Do you really need to calm down when you're furious?

I was waiting by the staircase that descends into the vestibule of our building in New York City. I had just returned from the last walk of the night with Pax, my dog. There was another dog passing by, and as Pax was sniffing in the direction of the dog passing by, I leaned on the wall next to the stairs. I wasn’t in any hurry.

As I stood there, a couple passed by, new neighbors. They descended the steps and the guy, who was accompanied presumably by his wife, walked over to the trash bins and opened the recycling bin. The first thing that stole my focus from the calm of the night was the loud clank of a glass bottle.

I looked over and noticed he was pulling individual beer bottles out of his bag and throwing them one at a time into the bin. The bin was practically full so I was somewhat perturbed at how loud it was. It was as if he was throwing the bottles into the bin, and upon observation, it did look as if he was pulling them from the bag and forcefully dropping them into the recycling bin.

I thought to myself, in a split second, he must be cranky if he can’t take the time to place the bottles in the bin gently. I felt that he meant to break one or two of them.

As he was unloading the last of the bottles, his female companion muttered something along the lines of “Maybe the beer was warm because the ice melted.” I couldn’t make much out other than murmurs, but I assumed he must’ve been frustrated that the beer was warm and hence why he was throwing them so angrily.

As he finished, he noticed me watching and he returned to the entrance of our building and went inside. As I turned back to the sidewalk to see what Pax was up to, I noticed he didn’t bother to close the recycling bin. The lid was wide open. My last conclusion was wow, how rude!

I thought that was my last conclusion but it wasn’t. In a flash I became aware of all the judgments I had made. I chuckled to myself about how ridiculous of a story I had likely concocted in my mind.

Sure, I was observing reality, but I was letting inference get the better of me. You and I both do this; it’s part of how our mind works. It’s efficient. It helps us quickly make life or death decisions. And it also helps us quickly create a story, where there isn’t one, or is an entirely different one.

Just think about this, what else could explain the situation? Perhaps the beer bottles were still full of beer and he was just trying to hold them upright so they wouldn’t spill. And that’s why he was pulling them carefully out of the bag, awkwardly upright. And maybe he dropped them just out of personal style, or maybe he’s a germaphobe. Maybe he’s never broken a beer bottle to know that dropping a bottle, even from one foot in the air, can be risky.

Maybe he was so engrossed in how upset he was with the beer being warm, that he didn’t realize he was dropping the bottles. Emotions do tend to cloud our focus. Think of the last time you were really sick, the pain likely was all you could think about. If he was extremely upset, it’s very possible that’s all he was thinking about. That would also explain forgetting to close the lid.

But this alternate story is yet again another example of inference; something that can be reckless as often as it is helpful.

Why does our mind work this way? And, what can we do about inference to get at the heart of the issues we face? First, we have to have the awareness to know when this inference may be a problem.

You’re not rational

As much as you might like to believe you think and behave rationally, you don’t. I don’t. Nobody does. Why? Probably because it’s not very efficient for our brains to be purely rational. Let’s face it, it’s virtually impossible to take into consideration the entire state of the universe when making a decision, we have to have the ability to take shortcuts if we ever hope to accomplish anything.

The emotional functions within our brain are in many ways shortcuts to help us avoid paralyzing indecision. They summarize the state of our environment, the state of our body, and the state of the way we perceive the world. We use some of these summaries automatically—as shortcuts—to prepare for what might come next.

For example, if a person jumps out from behind a closed door, your heart will race, your breathing will accelerate, you might start running and you might not notice this but your senses are heightened. Your mind subconsciously puts a plan in motion to prepare you to defend yourself or flee the situation. This is an emotional response.

Your mind didn’t wait to think through the situation, assess further information about what jumped out from behind the closed door, and then decided to start to prepare to defend or flee, it put the defensive plan in motion automatically. And you’ll almost immediate feel the implications of these bodily changes.

Simultaneously though, especially due to your heightened senses, you notice the thing that jumped out is your friend. And almost as fast as you started to flee from the situation, you stop, and your mind is overburdened with a feeling of relief and perhaps even joy, which is followed by laughter. Laughter because you know someone tricked you. Of course, the changes that lead to a feeling of relief and joy are emotional as well. You didn’t cold-heartedly assess what happened and then consciously decide to laugh, it just happened automatically.

Of course if the person behind the door was a stranger, and it was in your personal space, there’s no telling what you might do next. You could easily decide to pummel the person, even though it might indeed still be a joke. Let that be a lesson to pranksters everywhere, if you want the best reaction, perhaps use someone a person doesn’t know, just realize the consequences might be rather grave.

Now you might think that these automatic reactions are limited to threatening situations. But, they’re not. These automatic reactions play a role in everything we do. We use them to decide whom to vote for in an election, in picking an outfit to wear to work, even in seemingly innocent situations when someone asks us a question.

Emotions are information

Entire books are dedicated to explaining the role many of these emotions play and how they play out in our actions. I can’t cover that here and I don’t need to because what I want to help you with is to learn to use emotions as information to be more effective in decision-making and taking action.

