People should always do the right thing. When they behave obnoxiously, unfairly or selfishly, they must be blamed and punished.

Wanting people to behave in certain ways is not a problem. But believing that they 'should' or 'must' can be harmful to your well-being. Demandingness is the primary course of hostile, dysfunctional anger.

Anger is not necessarily bad. If it is directed toward changing things we dislike, then it can be functional. But it becomes self-defeating when we either seethe inwardly but do nothing, or let it out in ways that are destructive to ourselves or others - which is what happens when our anger arises from demands.

It is commonly thought that people get angry because they are frustrated. It is true that people usually feel frustrated when they do not get what they want. But not everyone who feels frustrated reacts the same way. Some react with disappointment (a rational response). Some even see it as a challenge. Unfortunately, though, many engage in self-pity, put themselves down - or get angry.

Frustration by itself does not cause anger - but the way you view frustration does. Extreme anger results when things do not happen as you want and you believe that (a) because you want things to be a certain way, they must and should be that way; (b) it's awful and you cannot stand it when they are not; so (c) you must find someone to blame and punish.

In other words, people get hostile not because they have been frustrated - but rather because they believe that they should not be frustrated. They impose fixed, absolute, and indisputable rules on the world and the people in it, and see it as catastrophic and unbearable for these rules to be broken. They also believe that rule-breakers are not just people who do bad things, but are themselves bad people - who need punishing and putting right.

Uncovering the beliefs which cause hostility

Why would anyone hold such unrealistic demands? They mainly arise from two types of fear. The first is fear about discomfort. This comes from the idea that you can only be happy when your world is secure, safe, and predictable. The second type is fear about self-devaluation. This results, partly, from believing that you can only feel good about yourself if other people recognise, accept, and like you.

Beliefs like these will make you overreact when you think others are breaking the rules. Why? Because you perceive their behaviour as a threat to either your sense of security, your self-image - or both.

Your comfort feels threatened

Hostile anger is, foremost, the result of a frustrated demand. One of your 'rules-for-living' has been broken. Something is happening other than how you think it should or must happen. Demands like the following will be involved in anger that arises from discomfort anxiety:

  1. I should be able to have the things I want, and act and live my life as I want to.
  2. Other people should not do anything to frustrate me or deprive me of the things I want or believe that I need.
  3. They must not disrupt the orderliness and security of my life.
  4. When other people behave badly, I must get angry and let them know how I feel - otherwise they will keep doing it and things will get worse.

Demands like the above are often linked with awfulising. Often, what we react to are self-created illusions of disaster. Anger may be a bellow of outrage against an interruption to our ordered and predictable world. Underlying this 'low frustration-tolerance' are beliefs like: 'Because life should always be predictable and safe, it's awful and I cannot stand it when things go wrong.'

Your self-image feels threatened

If you believe, as many do, that you have to see yourself as 'worthwhile', then you will be over-sensitive to any real or imagined slight from others. You will interpret their behaviour as belittling or discounting you. The self-rating which may follow will usually be combined with demands like the following:

  1. Other people should not criticise me, put me down, or behave in any way that threatens my sense of self-worth.
  2. They must always treat me fairly and justly and give me the love, approval and recognition that I need.

Do you think that if people act unfairly toward you this reflects on your worth as a person? What you are saying is that you cannot feel OK about yourself unless other people give you recognition, acceptance and love - and never reject or behave badly toward you. When someone does something you dislike, you then tell yourself: 'The way they are behaving shows they think I am nothing. If that is true, then it makes me nothing.' Your anger (which is a defence against feeling bad about yourself) results from the additional thought: 'They should not make me feel that way and they are swine for doing so.'

Replacing your anger-producing thoughts

Is there a more rational way to respond to events and circumstances you dislike? Yes - respond to frustration with a third type of anger: constructive anger.

Constructive anger involves moderate emotions like irritation, annoyance, dissatisfaction, displeasure, and disappointment. These are still angry feelings - but they will not cause you to lose your head. Constructive anger also involves moving beyond feeling angry to acting on it. In other words, doing something about the events and circumstances you dislike.

