The Secret to Understanding Why Some People Are Always MAD

We all have to deal with it sometimes: A waiter acts as if you’re an inconvenience. Someone flips you off on the highway. You probably shrug off drive-by rudeness without letting it wreck your whole day. You don’t need to deal with the person again, so who cares? Well… what if that person is your supervisor, brother, client or someone else you see frequently? Have You Ever Asked Yourself, “Why Is He Constantly Angry”?

Is he stuck in anger

Anyone can be ticked off and say something rude. However, some people you know continuously act out --verbally, non-verbally, and boy-o-boy, do they love to do it in writing. We call them High Conflict People (HCPs). To us, they just seem mad, and that’s a good way to remember this tip; HCP’s suffer from what we call MAD, or a Mistaken Assessment of Danger.

HCPs are plagued by an inner turmoil and are oblivious to it. Their fragile ego bubbles below the surface of conscious thought, and they are ready to defend their sense of self-worth at all costs. Researchers have long studied this and the short explanation is that it’s most likely related to painful experiences an HCP had that were never consciously understood/ resolved by the HCP*. The consequence is that instead of recognizing they are having a normal emotion that will soon pass, they blame someone else for causing their feelings and they react harshly because any little hurt feels dangerous to their entire sense of well-being.

HCPs frequently misinterpret their surroundings into something that is threatening to them personally. In the highway example above, most of us would mumble “What a jerk” and place the responsibility on the flipper-offer for his bad temper. However, an HCP will take it very personally; “OMG did you see what he did to me? He thinks he’s better than I am. He put my life in danger taking his hand off the wheel like that!”

OK, so getting the bird is a tad personal, but while you could let it go, an HCP cannot. An HCP will rant and rave for half an hour about how he was dissed and he might go so far as to change lanes and catch up so he can shake his fist at the other driver (or worse). The response HCPs have to a minor incident gets out of proportion because of their MAD – a gut feeling that their fragile self-esteem is in danger that they can neither understand nor control.

Why Does Understanding This Matter To You?

Because in if it’s your brother, boss, client or anyone in a long-term relationship you’re stuck with it and can be overwhelmed. Likewise, if you are in a service position, you’ll encounter rude customers and keeping your job may depend upon how you handle them. If you are a student, that obnoxious prof is in control of your grades. If it’s your client, it’s also your income. You could change jobs, skip class or “divorce” yourself from your brother, but that’s not a realistic solution for most of us. Knowing that, it then makes sense to learn what you can do to reduce conflicts with HCPs so you can reduce your own stress level when you have to deal with them. Read more in It’s All Your Fault: 12 Tips for Managing People Who Blame Others for Everything.

Do You Make The Mistake Of Reacting?

There are different types of HCPs with particular quirks and cognitive distortions but the first step is to try to empathize with where the HCP is coming from. You read that right; when someone attacks you personally, the first thing you can do to avoid getting caught up in someone’s drama is to stop and think: “Did I do something wrong, or is it he acting irrationally?” This saves you from lashing out in return (making it worse) and it gives you a moment to calm yourself before you speak or take other action.

Think of a child having a public tantrum. Young children act out of fear or unfulfilled desire they don’t understand. They can’t stop themselves because they haven’t learned how to have a “normal” reaction yet. If Mom says something benign or ignores the behavior, her calmness carries over and the meltdown peters out. However, if mom spanks the child all heck breaks loose and she’ll be left with a screaming child and all the stress that comes with it. The kid will probably cry either way, so why should Mom be worked up too? Verbally spanking an HCP, who is also acting out of misunderstood fear, will get you the same result and the same stress. You’ve probably been on the receiving end of an HCP’s overreaction before, so you already know that “talking sense” to him won’t help. Keep reading the blog for tips on how to handle HCPs and visit the website before you forget for more information about BIFF Responses and others tools you can use to protect yourself.

*Beck, A.T., Rush, A.J., Shaw, B.F. & Emery, G (1979) Cognitive Therapy of Depression. New York: Gilford Press.

© 2014 High Conflict Institute