All too often we let emotions automatically control our behavior, or so it seems. But we all know we can control our behavior. We just don’t often know the extent of how much we can control our behavior.

Changing how you behave starts with awareness of emotions, especially emotional extremes. Here’s a 5-step process you can use:

Awareness Step 1 – Reflection

Building awareness starts with reflection. Think about your feelings today. Have you had any extreme feelings of anger, fear, sadness, frustration or otherwise? If not today, think back to a time when you did. Then, assess the situation, objectively, that led up to the feelings and what you ultimately did as a result of the feelings.

This reflective process should be familiar. It’s the same process you would use to analyze a problem. How we feel, is largely the result of automatic physiological changes—bodily changes. These physiological changes are largely a function of subconscious emotional reactions. But these subconscious emotional reactions are the result of a sequence of events that led up to them.

A person jumps out from behind a door, that’s the objective event that leads to an emotional fight or flight response, which leads to a pounding heart and faster breathing, which leads to feeling these bodily changes, which leads to our self-awareness of the emotion.

Therefore awareness starts with recognizing the sequence of events that led to the emotional response and through to your resulting behaviors. In reflection you can assess whether your feelings and emotions were reasonable for the situation, or unreasonable.

And, you can assess if your actions were appropriate or inappropriate—inappropriate in the sense that you would’ve rather behaved differently. Don’t beat yourself up over this; the point is to learn to be aware of the sequence of events. And the different ways you could’ve reacted.

Awareness Step 2 – Chose your battles wisely

Not every situation garners the urgency to have more control over how you behave, which is the ultimate purpose of using emotions as information. First you have to decide which reactions you would like to change, to be more effective.

In reflecting upon my emotions in the past, I noticed that I routinely become grumpy when I’m hungry. I find this especially true when family surrounds me, because I feel comfortable enough around family to express how I really feel. I noticed that other family members tend to be grumpy when they’re hungry too.

This to me was worth doing something about, because I don’t like being grumpy to those that I love. I routinely found myself apologizing after I had a meal, for being grumpy.

Contrast this with a situation where I stub my toe, it hurts really badly, and I curse like a sailor. I’m not too worried about the consequences of this, it’s not like I stub my toe all that often. People usually sympathize.

One hint is to look for situations that tend to repeat themselves, like becoming hungry.

Awareness Step 3 – Find the trigger

One could argue that the solution would be to avoid the situation if at all possible, by eating regularly, and that’s a good first step, but we all fall off the wagon and hunger ensues.

Using emotions as information requires knowing the context of a situation that would lead us to want to use the resulting emotions as information. In my hunger situation, I know that hunger leads to grumpiness. And the grumpiness is almost always more extreme than the empty stomach feeling. I also know that being around family makes it more likely for me to express my grumpy side.

You could say, a trigger would be noticing I’m grumpy when with family. And when I notice this, I would like to first ask myself if I’m hungry, before verbally biting my sister’s head off for chewing her bubble gum too loudly.

Awareness Step 4 – Notice the trigger

Once you have a trigger, you just have to wait for it to happen. Of course you could force it to happen, but then you know it is coming. What you want to have happen is to notice it in the moment. And when you notice it, to be proactive about changing your behavior.

If you miss an opportunity, don’t beat yourself up; instead recognize that you noticed the missed opportunity. That’s a sign of progress, you’re now at least aware after the fact, which is the first step toward awareness in the moment.

Eventually you will notice the trigger in the moment. When that happens take the opportunity to decide how you would like to act, think about how you might still act if you’re not careful to control your behavior, and then see if you can change the outcome for the better.

Awareness Step 5 – Apply calculated action

I recently ran into a kerfuffle when returning a rental car, the drop off location was closed, so I couldn’t return the car. Needless to say it took about 2 hours of phone calls and driving all over heck and back to return the car at another location.

On the way home, I recognized how upset I was about it. I knew that I was likely to blow up about the situation if I discussed it and it would further sap my energy if I let myself dwell upon it.

Fortunately, on my way home, a rather entertaining thing happened to me. When I got home, I chose to tell this story, instead of the story about the rental car. I avoided the situation of letting the rental car nightmare get the better of not just me, but my family.

When you do become aware in the moment, that alone is worth celebrating. Share with those around you what you accomplished. Even if you didn’t change your behavior, being aware holds the power to change it in similar future situations.

All emotions can be information

It’s tempting to think that negative valence emotions are the ones we need to watch out for, and while they serve as great examples, they aren’t the only feelings to watch out for.

If you experience no hesitation when making a million dollar decision—whatever is a really important decision in your opinion—could be a problem. The mind tends to be blissful when there’s nothing contradictory to discern. There may be nothing contradictory to discern because you haven’t spent enough time broadening your perspective to include all the relevant factors in a million dollar decision. So, in this case, bliss could be a trigger to review what information is missing.

To summarize

Becoming aware of your emotions and changing your behavior is already an automatic process of your mind. By reflecting and tactically choosing situations to watch out for, you can surgically make rapid changes in your behavior. It’s like putting your learning process on steroids.