Forgiveness and Happiness Researcher Fred Luskin Says Turn Off Your Smartphone If You Want to be Happy

Earlier this year I had the good fortune to spend several morning hours listening to Stanford professor and researcher Fred Luskin talk about happiness. Dr. Luskin is a psychologist who has done groundbreaking research on forgiveness over many years. He’s the author of many books, and frequently lectures about forgiveness. I often recommend his book Forgive for Good: A Proven Prescription for Health and Happiness to clients suffering from anger and hurt.

But this morning he was discussing happiness. He came into the room with no pretense. His hair was wild and curly, partly dark and partly gray. He was wearing a puffy black down jacket, a T-shirt, running tights, and sneakers. Clearly a man comfortable with himself, and not trying to impress.

He started off by doing something quite outrageous. He asked the audience of 30 people to turn off their cell phones. Not to lower the volume, or turn off the ringers, but to actually shut down their cell phones. This clearly caused some discomfort among the audience. He explained that the reason he wanted people to turn off their cell phones is so that they would truly focus on the present and to listening to him. He cited a statistic that people check email on average 79 times a day. Each time they check their email they get a burst of adrenaline and stress. Clearly this is not conducive to genuine happiness.

He pointed out that you can’t really be happy unless you can sit still and relax. “We are all descended from anxious monkeys,” he said, and clearly most of us do not know how to sit still and relax. “Happiness is the state of ‘enough’ “, he said, “and is not consistent with wanting more.”

He pointed out that wanting what you have equals being happy. And that wanting something else than what you have equals stress.

He talked about the beginnings of his career, when clinical psychology was focused on unhappiness and problems. There was no science of happiness. Now there is a huge area of research and writing on happiness called Positive Psychology.

He shared some simple techniques for enhancing happiness. One simple technique revolved around food. When you’re eating don’t multitask. Give thanks for the food, and really focus on tasting and savoring that food. One technique I have often used is to close my eyes while I savor food, which greatly intensifies the taste.

Another simple practice is whenever you are outside, take a few moments to feel the wind or sun on your skin.

He also talked about phones and how we use them. We are completely addicted to the little bursts of dopamine and adrenaline that we get each time we check our email or we get a text. And rather than be present in most situations, we simply look at our phones. Go to any outdoor cafe and look at people who are sitting alone. Most of them are looking at their phones rather than experiencing the surroundings or interacting with other people. Even sadder, look at people who are with others, either at a cafe, or a restaurant. Much of the time they too are lost in their smartphones.

He discussed how happiness is not correlated with achievement. Nor is it correlated with money once you have an adequate amount to cover basic needs. What happiness seems to be most correlated with is relationships. If you like yourself and connect with other people you will tend to be happy.

He reviewed  the relationship between impatience, anger, frustration, judgment and happiness. He pointed out that whenever we are impatient or in a hurry all of our worst emotions tend to come out. When someone drives slowly in front of us we get annoyed. When someone takes too much time in the checkout line ahead of us, we get angry.

I really liked his discussion of grocery stores. He pointed out what an incredible miracle a modern American grocery store really is. The variety of delicious foods that we can buy for a relatively small amount of money is truly staggering. But instead of appreciating this, we focus on the slow person in the line ahead of us, or the person who has 16 items in the 15 item express line. What a shame!

He pointed out we have a choice of what we focus on, and this choice greatly influences our happiness. We all have a choice to focus on what’s wrong with our lives, or what’s right with our lives. And we have a choice of whether to focus on how other people have treated us poorly, or how other people have treated us well. These choices of focus will determine how we feel.

We also have the choice of focusing on what we already have, or focusing on what we do not have and aspire to have. For instance, let’s imagine that you are currently living in a rental apartment. The apartment is quite nice, although there are things that could be better. The kitchen could be bigger, and the tile in the bathroom could be prettier.

Perhaps you imagine owning a house, and you feel badly about renting an apartment. Rarely do we appreciate what we have. Having a place to live is clearly infinitely better than being homeless. And even a flawed apartment is still home.

All of us need to work on learning to emphasize generosity, awe, and gratitude in our lives if we want to be happy. Generosity means kindness and acceptance in contrast to anger and judgment. Awe is the ability to be astounded by the wonder and beauty in the world. Gratitude is appreciation for all the good things in your own life and in the world.

