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.

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