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How to Dissipate Anger by Reframing

Updated on September 7, 2014

What is Reframing?

By looking at a situation in a different perspective, our attitude about the situation changes. This is the idea of reframing.

Many situations in life can cause us to become angry. The statistics from October 2002 issue of Michigan Bar Journal are startling:

"The number one cause of firings in the workplace is inappropriately expressed anger. There are almost two million assaults every year in the workplace, and homicide is the second leading cause of death on the job. In a Massachusetts survey of high school students, 8 percent had been injured by or threatened with a weapon, 38 percent had been in a physical fight, 20 percent had carried some kind of weapon, and 10 percent had carried a gun to school."

Anger is a natural emotion and we do not have to suppress it. You do not have to act out on it either. However, if we step back to look at the situation that causes us anger in a different way, often the anger is transformed and dissipates on it own.

The article in the Michigan Bar Journal provides a good example of a spouse arriving 45 minutes late for which you get angry because you think that he "doesn't care". The article says ...

"The opportunity for change is at the point of the inflammatory thought. The technique, according to Simmer, is to challenge that thought and reframe one’s interpretation of the event by applying an ‘‘extinguishing thought.’’ The person must become willing to question the story he is telling himself and accept alternative explanations or interpretations of the event."

The extinguishing thought would be to consider that he is late to due circumstances beyond his control -- car accident, flat tire, emergency, mistaken the meeting time or place, etc.

Wikipedia defines "reframing" as ...

"Another meaning or another sense is assigned by reframing a situation or context, thus sees a situation in another frame. A frame can refer to a belief, what limits our view of the world. If we let this limiting belief go, new conceptions and interpretation possibilities can develop.

Psychotherapists trained in the reframing by communication attempt to let scenes appear in another point of view (frame) so that someone feels relieved or is able to deal with the situation better."

Examples of Reframing: A negative event can really be a positive event

An illustrative example that Wikipedia gives is to suppose a college student that breaks his leg. He may be upset that he can not play tennis. But if he looks at it from the point of view that now he has quiet time to practice his guitar which he loves, then it do not feel so bad.

Who knows? What if because of that he ends up to be a successful guitarist in a famous band? What may at first be considered a negative event (breaking a leg), is actually a positive event in disguise (the initiation of successful music career).

Okay the situation is a contrived one and may be considered far-fetched. But there are instances where a person who had a heart-attack said that it was the best thing that had happened to him/her. Why? The heart-attack was a wake-up call that causes him to change his life to live healthier, to realize what is important and not important in life, and to not take things for granted.

Similarly, a person who loses his job may be forced to start his own business that he had always wanted to start but never had the time to do so. Years later when his business become successful and when he realizes that working for himself is much more enjoyable than working for a boss, then he may say that losing his job was a good thing. Because if he had not lost his job, he would still be working for his boss or be in a job that he did not enjoy.

Take a positive viewpoint

Wikipedia also gave another example of reframing. Instead of thinking of your mother's actions as "always interfering", think of it as "she is always thinking about me".

This is an example of how one action can be interpreted in two different ways: one is negative and one is positive. Pick the positive way to think.

Another example...

Suppose you ask your spouse to go to the store to get some organic soy milk. Spouse comes back without the milk saying "I've looked, but they didn't have that." You can get mad and say "What kind of store does not have organic soy milk." Or you can get upset at your spouse for "not looking hard enough".

But why not think, "Oh, well. At least my spouse is caring enough to remember to look for the milk". Whereas many other spouses may come home and "forgot the milk" (even though the store has it).

You Don't Know The Minds of Others, Do Not Assume the Worst

Consider the following hypothetical story which I had once heard from a "stress management speaker".

Suppose you are riding in a bus and there is a dad with two young kids on it. The two kids were wailing loudly and generally unruly. It was disrupting other passengers and annoying you. You get angry at the dad for not controlling the kids and keeping them quiet.

