Updated: May 1
Think back to the last time you got angry. What happened? I personally remember getting angry at the other person for not listening to me, but the other person was angry at me for not listening to them too.
After venting anger, the relationship was damaged, and I then felt regret and helplessness. I can definitely relate to what Seneca said:
"There is no more stupefying thing than anger, nothing more bent on its own strength. If successful, none more arrogant, if foiled, none more insane--since it's not driven back by weariness even in defeat, when fortune removes its adversary it turns its teeth on itself."
Anger makes us feel bad afterwards, it hurts our relationship with others, and it harms our heart and blood vessels. Other milder forms of anger are annoyance, upset, and frustration.
The Buddha said,
"To be angry is to let other's mistakes punish yourself."
Given how harmful and unproductive anger is, how can we let go of anger? Well, we must find the reason for our anger, and then apply the appropriate mental medicine.
This comprehensive article will aim to cover all the reasons people get angry:
(You can click on the reason to jump to that section.)
Each section will explain that reason, provide solutions, and illustrate an example. Here is a summary chart:
Now let's go into each reason in more detail.
Reason 1: You think you are right.
If I am clearly right, and they are clearly wrong in their action, words, or thinking, then of course it's enraging. Right? They should quickly apologize and acknowledge that I am right and they are wrong. Right?
That's what I thought before when I got angry. This mindset only made things worse.
Solution 1: Value their happiness more than me being right.
I'd rather have people feel happy and comfortable and think I'm wrong than to feel scared and nervous around me.
Solution 2: Think About Their Contributions to You
When we think about the contributions of the other person (whether it be our parents, partners, leaders, or friends), we naturally feel bad about treating them disrespectfully and unlovingly. Then we would naturally want to be more kind and considerate to repay their gratitude.
Solution 3: Cultivate Humility
Finally, we should keep in mind that no one is perfect, including ourselves. If others unfairly criticize us, even if their criticism is not 100% true, there is probably some truth to it. We probably could have done better. If we can reflect on ourselves and how we can do better next time, then we naturally wouldn't be arrogant or angry.
We should also learn from humble and kind role models. For example, I once heard a boy say, "In my family, if my mother scolds us 100 times, we don't say one thing back because she is our family's treasure."
Another great role model is Emperor Tang, who said:
In the past, my mother criticized me for having weak time management abilities and work skills because I spent weekends working. I was very angry and told her you are wrong, you have no idea that the amount of work I'm doing is like two jobs right now.
Although I was technically in the right, using anger only made the situation worse. She was hurt and believed even more that I was overworking because my temper was bad. Isn't it ironic how the more angrily you say something, the more they don't listen to you?
Step 1: Value their happiness more than being right
If I could go back in time, I would say in a warm tone of voice, "Mom, are you worried about my lacking of time management skills? If I have good time management skills, would you be less worried? How can I help you feel less worried?" That would be valuing her happiness more than me being right.
Step 2: Cultivate gratitude
I contemplated that it's thanks to my parents that I even exists in this world right now. My parents raised me, fed me, took care of me when I was sick, and worked hard to pay for my living expenses and education. I already struggle to repay their gratitude, how could I waste my life getting upset at them?
Step 3: Cultivate humility
What could I have done better to prevent this problem? I could have communicated better and told her in advance, "I need to work extra this period of time, probably on weekends, but it is only temporary. Is that okay with you?"
This way, my mother would feel like I respect and care about her feelings, and she would not be surprised that I was working so much.
Reason 2: You are entitled or spoiled
I want it and I want it now!
How dare you act like that!
Life is so unfair!
When we hear the words "entitled" and "spoiled", we probably think of a little kid that gets treated like a king by his parents; whatever he wants, he gets. Indeed, this kind of child becomes very demanding and gets angry when he doesn’t get want he wants. Nobody likes this kind of person.
But many of us are also entitled in the sense that we take what we have for granted, and we forgot to feel gratitude for them. Many of us in first world countries have so many things that we take for granted, such as our childhood, family, friends, food, clothing, shelter, AC/heating, electricity, the Internet, schools, government, medical care, plumbing, transportation, technology, and so much more!
Instead of being grateful for all these things, many of us focus on the things we don't have, such as more money, more things, more reputation, more pleasure, and negativity. We also focus on how people don't behave the way we want to them to rather than on how they treat us well.
When we focus on what we don't have or what we didn't get or what didn't go our way, then we become angry or upset. Therefore, the solution is to we consciously focus on all the things to be grateful for. When we feel grateful for all the things we have, we feel abundant and happy.