He cited one interesting study where researchers observed a traffic crosswalk. They found that the more expensive cars were less likely to stop for people in the crosswalks. Thus wealth often correlates with a lack of generosity and a higher level of hostility. Other data shows that there is very little correlation between wealth and charitable giving, with much of the charitable giving in the USA coming from those of modest means.

He also talked about secular changes in our society. He quoted a statistic that empathy is down 40% since the 1970’s. At the same time narcissism has increased by roughly 40%. This has a huge negative impact on relationships.

I was impressed by this simple but profound message of Dr. Luskin’s talk. Slow down, smell the roses, turn off your phone, focus on relationships, appreciate what you have, and become happier.

It’s a simple message, but hard to actually do.

I’m off to go for a hike in the hills, without my phone!

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Dr. Andrew Gottlieb is a clinical psychologist in Palo Alto, California. His practice serves the greater Silicon Valley area, including the towns of San Jose, Cupertino, Santa Clara, Sunnyvale, Mountain View, Los Altos, Menlo Park, San Carlos, Redwood City, Belmont, and San Mateo. Dr. Gottlieb specializes in treating anxiety, depression, relationship problems, OCD, and other difficulties using evidence-based Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). CBT is a modern no-drug therapy approach that is targeted, skill-based, and proven effective by many research studies. Visit his website at CambridgeTherapy.com or watch Dr. Gottlieb on YouTube. He can be reached by phone at (650) 324-2666 and email at: Dr. Gottlieb Email.

Dealing with Conflict Over Typical Home Neatness/Cleanliness Issues: The Houzz Interview and Some Other Thoughts

I was recently interviewed for the site Houzz, which is a web site and online community about architecture, interior design and decorating, landscape design and home improvement. In an article, A Therapist’s Guide to Dealing With Conflict at HomeI was interviewed by Mitchell Parker, a writer for Houzz.

He asked me to comment on that age-old problem when people live together of neatness/sloppiness and cleanliness/messiness. How can people get along?

I suggest you read his article which really quite nicely captures my thinking about these issues. In a nutshell, it’s all about communication. It’s not the dirty dishes that create conflict, it’s the failure to communicate about the dirty dishes in ways that resolve the problem.

Most importantly, I discussed the fallacy of the moral high ground in neatness and cleanliness. I admit I might be a bit biased on this issue, living closer to the moral low ground, but the argument is that there is no moral high ground in terms of these issues. Because our culture often values neatness and cleanliness, in arguments the neat person always takes the moral high ground, “I am the one who’s right therefore you should change.” Needless to say this doesn’t usually result in any positive progress on the issue.

I prefer to think of these issues as aesthetic preferences. Just as one person might prefer abstract art on the wall, while another person might prefer realistic paintings, messiness versus neatness is really an aesthetic preference. Handling it this way usually leads to better outcomes in conflicts over these issues. If two people come at the neat/messy conflict from a position of having differing preferences as opposed to “shoulds”, it is more likely that they can come to some sort of negotiated compromise which will be workable.

And treating these differences as preferences has another advantage as well. It usually leads to much more respectful communication about these issues. If a neat person recognizes that their need for neatness is simply a preference, they will not demonize their partner who is messy, calling them a “slob” or a “pig”. In a similar way, if the messy person recognizes that their disorder is a preference, they won’t label their partner as obsessive or a “neat freak.” This makes it much easier to discuss the differences.

The key issue is to apply a sort of flowchart to these issues. The flowchart looks like this:

1.Identify what each of you wants in terms of your home environment. Recognize that these are aesthetic preferences, and not moral shoulds.

2.Identify the ideal state that you would prefer, and also identify a less than ideal but okay state. It’s the latter that you will most likely end up with.

3. Discuss the differences, and see if there is a workable compromise. Sometimes the compromise will not be a simple meeting in the middle, but will instead involve a trade-off. For instance, if one person prefers an impeccably clean house, but the other person is not willing to spend the time and effort to do this, the couple could agree that they will hire someone to come in weekly to clean the house. Or the neater person might clean the house, but the other person agrees to do other life maintenance tasks such as paying the bills, parenting tasks, gardening tasks, or house maintenance tasks. Things don’t have to be perfectly split down the middle, it’s just important that they feel fair.

