Look for the "SHOULD" Under Your Anger


We experience anger when our unrealistic demands are not met. Although we may not realize that we have these demands, we'll usually be stuck in our anger as long as the unrealistic demand remains.

Albert Ellis, Ph.D., a New York clinical psychologist, describes how unrealistic thinking produces distress in many of his books, one of which is, Anger: How to Live With and Without It. The chart below illustrates the principles.



Our mind usually conceptualizes its demands as "shoulds," which are translated as "musts." Some typical demands (or "shoulds") include: "I must be perfect;" "You must love me all of the time;" "The world must treat me fairly;" "Things must be easy;" and "You must act like I want you to;" etc. Dr. Ellis describes this type of demanding thinking as "masturbating."


Whenever events happen differently than we have expected, we'll find ourselves getting angry (or maybe even enraged). It's hard for us to admit that our unrealistic demands aren't true, especially when others agree with our opinions.


Thus, demands that aren’t met lead us to feel intense anger (or rage); and this usually leads to ineffective action like attacking, defending, or retreating. We may even hurt ourselves, by hitting something, losing sleep, or overeating, or developing a stomach ache. This usually interferes with our being able to make a considerate and respectful response.


Unmet desires lead to less intense distress (for example, disappointment, sadness, irritation, frustration, and/or concern). The mind can state these desirable "shoulds" as wishes like: "I wish I'll do well, but I can tolerate not being perfect;" "I wish things were different;" "I like it when you care for me;" "I wish the world were fairer, but I know injustice exists all around and I'll work toward making things fairer;" "I don't like the mess in the living room and I want to talk with you about cleaning it up before the party;" etc.


As we restate our demands as desires, we experience less emotional distress. This allows our mind to create a more effective response.


A third and final way to think about a situation involves predicting what "should" happen as it relates to the idea of what probably will happen (or, in fact, what has already happened) because the conditions have been met to produce the action.  A significant portion of frustration results from being unwilling to face the reality about ourselves, other people, or the world. We continue to upset ourselves in various ways, including:  guilt when we aren’t perfect; sadness when others don’t sufficiently care for us; disillusionment when situations aren’t fair; irritation when we don’t have enough money; judgmental when people continue their bad habits in spite of being asked to give them up; etc.

When we become more accepting of the predictable (or actual) reality, we will become less distressed. This, however, doesn't mean that we'll be happy about these events.  But hopefully, by being more resigned to reality, we can focus our energy constructively by asserting ourselves and inviting others to change.  If this change doesn't occur, we can better focus our energy on adapting the best we can, and remaining free of unnecessary anger.  By staying calm, we'll also feel healthier and sleep better.


For example, suppose Sam, your boyfriend, has agreed to pick you up at 6 o'clock to go to dinner and then to a movie. It is now 7 o'clock and he's not arrived. You might naturally think "He should be on time." Your mind may be translating this, "He must be on time; and if he's running late then he must call." In that case, you might not only be angry but you might have a miserable evening no matter what Sam's excuse is. Alternatively, and more realistically, you might think, "I don't like Sam being late, and I wish he would call when he's running late.


I will talk to him about it. I guess we'll change our plans." In this case, you might be frustrated and irritated; but you'd be calmer when he arrived. You'd be better able to discuss your feelings and adjust your plans and have an enjoyable evening. A third possible way to translate "He should be on time" is: "Since Sam is late, there must be conditions that lead to his being late. Depending on what those conditions are will depend on how we resolve this now and/or in the future."  In this case, you'd be much more open to accepting reality and negotiating a solution for now and discussing possible choices for the future.


In summary, when we become angry, we expect that things "must" be different than they actually are. To lessen the intensity of anger so we can choose a more effective response, we can give up our demands, acknowledge our desires and set our expectations in line with reality.  In this calmer state of mind we can consider what the most constructive reaction is to the situation.