As Aesop said,
"Gratitude turns what we have into enough."
I used to get annoyed at things like people's rude behavior or bad luck in life. Then for two weeks, I practiced catching myself whenever I felt annoyed or upset at someone or something, and then forcing myself to find something to be grateful there. I also recorded these examples in my journal so that I could review them and reinforce this habit.
Here are some examples from my journal:
I saw some bugs in the bag of rice. I was annoyed and upset that there were bugs there. Then I reframed to feel grateful that it is so easy for me to buy rice. My grandparents had to work so hard to have rice to eat.
My mother said I eat too little. I got annoyed because I felt like she was criticizing me. Then I reframed it to her caring about my health. So I said thanks for caring about my health. I will eat until 80% full because more than that is bad for digestion.
A student said he would take notes for the class, but then he didn't keep his word. I gave him another chance. He didn't keep his promise again. I got angry at him. Then I reframed and thought he is very unfortunate to not have built up the virtue of trustworthiness. I am very fortunate that I learned the importance of trustworthiness. I should teach him rather than get angry at him.
I was covering for a sick teacher but her video meeting link wasn't working, so I couldn’t start class on time, so I was annoyed. Then I reframed to seeing this as a chance to practice calm and patience. After all, I'm just a supply teacher, and this problem isn't my fault, so there's no need to get agitated. Later, I calmly found a solution.
My computer froze while I was working. Rather than getting annoyed, I thought of it as the world telling me to take a stretch break. I came back after 5 minutes and it was back to normal.
Through those two weeks of practice, I began to see that a lot of my anger and unhappiness comes from a lack of gratitude. There's always gratitude to be found, and if you train yourself to find gratitude, you won't stay upset.
Reason 3: You demand others to be good and to love you back
How could you be so inconsiderate, unreasonable, immature, unfair? Especially after all that I've given to this relationship!
If we have conditional love for others, that means we expect a return for our love. If they behave the way we want the to, we remain happy. If they don't give us what we want, we get angry. This is not true love. Love is encouraging, not demanding.
People behave according to the habits that they've developed over their entire life, and to demand them to change suddenly is unreasonable and impossible. Just think about your own bad habits. If you ever tried to change a bad habit, you should know how difficult it is.
Solution 1: Reciprocity
On reciprocity, Confucius once said,
"There is one word which may serve as a guide of practice for all of one's life: reciprocity. What you do not want done to yourself, do not do to others."
You wouldn't like to be judged and pressured by others. Instead, you hope others could accept you for who you are, forgive you for your mistakes, and encourage (not scold) you to be better. Therefore, we should treat others this way.
Solution 2: Inspire others to improve by improving yourself
If we want lasting change in others, then we need to inspire them to change rather than pressure them.
There are five steps to inspiring others to change:
Whatever fault I see in them, reflect it on myself first. If I have the same problem, then I need to fix it in myself first before I can ask them to fix it.
Be understanding towards their situation.
Lead by example
Show genuine care
Patiently teach them to change
In the past, I felt like my mother criticized me a lot, and I often complained to her about it. But she didn't feel like she criticized me much. This is an example of how people (including ourselves) are unaware of their bad habits and the negative impact they have on others.
Step 1: Reflect on Myself
First, I reflected that I complain that my mother complains about me a lot. Well then, I am guilty of the same offense because I am complaining about her in my head! If I am guilty of the same problem, then I have no right to criticize her about it. I need to be able to fix that problem myself before I can ask her to fix it.
Step 2: Understand Their Situation
Next, I tried to understand her more. I realized that she has a habit of complaining about her child the same way lots of parents complain about their children. She was never taught how to be a good parent or a good leader, so she gets frustrated at her inability to change me. She is in pain too. Rather than getting angry and making her suffer even more, I should try to help her.
Step 3: Lead by Example
If I want her to speak less negative words and more positive words, then I need to go first. So I vowed to compliment her or thank her for one thing every day. After two weeks, she decided to start complimenting me every day too.
Step 4: Show Genuine Care
In addition to leading by example, I need to show genuine care so that she sees I really have good intentions. I did chores, cooked foods that she liked, and spent more time with her to do stuff that she likes. When others feel that you care, the relationship automatically gets better, and any resent fades away.
For more ideas on how to show genuine care, see Example 4 where it talks about the Five Love Languages.