4. In looking at these differences it’s also useful to see what people are able to do, and what they are willing to do. Willingness and being able to do something are completely different things. As hard as it is to believe, (for the neat person), many messy people actually do not have the ability to be ordered and neat. This seems hard to believe. After all, can’t anybody fold their clothing and put it away? Can’t anybody put a dish in the dishwasher? And of course the answer is yes, technically, but in practice, especially over time, many people lack the skills.

Think of it this way. Technically anybody should be able to exercise every single day of their life and also eat healthy. We all know how to eat healthy and how to exercise. But how many people actually succeed on a daily basis? Very few. We are willing but not very able.

5. Which brings me to my next issue that of willingness. Even if we are technically able to do something, we might not always be willing to spend the time and energy doing it. Time and energy are a zero-sum game. We only have 16 hours of conscious time each day, and actually most of us have far fewer free hours, with work, parenting, relaxation, and other priorities.

Cleaning and organizing takes time and energy, and while some people feel the time and energy is well rewarded others do not. In my interview, I suggested a market-based way of assessing willingness. Although I was speaking somewhat tongue-in-cheek, I suggested that if one partner wants the other to do something they offer to pay them. If I want my partner to wash the dishes instead of leaving them in the sink, what am I willing to pay on a daily basis? And what price would they require to be willing to do this?

This is more of a mental exercise than an actual exchange of dollars. But I know for myself if my partner asked me what it would be worth for me to keep every surface in my home perfectly cleared every single day, I would set the price very high, something like $500 a day. That is because it would take a lot of conscious work in order to keep every surface clear. And it would take perhaps an hour or two every day. My price represents my perceived value for the change.

And then my partner could decide if that was worth it. After all, we make these kinds of evaluations all the time. If our not so new car gets scratched in a parking lot, most of us choose not to spend a lot of money to have it fixed. We accept the scratches and live with them.

6. What it comes down to is very simple. If you want your partner to change some house related behavior, first try to assess their ability and willingness to do so. If they are able and willing then you can try to get them to change their behavior. This will require ongoing discussions and work, and will not be easy.

Or you can outsource the problem. If you don’t like cleaning toilets and you can’t get your partner to do that, pay someone to clean your toilets. Most of us do this in other realms without any issues. We pay car mechanics to fix our cars, we pay gardeners to cut down our trees, and we often pay tutors to help our kids learn.

Finally, you can accept the difference. Acceptance is probably the most powerful tool in dealing with these conflicts. Acceptance frees you to stop wasting energy being angry or trying to change your partner. I’m reminded of one of my favorite quotes, “Never try to teach a pig to sing, it frustrates you and annoys the pig.”

I started this post thinking I would just point to the interview that I did on house, but discovered that I wanted to elaborate on some of the concepts that I discussed during that interview.

Good luck to all of you, these can be difficult issues, and the key thing is to remember to be gentle, loving, and respectful in your communications about these differences. Nobody gets divorced over dishes in the sink, they get divorced because of the way they interact around dishes in the sink.

I’m off to straighten up, or maybe not?

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Dr. Andrew Gottlieb is a clinical psychologist in Palo Alto, California. His practice serves the greater Silicon Valley area, including the towns of San Jose, Cupertino, Santa Clara, Sunnyvale, Mountain View, Los Altos, Menlo Park, San Carlos, Redwood City, Belmont, and San Mateo. Dr. Gottlieb specializes in treating anxiety, depression, relationship problems, OCD, and other difficulties using evidence-based Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). CBT is a modern no-drug therapy approach that is targeted, skill-based, and proven effective by many research studies. Visit his website at CambridgeTherapy.com or watch Dr. Gottlieb on YouTube. He can be reached by phone at (650) 324-2666 and email at: Dr. Gottlieb Email.

How to Forgive: A Cognitive Behavioral Model for Forgiveness and Letting Go of Anger and Frustration

What is forgiveness?

Here’s what it is not. It is not for anyone else, only for you. It doesn’t imply reconciliation with the person who hurt you nor does it imply that you approve of their actions. It does not mean forgetting what happened.

What is forgiveness?

It is only for you, in order to help you feel better. As one well-known researcher said, “failing to forgive is like taking poison and waiting for the other person to die.”

Forgiveness means understanding what is causing your current distress. It is not what offended you or hurt you years ago or even a few minutes ago. The primary cause of your suffering is from your thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations in response to your thoughts about the event.