How do you make the change? Begin by giving up any moralising about your anger. Such moralising is pointless - because anger is neither 'good' nor 'bad'. It is just an emotion. And it is more useful to assess emotions on their effects than it is to sermonise about them.

It is quite reasonable to feel displeased about things you do not like. It makes no sense to feel good when you do not get what you desire, or things are not as you want them to be. Anger can be constructive when it energises you to change situations you are unhappy with.

Anger only becomes a problem when it turns into hostility, gets out of proportion, and takes you over. So see anger as being neither 'good' nor 'bad'. Evaluate your own feelings of anger in a practical way. Is it helping? Is it motivating you to change whatever you are unhappy with?

The next step is to tackle the demands that underlie your hostility - and change them to preferences. If you do not get what you think you 'need' or 'must have', or something does not happen as you think it 'should', then you will be prone to go over the top. But when a want, desire or preference is not met, you are more likely to feel disappointed or annoyed.

To help you move from demanding to preferring, ask yourself: 'Where is it written that people should behave in certain ways, that I must never suffer bad feelings, that I need love and respect and others should give them to me, and that things generally should be the way I want?' Recognise that in the real world, some of the time you get what you want, some of the time you do not.

When you identify the underlying rules that keep creating your anger, there are two things you can do. First, ask yourself: 'Is this rule still valid - or is it now outdated or irrelevant?

Second, what about the rules you decide are still valid? You can keep your ideals - you do not have to give away your values and forget about things which are important to you. All you do is turn them from demands back into preferences.

If you expect human beings to act imperfectly and the world to be less than fair, you are simply staying in touch with reality. You do not have to agree with the way things are - or stop trying to make changes. Just avoid any demands that past and present realities not exist when you know they already do. Then you will avoid unnecessary emotional pain. Remember: your demands will hurt you more than others.

You can also reduce your hostility by disputing the idea that people are what they do. How is it that someone who behaves stupidly, unfairly, or bastardly becomes stupid, unfair, or a bastard? Condemning the total person because of one action is like saying a car is useless because the radio does not work.

Deal with your own insecurity. Confront the idea that if people behave unfairly toward you it's a challenge to your worth as a person. This shows that you are relying on other people always liking and accepting you in order to feel good about yourself. Deal with the underlying problem - the idea that you have to be a 'worthy' person. Learn how to accept yourself. Make sure, too, that you accept yourself anger and all. As we saw earlier, anger is not a moral issue. If you down yourself for getting angry, and rate yourself as an 'angry person', you risk living down to your label.

Is the sky really going to fall in? You can stand it when things are not as you want. After all, you are still here to tell the tale! Remind yourself that although it may be unpleasant, it is not the end of the world when things do not go right or when someone behaves badly.

But, again, keep in touch with reality. Do not try to tell yourself negative events are quite all right. This will not work - because you know it is not true. See adverse circumstances as uncomfortable, unpleasant, disappointing, or annoying - rather than disastrous or intolerable.

If you can, recheck your interpretations. Did the other person do what you are blaming them for? If they did, how do you know what goes on in their mind and what their real motivations were? How do you know they were trying to get at you? Try to think of alternative motives for their behaviour. Remember, though - do not just settle for questioning interpretations. Concentrate mainly on the evaluations that are the main cause of your hostile anger: the demanding, awfulising and discomfort-intolerance, and labelling of other people and yourself.

Rethinking your anger

To keep anger under your control, change what you tell yourself. Compare the two lists below:

Hostility-causing beliefs

Rational alternatives

Others must never do anything to devalue me.

The actions of others can't 'devalue' me. I don't magically change because of what others say or do.

I should be able to have the things I want, and live my life as I choose to.

It is OK to want things my way (and try to achieve it), but it is not a law of the universe. It is disappointing when things go wrong, but I can stand it - especially if I avoid demanding and catastrophising.

