Anger Management: Perspective-Taking as a Cure

He who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that.” John Stuart Mill


“I’m allergic to idiots!” Danny had been mandated by his government-body employer to seek treatment for his anger. “I know I have to let go of anger, but some people just don’t deserve to be treated politely!”. Danny* didn’t suffer fools gladly, and unfortunately for him, fools were all he saw.


An Age of Plenty and Discontent

I think it’s fair to say that we live in an angry age.

A global survey from last year found that negative emotions such as anger is on the rise. I regularly see clients who report strong feelings of anger, and who often act aggressively. Targets of aggression include people in their social circles, people with whom they work (increasingly working remotely), people they’ve never met, society at large.

Why all the anger? Our material needs, those on the bottom two steps of Maslow’s Pyramid, have been well taken care of for at least a couple of generations. Taken care of by society with just a little help from us. We rarely think about the miracle of readily accessible food, shelter, heating and clean water.

But despite, or perhaps because, our basic needs are being met, anger abounds. My angry clients, such as Danny, are not mad that someone is taking something from them. Danny is not mad because he is at risk of losing his home, his livelihood, his family. He is mad because people in his life are doing selfish, irrational and stupid things. He is made at people in power, politicians, the media, celebrities.

Who can blame him – people are idiots, right?

People are Smarter than you Think

Half of all people are smarter than you.

Think about the statement above. It must be true, for the average person. But most people don’t believe they are average. A 2018 study found that 65% of American’s believe that they are above average in intelligence.

And when its clear that we are not smarter than someone, or some other group, we tend to think that we are more moral. It is common to see those people we don’t agree with as selfish, envious, greedy or just plain evil.

And its even worse than that. Once we have started to see others as stupid and evil, we just can’t stop. This is because of the Confirmation Bias.

Confirmation Bias.

The confirmation bias is the tendency to filter out information that challenges your pre-existing beliefs and filter in information that confirms or supports your beliefs. The confirmation bias has always existed, but it has been supercharged by two recent complementary changes: the rise of the internet and greater social isolation.

Search engine and social media algorithms are like the confirmation bias on steroids. Every app that you use on your digital device is designed to keep your eyeballs stuck on the screen. The algorithm has discovered that it can hold your glare for longer if it validates your beliefs.

And, at the same time, the internet has made a physically isolated life viable. Now we don’t need to go to work and have uncomfortable, awkward interactions with those who don’t agree with us.

So, now it’s just ourselves with our ever-strengthening individual beliefs, backed up by loads of algorithmically curated facts.

The Perspective Cure

If you are tired of the corrosive effect of your own anger, taking the perspective of your enemies can help. I use several perspective-taking exercises to help cure anger by taking the perspective of others.

One technique I use is to imagine talking calmly with someone with whom you feel angry. Perhaps imagine yourself asking them with curiosity to explain why they do what they do, or why they think what they think. Sometimes it helps to first imagine yourself apologising for anything that you may have done wrong. Forgiveness and understanding, even from afar can be a powerful tool for healing anger.

When the person, or group, with whom you feel angry with is not someone you interact with (for example a political group), I encourage seeking out their opinions from an information source which is non-combative. Even reading the Wikipedia page of an “enemy” opinion can help. It can help to think that if a widespread opinion exists, perhaps there is a kernel of truth to that perspective. This can be a difficult exercise, as the confirmation bias will make it harder for you to understand a challenging opinion.

If you find yourself thinking that someone is stupid, ignorant, or evil, try to think about their perspective in the most gracious way possible. Think: In what way might they be right, and I be wrong? If I had to be a lawyer presenting their opinion, how would I do it?

Danny was taught perspective-taking techniques, but he had a problem with this approach. “I don’t want to give people the benefit of the doubt. Why should I help them out? They’re not sitting around thinking about my perspective”.

The quoted text on the top of the page is from influential British philosopher, John Stuart Mill. When Danny asked why he should care what others think, we discussed the idea expressed by Mill that if you don’t understand other people, you are choosing to be weak and ignorant. This resonated with Danny.

Mill’s quote is so good it should be read in entirety:

“He who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that. His reasons may be good, and no one may have been able to refute them. But if he is equally unable to refute the reasons on the opposite side, if he does not so much as know what they are, he has no ground for preferring either opinion… Nor is it enough that he should hear the opinions of adversaries from his own teachers, presented as they state them, and accompanied by what they offer as refutations. He must be able to hear them from persons who actually believe them…he must know them in their most plausible and persuasive form.”

Ultimately, if you fail to take the perspective of your enemies, your opinions become feeble and hard to defend. Danny did not want to be weak!

Seek out and understand others’ opinions. Let understanding soothe anger. It will only do you good!


* Name and key details changed to protect anonymity

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