This is a subtle concept. Most of us believe the reason we are angry is because someone has done us wrong. And it’s true, that if we could erase the event, we would stop being angry. But none of us own a time machine so we can not erase the events.

What makes us suffer is each moment that we think about the offending person or event. And how we think about these events. It is as if you own a DVD collection of movies of different events in your life. If you were to choose to only watch the upsetting movies, your overall level of happiness would greatly diminish. Choosing to forgive is choosing the DVDs of your life that are positive and full of joy.

There is another component of how people think about grudges. We often have a magical belief that our anger at someone else causes them to suffer. We imagine them feeling guilty about their behavior and suffering even when we are not present. We think of ways to hurt them in return – the silent treatment, constant criticism, reminding them of their offenses. But the reality is that most people are very good at blocking out guilt and punishment. Whenever they’re not around us they tend to think about other things. And they develop good ways of avoiding our punishment. So really the one who suffers is the person who’s angry and who fails to forgive, not the offender. And if the person we take out our anger on is someone we are still in relationship with, it damages the relationship and makes it even less likely we will get what we want.

Another trigger for resentment and anger is holding onto what the anger and forgiveness researchers call “unenforceable rules”. These are what most cognitive behavioral therapists call “Shoulds”. They are the demands we make on the world and on people around us. You can’t force anyone to do something they don’t choose to do, and you can’t require people to give you things they choose not to.

For instance, you might want fidelity in your romantic partner. You certainly have every right to want that. But you can’t demand or enforce fidelity. If your partner chooses to go outside the relationship, you can’t really change it. The only options you have are how to react to this. You have choices to make about the relationship and about your future relationships.

The research on forgiveness is very interesting. It reduces blood pressure, stress, anger, depression and hurt while increasing optimism and hope. The primary researcher on forgiveness, Dr. Fred Luskin at Stanford, has even done forgiveness research with women in Northern Ireland whose husbands were murdered. Even with these extreme cases people have found the forgiveness model very helpful at easing the pain.

I’ve written about how to conquer anger using the S A P model. In this model you change your shoulds into preferences rather than demands, you place into perspective the events that have caused your anger, and you shift out of the blame model and depersonalize most events.

Forgiveness is about being happy. Living your life to its fullest is the best revenge you can take on someone who has offended you. Instead of focusing on the hurt or betrayal, focus your energy on getting what you want in your life in a different way other than through the person who has hurt or betrayed you. Take responsibility for your own happiness rather than placing it onto other people and then being disappointed when they don’t provide happiness.

Change your story. Too often we have what is called a grievance story. We tend to tell this story to many people. It always ends with us feeling stuck and angry. Change your story. Change the ending so that it ends with a powerful and strong choice to forgive.

 
So to summarize, here’s how to forgive:

1. Let yourself first feel the pain. Share the experience with a few close and trusted friends.

2. Recognize that your anger is a result of your choices about what thoughts to experience about an event. Decide to forgive so that you can move forward and feel better.

3. Recognize that you probably won’t be able to get rid of your hurt and anger by punishing the other person. All you will accomplish is to damage the relationship or make the other person suffer while you continue to suffer.

4. Recognize the role that your “unenforceable rules” or Shoulds plays in your continued hurt and anger. Change or eliminate these rules.

5. Figure out what you want in your life and how to succeed in achieving those goals even if the other person doesn’t provide the answers. Remember that happiness is the best revenge.

6. Use the S A P model to change your shoulds, eliminate exaggerated awfulizing thinking, and take away blame.

7. Rewrite your script. Tell the new story where you were hurt but recovered and forgave and moved forward. You are a hero!

 

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Dr. Andrew Gottlieb is a clinical psychologist in Palo Alto, California. His practice serves the greater Silicon Valley area, including the towns of San Jose, Cupertino, Santa Clara, Sunnyvale, Mountain View, Los Altos, Menlo Park, San Carlos, Redwood City, Belmont, and San Mateo. Dr. Gottlieb specializes in treating anxiety, depression, relationship problems, OCD, and other difficulties using evidence-based Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). CBT is a modern no-drug therapy approach that is targeted, skill-based, and proven effective by many research studies. Visit his website at CambridgeTherapy.com or watch Dr. Gottlieb on YouTube. He can be reached by phone at (650) 324-2666 and email at: Dr. Gottlieb Email.