Step 5: Patiently Teach Them to Change
Lastly, I taught her some knowledge about why criticizing others is bad and why we should praise others more. I said, "Marriage research shows that great couples have 20 positive interactions for every negative interaction. That's why I decided to praise you every day." I also told her that when we are unhappy with another person, we can follow Confucius's advice:
"If we focus our efforts on correcting ourselves rather than demanding others to change, then we will have nothing to be upset about."
I continued, "These were all things I did to manage my anger better in the past couple of weeks, and I found it to be very helpful. I hope you could join me so we can all be happier and better people." Since I went first and showed care to her, she was inspired to join me.
Reason 4: You expect others to read your mind
You should know what I want! I gave you so many hints!
Some people believe that in a relationship, the other person should know what you want and give it to you without you needing to ask; that would be proof that they really love you. I used to be guilty of this myself. But this kind of mentality is not only unfair to the other person, it's also unrealistic.
Solution: Be aware of your needs and then communicate them clearly
No one can read other people's minds, so it is OUR responsibility to get clear on what we want and then communicate it clearly to the other person in a kind and polite way.
To give a small example, one time, I was trying to record some audio files, and my mother was making a lot of noise upstairs. I got annoyed. Then I stopped and asked myself, "How is she supposed to know I want to make audio recordings right now? I never told her. It's unreasonable for me to get annoyed at her." Then I moved my audio setup downstairs to be basement and recorded there, where it was quite.
I learned that most people, including my past self, are not aware of how they wish to be loved, so they can't communicate it clearly to others. Marriage researcher Gary Chapman found that all of us have a preferred love language, or a preferred way of receiving love. This applies not just to romantic relationships but to all relationships. Usually people prefer one or two out of these five:
Words of Affirmation
Acts of Service
In my case, I realized my love language is acts of service, so whenever people do things for me and reduce my workload, I thank them deeply for it. I learned that my mother's love language is words of affirmation because she often praises me. I didn't feel much from it, and I rarely praised her because words of affirmation is not my love language. But after I learned that it was her love language, I started praising her a lot more, and she felt a lot more loved that way.
Reason 5: You always remember people's faults rather than their goodness.
Why are they always so [inconsiderate, unreasonable, immature, etc.]?!
Psychologists discovered that humans pay more attention to negative things rather than positive things. They call it negativity bias. Due to negativity bias, we often remember and over-focus on people's faults rather than on their goodness, which makes us feel bad, and then we treat them worse, and that makes them feel bad too.
Solution 1: Practice Reciprocity
You wouldn't like it if others always focused on your bad points and turned a blind eye towards your good points. If we want others to focus on our good points rather than our bad points, we need to go first and praise their good points often.
Solution 2: Focus on their good points. Love them as a whole person, including their imperfections.
A great solution is to take out a piece of paper and then write down all their good points on one side and then all their bad points on the other side. It is very likely that you might realize they don't have as many bad points as you thought, and they have more good points that you realized. Next, you should consciously and frequently praise their goodness.
Praising them will encourage them to grow their goodness even more. As for their bad points, we should tolerate them the same way we hope that others can accept us for our imperfections.
In the past, my mother used to get very annoyed at my father because whenever they made plans, my father would be late. Because of this one fault, my mother often felt negatively towards him. Later, she learned about how over-focusing on people's faults can make us forget about all their goodness.
She took out a piece of paper and wrote out my father's good points on one side and bad points on the other. She then realized that my father didn't have that many bad points, and he had lots of good points that she doesn't even have! For example, my father never criticizes others, and if he is criticized, he doesn't get angry or argue back. He also always gives the best food to others, and he would eat the less good food himself. He is also happy to help other people.
Afterwards, my mother apologized to my father about over-focusing on his one bad point, and she also praised him more on his good points. Not only was my father happier, but she was happier, and the whole family was happier!
Reason 6: You assume they have negative intentions
"Why are you always so [inconsiderate, uncaring, lazy, fill-in-the-blank]? It's so frustrating!"
Solution: Understand their perspective.
I like the way Oprah put it:
"Don't ask what's wrong with them. Ask what happened to them."
When we understand that people's bad behavior are a result of their past unfortunate upbringing, then we feel sympathy for them rather than anger. We will think, "Oh, that's why they were behaving that way. That's understandable."
Most of the time, people aren't intentionally trying to frustrate you. They are just acting automatically according to their habits. They might have had neutral or even positive intentions!
