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Reality Testing and Anger Management

Harry Mills, Ph.D. Updated: Mar 8th 2016

Controlled Thinking

People stop thinking clearly when they are angry. Angry people tend to make up their minds about a situation right away, and then spend so much time focusing on how they feel and how the situation affects them that they forget to pay attention to anything else. You have a much better chance of keeping yourself under control if you can manage to keep your attention from turning completely inward towards your hurt and/or angry feelings, and instead keep yourself focused on understand the situation you're faced with.

woman deep in thoughtDo what you can to 'squeeze the meaning' out of your angry impulses. Ask yourself what the anger is telling you and what you can learn from it. What about this particular situation is making you angry? How can you improve the situation and improve your anger at the same time? Then, use your relaxation techniques to reduce your arousal.

Importantly, do not believe that you must respond to the anger-provoking situation right away. Most situations are flexible enough for you to take some time to gather yourself together, calm yourself down and really think about the situation before you must act. You might even take time to talk a troubling situation over with trusted family members or friends. The more you can approach a troubling situation in a prepared and relaxed manner, the greater are your chances of getting what you want from that situation.

Reality Testing

Angry people automatically presume that people they are upset with are simply guilty. Angry people blame others (or themselves) for things that have gone wrong. Underlying this blaming is an assumption that angry people make, which is that the target of their anger has caused things to go wrong. But this is not always the case! Sometimes the target of an angry person's wrath is an innocent bystander who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time and got blamed for something he or she didn't do. In order to better manage anger, then, it is important for angry people to slow down and not simply act on their aggressive first impulses, and instead do some reality testing so as to know whether their anger is truly justified or not.

The first step towards building good reality testing habits is to give up your assumption that your first impression of a situation is always accurate. It is hard to know the objective truth of situations. Each of us sees only one side (our own) of every interaction. Reality is often more complex than our simple senses are capable of appreciating.

By way of illustration, consider that that for thousands of years educated and intelligent people thought that the world was flat. They thought that if you were to sail too far away from land you could fall over the edge of the world and be destroyed. We know better than this today, but not because the appearance of the situation has changed. In fact, the world still looks quite flat if you simply look at it. We only know it is round because we've sailed around it and have returned to our starting place, and because we've been into space and have looked down on it from above. In this case, our simple senses deceive us, and we must rely on fancy techniques to know the truth of the situation.

The first people to propose that the earth was round were dismissed. It was only as evidence began to mount in favor of a spherical earth rather than a flat one (e.g., as explorers went around the earth in boats) that public opinion shifted to favor the view we hold today. People who thought the world was flat were not stupid - they just didn't have access to the evidence they needed to know the truth. Angry people need to recognize that their first impulses to be angry in a given situation might very well turn out to be as misguided as was our ancestors' belief in a flat earth.

In short, angry people need to stop and gather more complete evidence before passing judgment if they want to better manage their anger.

Black and White Thinking

It is easier to accept that your first angry impressions might not represent a complete and accurate picture of a troubling situation when you understand the world to be a complex place. Recognizing complexity is difficult for some angry people who are in the habit of seeing the world in either "Black" or "White" terms. Many angry people speak in polarized generalities, insisting that things must "always" be a certain way, or that people should "never" behave in a particular way. They may concentrate on the negative sides of things instead of acknowledging the positive aspects that may also be present. They may rapidly jump to conclusions without bothering to verify whether or not their understanding is correct. These polarized black and white habits of thought need to be broken down so that shades of gray can be recognized before anger management progress will occur in a lasting way.

Talking It Out Helps

Once you are open to the possibility that your first impressions might be incorrect or incomplete, there are several ways to test those impressions so as to gain a better, more complete understanding.

One of the best ways to reality test is to talk with other people who have witnessed the angering situation or event. What do they think happened? How do they think the problem was caused? If you believe that a particular person has damaged you, for example, and other people strongly tend to see the situation the same way you do, then you are more justified in feeling angry at that person then you would be if other people saw the situation very differently than you. Other people's input can help you to appreciate more of the complexity of the situation than you can know on your own.

The Benefit Of The Doubt

A quick alternative reality testing method to consulting with others is to use the old "Count to 10 before you act" rule, otherwise known as giving the target of your anger the benefit of the doubt. As your angry reaction rises to meet a situation, put the brakes on it for a while. Do what you can to calm yourself. Then look for other explanations that might account for the situation you're upset about. Take for example a situation where someone is driving slowly in front of you on the freeway, blocking you from getting where you need to go in an efficient manner. Your first impulse might be to scream at the slow driver for being incompetent. By counting to 10 before you scream, you give yourself time to consider alternative possibilities that might account for the situation. Perhaps the slow driver has faulty breaks or some other mechanical problem with his car and needs to drive slowly so as to maintain control while on his way to the repair shop. Perhaps the slow driver has had several tickets recently and is driving at exactly the speed limit so as to avoid losing his license. If either of these other explanations turn out to be true, it would be harder to stay mad at the slow driver, even though it would continue to be frustrating to be stuck behind him.

Reader Comments
Discuss this issue below or in our forums.

Anger management test - sam - May 28th 2012

I got a 17 and answered all of the last four true,it suggests i am prone to anger management. I feel like i should get checked on it. But im unsure.

Creepy Clown - - May 12th 2012

What do you do when

you have given friend a nose bleed

given someone Cut and pain

Slammed someone against the desk

had a bad childhood

My friends fear me and don't get me angry but people who aren't my friends do it for fun and when they do i feel like punching kicking scaring cutting brusing and evil


a seires anger problem - - Dec 1st 2010

I dont know what to do anymore i am 13 and i kno wi have a anger problem and i see my dad and hes got a seires anger problem and i dont wanna end up like him .....Im scared that i will i can to this website seeking advic on how to get help for it.

Too late but this shows hope - This shows hope - Jul 4th 2010

My wife left me because of an anger problem I didn't even realize I had.  I was so focused on feeling like I was right and had to stand by my morals that I never realized how wrong I was acting.  Too late for me this time but the information is so well explained I can only wish I had found it sooner.

Getting control of yourself - - Apr 17th 2010

My oldest daughter is having problems with her anger.  It has ruined her marriage, and has created some distance between her and myself.  I cant seem to say anything that wont get her going.  She hangs up on me if I say anything she thinks is a criticism.  She will always think her thoughts and her actions are correct and the rest of the world is wrong.You cant make a suggestion, or even try to .  Unfortunately, it is getting to the point give advise because you dont understand what is going on and she wont tell you the whole truth.  It is to the point where I dont call and check up on her family or my grandson or dare ask about Brian.  I t is really crazy. So I am on this channel to discover what I might be able to do to help her.   Troubled Mom

- socialworkchick - Mar 17th 2008
An excellent, coherent website that illustrates the human condition very well.  Truth be told, it is easier to get angry than to stay calm, but the very short work of simply trying these steps leads to the best outcomes for everyone.

So True - Jenna From Michigan - Nov 29th 2007
This is a really good reality check for people that need to read this. It helped me alot and how i relized that I do try to find the answer soon as possible and toon myself out of the world and only focus on the problem and the solution and sometimes the solution i come up with is just the one i want if it isnt even right. So this helped with my problems.

- hope lopez - May 11th 2007

I read the 'Reality Testing' It is good but with me I'v gone to a few different places, and got counseling. It hasn't work for me. I really have an anger issue. I even gotton books from the libaray. I don't think any thing can work for me. I so bad want to better myself. I don't want hurt the people that I love so much. I'm just so tired of myself getting angery all the time.

miss - - Oct 16th 2006
it is really good and helped me alot

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