Other people should never behave in ways that frustrate or deprive me, or upset the stability of my existence.

I'd prefer it if people didn't do things I dislike. But, in real life, they sometimes do! Anyway, it's not their actions which frustrate me - it's my demanding thoughts.

If I didn't get mad then things would never change.

Getting mad disables me - and puts off other people from co-operating with me. I'm more likely to change things by keeping my head and being assertive rather than aggressive.

People should always behave in a correct and right fashion.

In real life, people don't always behave correctly. No amount of demanding is going to make this reality go away. Anyway, who decides what's right?

People who behave badly are bad people - and they deserve blame and punishment.

People are not what they do. Behaving badly doesn't make someone a bad person - just a person who sometimes behaves badly.

I wouldn't be human if I didn't lose my cool.

Just because something is human doesn't make it desirable. Anyway, to be reasonable and understand someone else's viewpoint is also human.

Anger is evil and destructive.

Anger is neither good nor bad - it's just an emotion. I can choose to express it constructively rather than destructively.

Acting against hostility

Now it's time to put your new rational beliefs into practice.

Change the things you dislike

As well as interrupting your hostile anger, take some steps to deal with the triggering events and circumstances. Use your frustration about something as energy to change it. Here are some action strategies to help you move from people-condemning to problem-solving:

  • Do something about problems before they get out of hand. Do not sit on resentments, concerns or disagreements. Address the little things as they occur - before they become big things. If you talk to other people at an early stage, you will have fewer reasons to get hostile in the first place.
  • Assert yourself in a level-headed manner. Communicate assertively with the people involved. Share with them what you are concerned about and what you'd like to see changed. Responsible assertiveness will increase your chances of getting what you want.
  • Assertiveness is not aggression. Rather, it involves saying what you think, feel and want in an honest and direct fashion - while respecting other people and taking into account their feelings and interests.
  • Ask the other person for their point of view. Part of assertively communicating with others is to find out what is going on for them. Check whether you are misreading their motives. If possible, ask them directly. Hear what they say without arguing until they have fully explained their point of view. Even if you end up disagreeing, to understand the other's viewpoint can at least make it easier to 'live and let live'.
  • Negotiate a solution. Assertiveness will help you work toward solutions to your concerns which everyone can live with. This may mean compromising. But it is often possible to reach a deal which is an improvement on how things are.

Keep in mind, though, that there will be some things you cannot change. So make sure you recognise and deal with any demands. Then, when you do not get what you want, you will at least be able to hack it without excess pain.

Analyse angry incidents

While these action strategies will often help you improve your circumstances, they will not deal with the underlying cause of your hostility. Deal with those irrational ideas that you need to be 'worthy', other people must never do anything to make you feel unworthy, and you should not have to endure the awfulness and discomfort of frustration. Analysing your angry episodes on a regular basis, using a procedure like rational self-analysis, is the most effective way to achieve fundamental and lasting change.

Do a self-analysis as soon as possible after every angry episode. This will show you what thoughts tend to make you overreact, and before long you will be able to identify these at an earlier stage. Patience and consistent hard work will pay off. If your anger is the passive type, do an analysis while you are still inwardly stewing. This will help you feel better - and free you to do something about whatever it is you are stewing over.

Note, too, that the self-analysis technique is as relevant to dealing with resentments from the past as it is to handling angry episodes in the present. If you are sitting on bad feelings about something that happened ten years ago - or twenty, or forty - analyse it. Do not hurt yourself any longer over things that are gone.

Other helpful resources

Links within this programme

Further reading

  • Ellis, Albert, Anger - How to Live With and Without It, Carol Publishing Group, New York, 1977.

From hostility to constructive anger

To keep anger under your control, change what you tell yourself. Here is a new rational belief to replace the old one:

'I'd prefer it if people always behaved correctly. But, in real life, they often don't! No amount of demanding will make this reality go away. And people are not what they do: behaving badly does not make someone a bad person - just a person who sometimes behaves badly. Anyway, who decides what is right?'