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.


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!


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.


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.

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