How to Stop Anger in its Tracks: Applying the SAP™ Model in Three Easy Steps (Part 2)

In my previous article, How Anger Works: The SAP™ Model (Part 1), I wrote about the SAP™ model, which stands for Shoulds, Awfulizing, and Personalizing. In this article I want to teach you basic anger management skills that will help you to neutralize anger.

Background Concepts About Anger

I should point out a couple of important concepts about anger first. A simple way of conceptualizing anger is that it is related to the amount of difference between our expectations and reality. The larger the difference, the more anger and frustration we experience. Thus if I expect a 10 percent raise, and I only get a 5 percent raise, I will be more angry (and disappointed) than if I got a 9 percent raise.

This leads to an obvious point. To decrease anger and frustration, we need to lessen the difference between our expectations and reality. There are two ways of doing this. One is to change reality so it better conforms with our expectations. The other way is to change our expectations so they better conform with reality.

Here is where it gets tricky. Which should you try to change, reality or your expectations? It depends. When it’s possible and easy to change reality, it makes sense to do so. If you don’t like rush hour traffic you can leave earlier or later to work. Or if you have been dating someone for a few weeks and they consistently annoy you, break up with them. It’s easy, and solves the problem. Or if you have an abusive boss, and you can relatively easily transfer or find another job, do it!

But what if you are angry at your wife or husband of many years? Or at your children? Or you feel angry at the fact that Republicans have run the country for 8 years. These are much harder to change, and more costly. So in cases where you either can’t easily change reality or you don’t really want to change reality, then you need to adjust your expectations. Instead of happiness meaning getting what you want, it can mean wanting what you’ve got.

The famous Serenity Prayer summarizes these concepts elegantly: In Latin, “Deus, dona mihi serenitatem accipere res quae non possum mutare, fortitudinem mutare res quae possum, atque sapientiam differentiam cognoscere.” Or in English, “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; the courage to change the things I can; and the wisdom to know the difference.”

I like to use the “80 Percent Rule” in determining whether my expectations are reasonable ones or not. If 80 percent of the time, my expectation matches reality, then it is okay to hold onto that expectation. Therefore, if my friend Hugh is on time for our dinners 80 percent of the time, it is okay for me to expect that. But if he is only on time for dinner 20% of the time, then I need to change my expectation, or change friends.

Step One: Defusing Anger by Changing your Shoulds

The first step in reducing anger is to change your “shoulds”. What is a should? We tend to assume that it is a universal law, but in reality, it is simply our personal demand on the universe. If I have a should that says, “People should always treat me fairly,” this is really just a different way of thinking “I want everyone to treat me fairly all the time.”

The first step to defusing anger is to change your shoulds into preferences. Instead of thinking “My wife should not spend so much money on clothes” you would think “I would prefer she not spend so much money on clothes.” Simply doing this reduces the intensity of anger significantly. You are owning your beliefs, instead of putting them into some imaginary universal law. If they are your beliefs, then you can choose to alter them.

Try a mental experiment. Think of something that makes you mad. Identify one of your shoulds that has been violated. Say the should to yourself a number of times, and notice how angry you feel. Now transform it to a preference statement. Instead of “They should _____”, it becomes “I would prefer that they ________”. Notice what happens to the intensity of the anger.

What you will notice is that the intensity of the anger diminishes. It doesn’t disappear, but it does transform in intensity. Why doesn’t it go away entirely?

This is because even our preferences may be distorted. Let me give you an example. I live in the Bay Area, where traffic tends to be quite heavy and slow at rush hour. Let’s imagine that I have the should statement, “I should be able to drive at 65 mph on the freeway, even at 5:30pm.” This should is likely to frustrate me when I am stuck in 25mph traffic. So I turn it into a preference, “I’d prefer to be able to drive 65 mph at 5:30pm.” This doesn’t really help very much. I’m still going to be frustrated because there is a large gap between my preference and reality.

Here is where applying the “80% Rule” is helpful. I ask myself if my preference is true 80% of the time. The answer of course is no. Perhaps only 10% of the time does traffic flow well at rush hour. Thus even my preference violates the 80% rule.

So I need to change my preference. A more reasonable preference would be “I prefer that traffic moves at 25 mph during rush hour.” Now there is a better match between my preference and reality, and I will not get as frustrated.

