Understanding why people find themselves asking that question is an issue for hiring authorities, HR types, supervisors, teachers, parents, civic leaders, and individuals alike. This hit home for me recently while I listened to helicopters hovering over my step-daughter’s school and our town.
While El Segundo is by no means a small town, it is the closest thing you will find to one in Los Angeles. As with all “small towns” few things happen without the entire town soon hearing and talking about them. Lately, the buzz has been about the recent trend of increasing crime and workplace violence.
Just a few days back, the police shut down several blocks worth of the town’s commercial & industrial area because of a workplace stabbing. The area schools went on lock-down for the third time in the past year or so. The saddest part of it all is that local children are growing up in a place where this sort of thing is becoming a norm versus the exception.
Having lived places where this was not the norm, I find myself asking where does this violence come from and what can I / we do about it?
The Roots of Violence
Violence is a behavior. Behaviors are actions resulting from decisions. While people don’t usually “decide to be violent”, they do decide to let anger turn to rage and go unchecked. This unchecked rage and anger are what lead to behaviors of violence. With much violence coming from rage, and anger being the preceding emotion for rage, we must ask, “Why are we so angry?” and “Why am I so angry?”.
Anger is a strong and secondary emotion of displeasure. It is often triggered by some type of discord that is either real or perceived as real by a person. Cognitive behavior theory attributes anger to things like past experiences, learned behavior, genetics, and lack of problem-solving skills.
In working terms, anger is a combination of both an irrational perception of reality and a low frustration tolerance. These translate into, “It must be done my way” and “It will be my way or no way”.
Additionally, anger is an internal reaction. While it happens completely inside of us, we usually view it as having external causes (blame). When angry, people usually blame their reaction on and external event, group or person. It is rarely realized that the source of anger lays in how we process our reality. We learn to process reality into outcomes. When face with uncertainty or discord, we process it (decide) to become afraid and angry or excited and optimistic. Based on the results we get and observations we make as we mature we grow habits and tendencies.
The following quote points out how not all anger is unhealthy.
“Anybody can become angry — that is easy, but to be angry with the right person and to the right degree and at the right time and for the right purpose, and in the right way — that is not within everybody’s power and is not easy.” ― Aristotle
Anger is a primitive defense mechanisms. It protects us from being dominated or manipulated by others. It motivates us to make change. It gives needed strength, courage, and willpower to combat what should be combated. However, the trick is knowing what battles to fight and not leaving anger uncontrolled. Anger brings upon us chemical and biological changes that if left unchecked over time, can overcome our personality, mind and body. At its worst, unchecked anger can consume us and everyone around. It does this much like any addiction (by becoming destructive in nature).
Internal Sources of Anger
Psychologists point to four types of thinking that contribute to anger.
- Holding Unreasonable Expectations. In workplaces and personal relationships, people often choose to see things as they wish they were (vs. how they are). You can literally become so focused on a vision of how things should be that you fail to see how they really are. When this happens, people make unrealistic demands on those around them without even realizing it. This in-turn increases the opportunities for you to become frustrated and angry.
- Excessive Emotional Reasoning. Relying solely on our emotions to process events around us and actions/words of others often causes false perceptions of reality. Alone, emotional process cause us to become needlessly irritated with changes around us because we falsely perceive them as attacks on our reality. Emotion must be tempered with education, logic, and thought.
- Low Frustration Trigger Level. We have all been spent to the point where everything seems to frustrate us. Stressors can lower our trigger level so low that even normal activity can become frustrating or threatening and anger us.
- Dehumanization (aka People Rating). Thinking of other people as less than human, or categorizing them as different and thus not important is a type of behavior that creates an easy path to anger. It happens when one applies a label to another (eg. that which or bastard).
Factors That Lower our Anger Trigger Level
- Stress – As our stress level rises, our tolerance for frustrating situations decreases. You can see this in any relationship that undergoes prolonged financial problems. It is also visible in any workplace facing an uncertain future for prolonged periods.
- Alcohol and drugs change our thought processes. They also make us more irritable and/or depressed at times. These open the way for repressed anger to come to the surface.
- Build-up – A series of recent and continuous irritants can take a greater toll than we realize. Pretty much everyone can handle average disappointments when they come with breaks between them, but string them one after the other and it isn’t long before we feel overwhelmed and become emotionally unstable. When you find yourself in a storm of little irritants, take a break, get some rest, and eat well.
Recognizing the Physiological Signs of Anger
Avoiding anger may not always be possible. Sometimes we simply walk into a mess. When that happens, the key to getting out of it is recognizing where we are before it gets out of control.
Here are some signs of anger to look out for:
- Tense of muscles – especially in face & neck
- Increased breathing rate
- Reddened / flushed face
- Grinding teeth
- Pale complexion
- Increased sweating
- Hot or cold flashes
- Quaking body or shaking hands
Primary Emotions Preceding Anger
There are two things we feel that give a foundation for anger to stand upon (fear and pain). Fear is our reaction to potential loss, the unknown, and danger. Pain is what we feel (physically or emotionally) as a response to a situation our body is hardwired to avoid.
Why We Need to Control Anger
As with people under the influence of drugs, people under the influence of anger can’t think rationally or make effective decisions because anger overpowers logic and reason with raw emotion. Survival instincts (fight or flight) are triggered and higher thinking falls by the way. The higher heart rate and adrenaline release increase our threshold for pain and our minds focus on defending and attacking. Either of these likely cause further escalation of an emotional situation and neither are likely to resolve it. This can escalate until physical harm is caused or worse.
Avoiding Anger is a Good Start
The best way to deal with most troublesome issues is to avoid them altogether. This certainly holds true with anger. One way to avoid this secondary emotion is to be aware of the primary emotions as well as things that lower the trigger level where we summon it.
I hope this post has helped you reflect on the role anger has in workplace and other violence. Understanding the nature, sources, triggers, and signs of anger are all helpful. Knowing the underlying emotions that anger needs to exist and understanding that anger can be controlled and avoided are good too. Still, the key to avoiding the harm unchecked anger can lead to is in vigilance. It is up to every boss, executive, supervisor, HR type, husband, father, wife, mother, boyfriend, girlfriend, and person to take an active role in prevention and seek out and use professional resources/help when necessary.
I’d like to hear your thoughts on this post. I’d also like to hear your experiences on this topic. Leave a comment or send an email to share them.
Until next time…
– Written by Seth Haigh