To go back to Example 1 when my mom criticized my weak time management abilities, I assumed that my mother was criticizing me because she likes to criticize me. But later, she told me that she was just worried about me because I always sit there working on the computer for so long, and that's not good for my health.
If I could go back in time, I would ask her, "Mom, what is your intention for criticizing me?"
She probably would have said, "I'm not trying to criticize you, I'm trying to let you know that you need to take care of your health and not sit for hours straight." Then I would say, "Thank you for your kind intentions. I will take breaks during my work."
Reason 7: You want to win
I don't care what they say, I'm going to be victorious over them!
Unfortunately, many people were not taught a "me-versus-you" mindset in relationships. This kind of thinking only causes suffering for everyone.
Solution: Think Win-Win
Relationships are not a place where you want to have winners and losers. Their happiness should be our happiness! I like the way Jay Shetty puts it:
"Remember: It's not me against you. It's us against the problem."
In order to think win-win, we have to stop focusing on the thing that each person wants and instead ask WHY they want what they want. Almost always, there is a way for both people to satisfy their WHYs.
To give an analogy, let's say two people both want a lemon. If we have a me-versus you mentality, then we just argue over who gets the lemon. At best, we split the lemon. But with a win-win mindset, we ask each other WHY you want the lemon. It turns out, one person wants the juice to make lemonade, while the other person wants the skin for cooking. Now both people can get what they want.
I got a little upset before about food. We had a lot of pumpkin from the backyard to eat. I told my mother I prefer pumpkin to be cooked such that it was still a bit hard and the flavor was still in the pumpkin. But she preferred pumpkin to be really soft and the flavor to flow out into the porridge. She told me this is better for digestion.
I didn't think win-win at first, which is why I got upset. Later, I realized we could both get what we want. Since she had a routine for cooking that saved her a lot of time, I figured she wouldn't want to cook two separate batches of pumpkin. So I told her I'll cook. Then I cooked two separate batches, one for her and one for me. I told her we can both get what we want, and harmony is worth the extra time and effort.
Moreover, when she tried my pumpkin, she said realized it wasn't that bad. And I was still happy to eat some of her pumpkin too. We both experienced the joy of win-win.
Reason 8: You base your self-esteem based on what others think
"How dare they say that about me! It's totally not true! I'm so angry at them!"
When we base our self-esteem based on others liking us and saying good things about us, then we might easily get angry out of self-defence when others say bad things about us.
Solution 1: Base your self-esteem on virtues such as kindness and humility.
Even though they misunderstood me, I know I had kind intentions, and I know I can improve my communication next time.
What other people think is outside our control. But our own actions and intentions are in our control. No one is perfect, and we will definitely make mistakes in life. As long as we had kind intentions, and we are always learning from out mistakes to improve ourselves, then there is nothing to get upset at ourselves for.
Solution 2: Only care about what good and wise people think.
Sure, those people are not happy at me, but they are self-centered and have incorrect ideas. As long as the benevolent and wise teachers approve of my intentions and actions, then I'm happy.
Some people try to please everyone, while others don't care about what anyone thinks at all. Both of these extremes are a sign of a sensitive ego. The solution is to care about what benevolent and wise teachers think about us. These people want all people to be live happy and productive lives, free of deluded thinking and unnecessary suffering. They all emphasize virtues like kindness, humility, respect, and self-cultivation.
One time, a student complained that I give too much homework, and that I'm too strict, and that her grade of 96 on an assignment is too low. She had told me before that she really liked my class, so I was kind of hurt that she thought negatively about me now. I also got a little angry and thought, "Seriously? 96 is a great mark! You're being a bit too unreasonable aren't you?"
But I managed to maintain my calm by focusing on kindness. Clearly, she is upset right now, and if I get upset too, things will only get worse. Even though my heart was beating fast, I slowly and calmly told her, "You must be having a hard time recently. I know you have very high goals for your grade, and I am here to support you, not to make things hard for you. We can talk more about how you can improve your grade if you want to visit me in my office hours." My focus on kindness helped me not get angry on-the-spot.
Later, I was still feeling pretty upset that this student would complain about me like that. Then I realized that I shouldn't care so much about what a high schooler thinks. The opinions I should care about are those of wise sages, like Confucius or the Buddha or Seneca. Then I thought about their quotes on anger (which are at the beginning of this article), and I immediately calmed down.
I imagined that Confucius would say good job to me for not getting angry at other people's unreasonableness. The Buddha would say good job giving her comfort and reducing her fears. Seneca would say good job not being a slave to your emotions. Then I felt much better.
