stomach pains, or breakups, or conflicts – these pains that we experience are a normal part of the life process. What we can change in the anger formula is the blame. We choose to blame someone, something, even ourselves for our pain, but that does not need to happen. We blame because then it erases our responsibility for our own actions and instead projects that responsibility onto another person. Blame is an easy way to get rid of pain, but with serious consequences. We blame when we cannot fully express our own feelings, either to ourselves or to others. Instead of blaming, try to simply express your feelings openly without any blaming, judgments, or accusations. Do this by using, "I feel" statements, rather than "you" statements.
This is more difficult than it sounds, but if you practice during normal conversations expressing how you feel, instead of focusing on the actions or behavior of the other person of which you have little or no control over, you will condition yourself to respond compassionately, rather than with anger.
Remember, pain comes to us all, but we have the choice of starting the anger process by blaming the other person, or we can choose to express our pain without blame and deal with the situation compassionately.