Dr. Ryan Martin is the chair of the Psychology Department at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay and a nationally known anger researcher. His work focuses on healthy and unhealthy expressions of anger, including how we express anger online. He teaches courses on mental illness, emotion, and anger and violence.
Dr. Ryan Martin – TEDx Talk TRANSCRIPT
I want you to imagine that you get a text from a friend, and it reads, “You will not believe what just happened. I’m so mad right now.”
So you do the dutiful thing as a friend, and you ask for details, and they tell you a story about what happened to them at the gym or at work or on their date last night. You listen, and you try to understand why they’re so mad.
Maybe you even secretly judge whether or not they should be so mad. Maybe you even offer some suggestions.
Now, in that moment, you are doing essentially what I get to do every day because I’m an anger researcher, and as an anger researcher, I spend a good part of my professional life – who am I kidding, also my personal life – studying why people get mad.
I study the types of thoughts they have when they get mad and even what they do then, whether it’s getting into fights or breaking things or even yelling at people in all caps on the Internet.
As you can imagine, when people hear I’m an anger researcher, they want to talk to me about their anger and share with me their anger stories. It’s not because they need a therapist, though that does sometimes happen, it’s really because anger is universal. It’s something we all feel, and it’s something they can relate to.
We’ve been feeling it since the first few months of life, when we didn’t get what we wanted and our cries of protests, things like, “What do you mean, you won’t pick up the rattle, dad? I want it!” We feel it throughout our teenage years, as my mom can certainly attest to with me.
Sorry, mom. We feel it to the very end. In fact, anger has been with us at some of the worst moments of our lives; it’s a natural and expected part of our grief. But it’s also been with us at some of the best moments of our lives, with those special occasions like weddings and vacations often marred by these everyday frustrations – bad weather, travel delays – that feel horrible in the moment but then are ultimately forgotten when things go okay.
So I have many conversations with people about their anger, and through those conversations, I’ve learned that many people – and I bet many people here right now – you see anger as a problem.
You see the way it interferes in your life, the way it damages relationships, maybe even in a way that’s scary. And while I get all of that, I see anger a little differently, and today I want to tell you something important about your anger, and it’s this: Anger is a powerful and healthy force in your life. It’s good that you feel it. You need to feel it.
But to understand all of that, we have to back up and talk about why we get mad in the first place.
A lot of this goes back to the work of an anger researcher named Dr Jerry Deffenbacher, who wrote about this back in 1996 in a book chapter on how to deal with problematic anger. For most of us – and I bet most of you – it feels as simple as this: I get mad when I’m provoked. Right? You hear it in the language people use.
They say things like, “It makes me so mad when people drive this slow.” Or “I got mad because she left the milk out again.” Or my favorite: “I don’t have an anger problem; people just need to stop messing with me.”
Now, in the spirit of better understanding those types of provocations, I ask a lot of people, including my friends and colleagues and even family, “What are the things that really get to you? What makes you mad?”
And by the way, one of the advantages of being an anger researcher is that I’ve spent more than a decade generating a comprehensive list of all the things that really irritate my colleagues. Right? Just in case I need it.
But their answers are fascinating because they say things like, “When my sports team loses,” “People who chew too loudly.” And it’s surprisingly common, by the way. “People who walk too slowly.” That one’s mine. And of course, roundabouts. Right? Roundabouts.
I can tell you honestly, there is no rage like roundabout rage. Sometimes their answers aren’t minor at all. Sometimes they talk about racism and sexism and bullying and environmental destruction, big global problems we all face. But sometimes, their answers are very specific, maybe even oddly specific. “That wet line you get across your shirt when you accidentally lean against the counter of a public bathroom.”
Yeah, super gross, right? Or, “Flash drives – there’s only two ways to plug them in, so why does it always take me three tries?” Whether it’s minor or major, whether it’s general or specific, we can look at these examples, and we can tease out some common themes.
We get angry in situations that are unpleasant, that feel unfair, where our goals are blocked, that could have been avoided, and that leave us feeling powerless. This is a recipe for anger, but you can also tell that anger is probably not the only thing we’re feeling in these situations – right?
Anger doesn’t happen in a vacuum. We can feel angry at the same time that we’re scared or sad or feeling a host of other emotions. But here’s the thing.
These provocations – they aren’t making us mad. At least not on their own, and we know that because if they were, we’d all get angry over the same things, and we don’t. The reasons I get angry are different than the reasons you get angry, so there’s got to be something else going on.
What is that something else? Well, we know what we’re doing and feeling at the moment of that provocation matters. We call this the pre-anger state.
Are you hungry, are you tired? Are you anxious about something else, are you running late for something? When you’re feeling those things, those provocations feel that much worse.
But what matters the most is not the provocation, it’s not the pre-anger state, it’s this: it’s how we interpret that provocation, it’s how we make sense of it in our lives. When something happens to us, we first decide: is this good or bad; is it fair or unfair; is it blameworthy; is it punishable? That’s primary appraisal, it’s when you evaluate the event itself.
We decide what it means in the context of our lives, and then, once we’ve done that, we decide how bad it is. That’s secondary appraisal.
We say, “Is this the worst thing that’s ever happened, or can I cope with this?” To illustrate that, I want you to imagine you are driving somewhere. Before I go any further, I should tell you if I were an evil genius, and I wanted to create a situation that was going to make you mad, that situation would look a lot like driving. It’s true.
You are, by definition, on your way somewhere, so everything that happens – traffic, other drivers, road construction – it feels like it’s blocking your goals. There are all these written and unwritten rules of the road, and those rules are routinely violated right in front of you, usually without consequence.