Reason 9: You feel rushed and agitated
Not right now! I don't have the time for this!
If a calm mind is like still water, then a rushed, agitated, and angry mind is like boiling water. When the mind is agitated, it gets angry easily.
Solution 1: Cultivate Calm and Steadiness
The solution is to practice doing everything in life calmly and steadily, from eating to walking to talking to working. After all, the root of all our actions is our mind, so if we want a calm mind, we need ALL our actions to be calm and slow.
Solution 2: Manage Your Priorities and Time Better
Some people are probably thinking, "But I don't have enough time! I'm so busy!". If that is you, I encourage you to consider two things.
First, "Slow is smooth. Smooth is fast." If you do things with a rushed mindset, then you are likely to make mistakes. Then you have to spend even more time fixing your mistakes. If you maintained a calm mind to begin with, then you would've prevented mistakes and saved time.
Second, are you using your time productively? Do you track your time? If you have a good sense of priorities, and you only focus the most important priorities first in your day, then you won't feel like you're always rushing from task to task throughout the day.
There was a period of time where I had a lot of work, and I was working on the weekends too. During that period of time, I also watched 2-hour long lectures with my mother. After these lectures, she and I would discuss them. Because I had so much work to do, I became impatient in those discussions, and she thought I didn't like learning these things with her. Actually, I did like learning these things; I just felt stressed and pressed for time to do my work. My agitation came from my lack of time management skills.
Later, I consciously planned my time and carefully picked my priorities. I gave my time to people in accordance with the amount of gratitude I owed them. First, I made sure my parents were happy, then I did my job, then I helped everyone else. By prioritizing my time properly, my peace of mind improved greatly, and I rarely felt rushed because I picked my priorities carefully and allocated plenty of time for them.
Reason 10: You are feeling discomfort or pain
Ow! Ugh, I'm already so uncomfortable, stop bothering me!
If you're like most people, you get angry easily when in discomfort or pain. I remember after I got my wisdom tooth pulled out, and my mother was asking me to make some decisions about somethings, I got really impatient really fast and gave her a bad attitude. The reason was because I was in pain. I also noticed that if I'm hungry or hot, I get annoyed easily. So what's the solution?
Solution 1: Gratitude
The first solution is to be grateful to those around us, then we naturally would feel bad about venting anger out on them. For example, if I had been thinking of how grateful I am for my mom to accompany me to the dentist, then I naturally wouldn’t get angry at her no matter how much pain I was in. If I'm hungry, I can remember that my parents worked hard day and night to put food on the table for me for years, so it would be very disgraceful of me to get impatient with them just because I am hungry.
Solution 2: Practice Reciprocity
You wouldn't like it if others vented their anger out on you. Therefore, we should not do that to others.
Solution 3: Increase Your Pain Tolerance
There is a virtue called "enduring hardship." Life will surely have difficulties, and the ability to endure hardships with a calm mind is a virtue or ability that can be cultivated through training.
For example, people practice fasting to endure the discomfort of hunger (as well as for health benefits). Monks sometimes meditate in very hot or cold or noisy places to practice enduring hardship. If we train this ability, we will get better at it.
One time, I grew a big mouth sore at the back of my mouth near my wisdom tooth. It was extremely painful to move my jaw and chew, and I decided to use that opportunity to practice enduring hardship. No matter how much pain I was in, I would not show any signs of impatience or unhappiness towards the people around me, which was mainly my mother.
I remember for a couple of days, chewing was so painful that I even had tears while chewing. I also did not tell my mother about my mouth sore. Later, I asked her if I had given her any negative emotions. She said not really. I felt very happy about that and grew in my confidence to be able to endure hardship.
Anger is probably the most harmful emotion of all, and being able to control our anger has immense benefits for our happiness, our relationships, and our health. In this article, we analyzed 10 reasons for anger:
You think you are right
You are entitled or spoiled
You demand others to be good and to love you back
You expect others to read your mind
You always remember people's faults and wrongs but not their goodness
You assume they have negative intentions
You like to debate and win
You base your self-esteem on what others think
You feel rushed and agitated
You are feeling sick or uncomfortable or in pain
We also looked at lots of solutions for anger:
Be inspiring not demanding
Focus on their good points and contributions
Seek to understand their perspective
Only care about what good and wise people think
Cultivate calm and steadiness
Increase your pain tolerance
Are there any reasons or solutions I missed? Comment below!
Which reasons are most common for you? How can you use those solutions in your life?