Practicing Anger Control With The Four Thought Exercise

To get good at any skill, it’s necessary to do lots of practice. How do you practice the skill of anger control?

You experience a SITUATION that could make someone angry. These situations are called “provocations.” Then, you practice responding to the provocation with four types of thoughts that tend to lead to calm, rational, well-thought-out behavior.

But you don’t just wait for provocations to come up in real life. A key to learning anger control is FANTASY REHEARSAL. This means that you imagine a provocation and practice coming up with the four thoughts about that situation. Lots of research has shown that you can get more skilled by practicing in imagination. People use fantasy rehearsal to get better at sports, music performances, dance moves, surgical operations, and learning not to be scared of situations. You can use fantasy rehearsals to get better at staying calm and reasonable when you encounter provocations.

Here are some examples of provocations:

If you’re serious about learning anger control, you will want to practice with very many provocations. You can make up your own. Think of every situation you can remember that has ever made you angry and write them down. For more provocations, you can see Appendix 2 of my book, A Programmed Course in Conflict Resolution and Anger Control. That book has several hundred of them.

Here are the four thoughts to practice:

  1. Not awfulizing. You explain to yourself, in words, why the situation is not the worst thing in the world, or why the situation isn’t so bad that you can’t handle it.

  2. Goal-setting. You tell yourself what you want to accomplish in this situation. Usually you wouldn’t want to set as your goal to teach someone a lesson by punishing them – why should that be your duty, to improve their behavior? Your goal is not to “get your anger out” or “release your hostility” – you can choose not to be hostile without releasing anything. Usually your goal is to make things come out as well as they can for yourself, not to get into trouble, not to get hurt, for no one else to get hurt, to be un-bothered by the provocation, or to solve the problem with the other person in a reasonable way. I recommend a goal of adding just a little bit of progress toward a peaceful and kind and nonviolent world.

  3. Listing options and choosing. You think of a few ways that you could respond to the situation. You think about the advantages and disadvantages of those options. You make the best choice you can.

  4. Celebrating your own choice. If you did the best job that you could in making a choice, you congratulate yourself for doing that.

Here’s an example of the four thought exercise with the first situation above. You have no idea how to do an assignment, but when you tell someone, that person just accuses you of trying to get out of work.

  1. Not awfulizing: This person is not being helpful, but I can handle that. It’s not the end of the world.

  2. Goal-setting. My goal is to figure out a reasonable thing to do about this assignment. I don’t need to take on the task of making this person see how wrong they are.

  3. Listing options and choosing. I could ask a different person about the assignment. I could wait and ask my teacher later on. I could try to read about how to do it, in the materials for this course. I could try to see if I can find out how to do it on the Internet. I think the first thing I’ll try is just walking away from this person and sitting down and reading through the course materials and seeing if I can find some helpful information.

  4. Celebrating your own choice. Hooray, I think I made a good choice! I just finished up interacting with the person and turned to other options! This is a good anger-control and fortitude celebration.

Here’s an example of the four thought exercise with the second situation above. You’ve gotten pushed, and then the person that did it taunts you.

  1. Not awfulizing. I didn’t get hurt. Nothing horrible has happened.

  2. Goal-setting. I feel like getting revenge, but my main goals are not to reward this person for doing this, to promote nonviolence, and to avoid getting into trouble myself. I don’t need to teach that kid a lesson.

  3. Listing options and choosing. I’m getting the urge to punch the kid really hard, but I want to think of other options. I could say, “You give good advice, don’t you.” I could just give the kid a quick look with a facial expression that says something like, “You’re so immature,” and move on. I could not even pay any attention at all to them, could look at my watch, and continue going where I’m going. I could say, “If you’re trying to make an enemy and get me to hate you, you’re succeeding.” I could say and do nothing, but later ask people to review video recordings of what the kid did. I think the least rewarding thing would be not even to acknowledge hearing what he said, and just keep walking, and think about the video option if there are videos available. I’m going to do that this time.

  4. Celebrating your own choice. I thought before I acted, and I think I made a good choice. I deserve to feel good. This could have turned violent, but I didn’t let it.

Here’s an example of the four thought exercise with the third situation above. You’ve lost a few minutes of work due to a computer error.

  1. Not awfulizing. This is frustrating, but it’s not horrible. People have suffered lots worse things than this.

  2. Goal-setting. My goal is not to get my feelings “out.” My goal is not to let this bother me too much, and to figure out a reasonable way to handle this.

  3. Listing options and choosing. I could start back in right now while the information is fresh in my mind. I could take a little break first and recover from the frustration I feel. When I start back, I can save my work really often. When I start back, I could write into a text file that I can save, and then copy and paste into the form. I’m deciding to start back right now, write the answers into a text file on my computer, and then copy and paste into the form on the Internet.

  4. Celebrating your own choice: I made a good choice! I feel good about handling this in a really mature way. I’m particularly glad that I didn’t scream at the machine! I got in a good practice of anger control, and that’s such an important skill!

Here’s an example of the four thought exercise with the fourth situation above. The boss is fussing at everyone, even though you didn’t have anything to do with the mistake.

  1. Not awfulizing. It’s irritating to be fussed at when I didn’t do anything wrong, but at least I don’t have any reason to feel guilty or ashamed.

  2. Goal-setting. My goal is definitely not to defend myself and put the blame on someone else. My goal is not to apologize, either. My goal is to look respectful and learn as much as I can about how to close up shop when and if it falls on me to do it.

  3. Listing options and choosing. I can just listen and take it in, and walk back to my post when this little talk is over. I can actually take notes on what the boss is saying, so that I won’t forget it. If the boss goes around and asks everybody individually if they understand, I can just say yes. I think I’ll do the first option, and the third option if it comes up.

  4. Celebrating your own choice. I feel good that I didn’t act defensive or blaming or guilty. I’m glad I just acted like I was interested in learning anything there is to learn, which I am.

Each time you do the four thought exercise, you are building up the strength of a habit of calm, rational thought about provocations. If you do enough of them, some day the habit strength will be great enough to compete with a prior habit of losing your temper.

If you write down these four thought exercises, you can also practice by reading over all the four thought exercises you have written so far. This is another way to speed up your making a new habit of staying cool in the face of provocations.