So, to summarize Step One, first you turn your Should Statements into Preference Statements. Next, evaluate the preferences using the 80 percent rule; does reality match this preference at least 80 percent of the time? If not, change the preference. This should at least lower your anger level, if not eliminate it.

Step Two: Defusing Anger by Putting Things Into Perspective and Emphasizing Coping

The next step of the SAP™ model is Awfulizing. Here we tell ourselves, “It’s awful and terrible, and I can’t stand it.” This creates a lot of internal psychological stress, and intensifies our feelings of anger and helplessness.

How can we change these patterns of thought? We can do so by putting the problem into perspective. On a 100 point scale, how awful is it really? Imagine that a 100 represents having a leg cut off without anesthesia, or a root canal without Novocain. Then rate how terrible is it to not have your should or expectation met. So if I am stuck in a traffic jam, and no one is shooting at me, and there is no blizzard outside, how awful is it really? Maybe a 10 on the 100 point scale.

Most frustrating events are actually relatively minor in the grand scheme of things. But we lose perspective, and this creates anger and stress. Another trick is to ask yourself if you will remember this event in one month, one year, or five years. If the answer is no, then it’s really not very awful.

The other aspect of this is the second part of the awfulizing statement, which is “I can’t stand it.” How often do we say this to ourselves? I define “not standing it” as meaning that you are going insane, hallucinating, curling up in a catatonic ball, or standing on the roof of a building getting ready to jump. Anything less than that means that you are actually standing it!

So what you want to do is replace “It’s terrible and awful, and I can’t stand it,” with “It’s inconvenient, or a hassle, and I don’t like it, but I can stand it.” This will greatly alter your emotional response.

So to summarize the second step in anger management:

  1. Ask yourself “How awful is this really?” Rate the awfulness on a 100 point scale, where 100 is something truly awful, like a serious injury or death of a loved one. Put the event into perspective.
  2. Remind yourself that most events will be quickly forgotten, and that most things in life are really hassles or inconveniences, rather than genuine disasters. Substitute the phrase “It’s a hassle, and I don’t like it but I can stand it,” for the Awful-izing statement of “It’s awful and terrible and I can’t stand it!”

Step Three: Defusing Anger by Reducing Personalizing

The final step in defusing anger is to de-personalize events. Remember from the previous article, that personalizing an event greatly intensifies the anger. If I believe that someone is purposely doing something to hurt me, I will get much angrier than if I believe it is an impersonal event.

This is easy to say, not so easy to do. The trick here is to realize that most of the time, when people don’t meet your shoulds or expectations; they are not doing it to harm you. When the clerk ignores you in the store, it’s more likely that they are tired or stressed than they saw you and thought, “Gee, I think I will piss off Dr. Lounge Wizard by ignoring him as long as possible.”

But what about people we love. Don’t they purposely hurt us?

Probably not. Most of the time, when loved ones do things that we are frustrated by, it is because that’s their nature. For instance, a messy person is messy because it is their nature, and it’s not because they are trying to anger their neat spouse. (Believe me, I know.) Everyone is trying to do the best they can, and pretty much doesn’t worry about you, or plan to hurt you.

So the secret is to simply assume that most things aren’t personal, and even when they appear to be, to reframe it as the person’s nature. A critical boss is critical of everyone, in most cases. A bad driver in front of you is probably always a bad driver, even when you are not behind them!

To summarize Step Three, remember than most of the time, no one is out to get you. They are just doing their natural thing. Use compassion, and think gentle compassionate thoughts that other people are flawed, but this isn’t personal.

So there you have it; the Three Steps to Anger Management. Try it out. I suggest you keep an anger/frustration log, and write down the S.A.P’s and then write down the counter thoughts for each step.

Copyright 2007 The Psychology Lounge™/TPL Productions All rights reserved

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Dr. Andrew Gottlieb is a clinical psychologist in Palo Alto, California. His practice serves the greater Silicon Valley area, including the towns of San Jose, Cupertino, Santa Clara, Sunnyvale, Mountain View, Los Altos, Menlo Park, San Carlos, Redwood City, Belmont, and San Mateo. Dr. Gottlieb specializes in treating anxiety, depression, relationship problems, OCD, and other difficulties using evidence-based Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). CBT is a modern no-drug therapy approach that is targeted, skill-based, and proven effective by many research studies. Visit his website at CambridgeTherapy.com or watch Dr. Gottlieb on YouTube. He can be reached by phone at (650) 324-2666 and email at: Dr. Gottlieb Email.