But when you talk to the dad, you found out that they had just come from the hospital where they had learned that their mother had died of breast cancer. He said that the kids were generally very well-behaved kids, but that in this particular time it was the only way the kids knew how to express their sadness. He himself probably would have kept his kids under control in other times but was too crestfallen with the lost of his wife to take his parental responsibility of chastising the kids.

Now you no longer feel angry. In fact, you may feel sad or sympathetic. Same situation. The difference is the context or how you were interpreting the situation.

How to Deal with Crazy Drivers

A similar (yet more common) situation is when another car is tailgating you too closely.

According to the Michigan Bar Journal October 2002, half of all Americans show symptoms of road rage.

You get angry at the tailgater for endangering your life. This may be true. But what if the person behind you was rushing to pick up his father to the hospital because of chest pains?

What if a person cuts us off on the highway. Do you get angry and feel like ramming his car? Don't. Restrain yourself please.

Ramming cars is not that far-fetch of a scenario. On page 24 of "The Cow in the Parking Lot: A Zen Approach to Overcoming Anger", the author Leonard Scheff writes of a wife who rammed her husband's Mercedes on all four sides. Although the car was parked and no one was inside, she must have been really really angry at something.

Instead, reframe to say that the person who cut us off had mis-judged the distance or speed. More people misjudge distance and speed that you would expect. By thinking this way, the anger is transformed. It is not suppress and it is not acted out in way that is detrimental.

In the parable about the cow in the parking lot, someone steals our parking spot and we get angry. But if we imagine that it was a cow that had wandered into the parking space instead, our anger dissipates. In both cases, we end up having to look for another spot. But in one case, we get angry. And in the other case, we do not. So anger is really caused by our own mental construct, and not by external events.

Okay, granted in many cases the tailgater, lane cutter, and parking space stealer are just aggressive insensitive drivers, or just plain jerks. But in all those cases, it is nothing personal. It is not "you" that they are targeting. If you were someone else in the same place and time, they would have done the same thing to them as well. So do not take it personally.

You may feel that it is necessary to honk, or to get back at them in order to "teach them a lesson" or to "reform them" so that they do not do that again. But really, do you really think they will "not do that again"? It is their nature. You can not "reform them".

Do you really think you can reform them by ramming their car? Or writing a nasty note? They will just get angrier. And you will spend more time and energy being angry.

Even if you can reform that one that took your parking spot, is reforming one going to make any difference? You can not possibly reform all of them (just too many out there). It is the nature of the world to have a certain percentage of jerks in it.

Scheff writes that anger is due to "unmet demands". Here we are demanding that people respect us by not taking our parking spot. We are demanding that there be no traffic annoyances. But that is an unrealistic demand. And you can not change the nature of the world. There will always be someone who take our parking spot, and there will always be traffic annoyances. If we only pause to become aware of what is the unmet demand that is the source of our anger and contemplate whether that demand is realistic, or if it is really that important, then the anger is transformed and dissipates more readily.

Similar situation is when you get bad customer service at a retailer store or at a fast food restaurant. You can file a formal complaint to management and get them fired and spend extra time being angry. They will just replace them with another person (who may also provide just as bad customer service). Or you can just forget about it. Or better yet, reframe. Try to see if you can come up with your own reframing context (or story behind their action) that dissipates your anger.


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    • denise.w.anderson profile image

      Denise W Anderson 3 years ago from Bismarck, North Dakota

      This is an excellent technique for controlling and dissipating anger. I have been using it for a number of years, and have had great success. Another way to reframe is to find something in the situation to be grateful for.

    • BlissfulWriter profile image

      BlissfulWriter 3 years ago

      Right, meditation helps as well.

    • manatita44 profile image

      manatita44 3 years ago from london

      Very nice Hub and one full of wisdom. I can identify with a lot of what you say. same situation, but different perspective. In fact I teach this all the time, the difference being that I tell people who meditate, that it is the inner light which is ultimately aspiring to show them a different way or approach.

      Still, every little bit helps. God speed!