How Anger Works: The SAP Model ™ (Part 1)

In this article I will give you a simple cognitive behavioral explanation of how we get angry, and how you can use this knowledge to short-circuit and defuse your own anger. Anger is probably the most cognitive of all of the emotions. We can’t get angry without thinking. And most anger directly stems from our distorted thoughts.

There are three cognitive steps to getting angry. The first two are absolutely necessary for anger, and the third is like gasoline on fire, it intensifies anger. The acronym for remembering these three steps is SAP(tm), which is what anger will make you if you think these thoughts.

To help illustrate this lets consider a common situation where a person might get angry. You are driving on the freeway and a car cuts you off. You instantly react with anger. You steam all the way to work.

STEP ONE: VIOLATION OF SHOULDS or “SHOULDY THINKING”

The first step to getting angry is that you must have a set of shoulds or expectations that have been violated. Without this there is no anger. In the driving example what are your expectations? You tell yourself that the other driver shouldn’t have cut you off. He or she should have looked first and seen you. Obviously this should has been violated. This is what some cognitive therapists call “shouldy” thinking!

STEP TWO: AWFULIZING

But just having a set of shoulds or expectations is not enough to generate anger. The second step is necessary. In this step you exaggerate the negative consequences of the violation of the shoulds. You tell yourself it is awful and terrible that this event has happened. In our driving example your self talk is “Wow, the idiot could have killed me. It’s awful and terrible that they allow people like that to drive. Grrrrrr!” This step is called Awfulizing. Or Terribilizing, if you prefer. The key distortion is that you blow the event out of proportion. After all, if you are able to have these thoughts, then obviously no serious accident has ensued.

STEP THREE: PERSONALIZING

The first two steps will get you mad, but the third step of Personalizing or Blaming will make you crazy angry. If you tell yourself that the person didn’t see you, and it was an accident that they cut you off, you may still get angry. But if you tell yourself they did see you and purposely chose to cut you off anyway, then your anger spirals out of control. Blaming thoughts are like pouring gasoline on the fire of anger. They are responsible for such things as road rage.

So this how anger works. Let’s consider another example. This time we will use one closer to home. It’s early Saturday morning, and you are sleeping in after a long hard work week. Suddenly you are awoken by the loud noise of a lawn mower. It’s your neighbor George, who for some unknown reason, has decided that Saturday at 7:30am is a good time to mow his lawn. You are furious.

Let’s analyze this. What are the shoulds? Basically that your neighbor shouldn’t do noisy activities until 10 or 11 am on a weekend day. This should has been violated by George. What is the awfulizing? You are thinking that now you will be tired all day, and you’ll be cranky and irritable, and won’t have any fun. Is there a personalizing statement? Yes, you think, “George knows I work late, and knows I like to sleep in, so mowing his lawn so early is a direct insult to me!” And so you explode with anger.

So there you have it, a simple cognitive model of anger, the SAP model: Shoulds, Awfulizing, and Personalizing. Try an experiment. For a week, write down each anger incident you have by identifying the three Anger Thought Steps. This will help you to increase your awareness of how anger works, and prepare you for the next step, learning to defuse and eliminate your anger, which I will discuss in Part 2 of this article,  How to Stop Anger in its Tracks.

Copyright 2007 The Psychology Lounge/ TPL Productions All Rights Reserved

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Dr. Andrew Gottlieb is a clinical psychologist in Palo Alto, California. His practice serves the greater Silicon Valley area, including the towns of San Jose, Cupertino, Santa Clara, Sunnyvale, Mountain View, Los Altos, Menlo Park, San Carlos, Redwood City, Belmont, and San Mateo. Dr. Gottlieb specializes in treating anxiety, depression, relationship problems, OCD, and other difficulties using evidence-based Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). CBT is a modern no-drug therapy approach that is targeted, skill-based, and proven effective by many research studies. Visit his website at CambridgeTherapy.com or watch Dr. Gottlieb on YouTube. He can be reached by phone at (650) 324-2666 and email at: Dr. Gottlieb Email.