Rules Rage?
August 29, 2008 6:53 AM   Subscribe

I seem to have a form of ... rules rage. I get truly angry over things that, afterward, seem insignificant. Help me find out why, or how to get past it.

I find that I very often get .. truly angry.. over small things. I can see a common theme that I most often get angry when rules are broken - for example, if people tailgate me through the resident gate at my apartments. I suspect being a bit miffed on this is about normal, but I get flat out angry, and afterward, wonder why. Any help digging into why that angers me so, or how to deal with it to reduce it to mild displeasure?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (29 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
Could be perfectionist or anal mentality. Its difficult for people like this to deal with others who have a more loose "seat of your pants" mentality. I would suggest some basic anger management techniques.
posted by damn dirty ape at 7:17 AM on August 29, 2008

Try to dismiss it as soon as you see it coming - like as soon as you notice someone tailgating you, focus your gaze and thoughts ahead of you, like where you're going, the sunny sky, or just focus on the music playing in your car or something.
posted by Penelope at 7:19 AM on August 29, 2008

I'd suggest a cognitive-behavioral approach. That is not necessarily to say cognitive-behavioral therapy, if you're a disciplined, self-insightful person who can work through the Feeling Good book (& workbook?) on your own. The theory is all about a practical, step-by-step way to find what you're *really* reacting to, as opposed to what we think we're reacting to.

Aaron Beck's daughter, Judith Beck (A Beck is one of the founders of CBT), wrote a good introductory (non-academic) book on the subject, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Basics and beyond.
posted by dreamphone at 7:19 AM on August 29, 2008

This happens to me, personally, when I'm feeling a distinct lack of control over something that's really important to me. The more I feel I am able to control, or direct, the course of my life or some impending big project/task/life change, the more those sorts of petty rules breaking things piss me off. It's because, I think, it reminds me how arbitrary and unfair everything in life is. How random. How carefully you can plan, how diligently you can work, how much you can follow every rule, and still not get what you want. You know, the best laid schemes, ganging aft agley.

Knowing that about myself has helped me be calmer in the face of those small, petty rules infractions. They are just a symbol of what is really stressing me. And I do have control over what's really stressing me. I may have no control over whether I get what I'm working for, but I control how I feel about it and I control my efforts toward it. Those are the things which reflect most on me: my efforts and my composure in the face of the outcome. Trying to behave as though I believe this all the time dispels that rage.

That may not apply to you at all. But maybe it does.

Of course, sometimes I indulge that rage. It does feel good on occasion to be that angry. Those times, I usually rant about things to someone who loves me enough to let me rant, or I beat up on a punching bag in my parents' garage.
posted by crush-onastick at 7:30 AM on August 29, 2008 [6 favorites]

Rats. That would be "the more I feel I am unable to control, or direct, the course of my life"
posted by crush-onastick at 7:31 AM on August 29, 2008

I get disproportionally irritated by actions that I perceive to be transgressions of the "rules" or rules of common courtesy. I would probably call my reaction...indignant. And I am in agreement with damn dirty ape -- I am a bit of a perfectionist as well as an idealist, and this generates that sort " could they?!" response.

I've found that repeating things like "water off a duck's back" (it rolls right off me) and reminding myself that my outrage isn't going to change anything other than ruining my own day helps. I try to put it out of my mind as it's happening as Penelope suggests (though this isn't always successful), and I use specific phrasings and concepts of "letting it go" that help to reframe the way I react.

I suspect you'll always have a bit of a problem with it, but if you react with constructive mental rewiring each time, it will be less of a consuming issue. By which I mean -- you'll likely need to pay attention to and manage it for a long time (perhaps always), but your reactions will get more under control and less self-destructive as you build better habits.
posted by tigerbelly at 7:35 AM on August 29, 2008 [1 favorite]

I try to empathize with the scofflaws. Have I ever broken that rule? Could there be a situation where I might break it? Is there a legitimate reason, no matter how unlikely, that the person is doing what they're doing?

When I finally attain perfection, though, these guys are gonna get JUDGED, baby. Maybe even a scornful look.
posted by stubby phillips at 7:37 AM on August 29, 2008 [5 favorites]

I get this sometimes with road rage. I realized that I'd often get home from angry from the drive and it wasn't fun. Just let the anger go. Don't hold on to it. Realize that this thing doesn't matter, hasn't really affected you in a significant way.

You have a choice when it comes to these small things... be angry, or don't be.
posted by utsutsu at 7:49 AM on August 29, 2008

Learn to channel your energy. Have you ever considered picking up wargaming or minature gaming? (Like Johnny Reb, Napoleonics, Bunker Hill, etc) ?

You will find a whole host of people whose basic hobby is to argue over rules in an attempt to figure out "who was right". They even have a name for it, they call it "Rules Lawyering".

It might not "solve your problem" but in the meantime it will probably give you a semi-creative outlet for these feelings of needing to control every aspect of the situation.

You might also find a lot of support from people with similar penchants for adhering to "the rules" just by showing up for a local game.
posted by judge.mentok.the.mindtaker at 7:51 AM on August 29, 2008

I can certainly relate to your situation having previously experienced similar anger at seemingly insignificant things often also having to do with rule breaking. Thankfully, it hasn't really been a problem for several years but I can remember specific instances where I would get into teeth/fist clenching rage over really dumb things.

Had I been able to articulate it at the time, I probably would have told you that I was angry because I voluntarily lived by rules that other people felt so free to ignore, and yet there was no consequence to their actions (other than my own internal seething.) If I can't do it, they shouldn't be allowed to either, etc, etc...

What helped me deal with this (tremendously) was to turn it inward and instead of letting the rage take over, do some immediate reflection on my role in the situation. Please note - I DO NOT mean turning the rage inward and beating myself up because of the rage I feel. Rather, I try to figure out what specific quality of me is being tweaked. I see someone run a red light? OK, fine. Why is that making me angry? Because that asshole driver thought so little of the rules that everyone else (including me) follows, and by extension he's telling me that the rules I live by are shit and the choices I make are not worth his time. That's a pride issue for me, so instead of getting angry about it, I try and allow myself to let that driver teach me something about humility. (Yes, there's a safety factor involved in the above example that can't be ignored, but you get the general idea.)

I tend to buy into the idea that if I am really, REALLY angry about something then that's more indicative of the fact that there's something amiss with me, and that whatever it is I'm angry about is really just a projection of the real anger. 99% of the time I find I'm angry about perceived unmanageability in my own life.

When you're in the middle of a rage, it can be very difficult to all of a sudden stop, self-reflect, and say "Hmm... OK. That makes me jealous, so instead I'll practice willingness." All I can say is if you stick with it, it gets easier over time. I even went so far as to cut out a piece of index card, write down on one side those character issues that cause me difficulty, and then write the opposite value on the other side so I could use it as a reference (Example: Fear/Courage, Pride/Humility, Impatience/Patience, Prejudice/Understanding, etc...) Then again, I'm a bit of a dork, and you may find this overkill. Still, give it a shot. It may feel like you're compromising yourself at first. That's your pride taking a small hit. But trust me, once you allow yourself to live anger free for a while, you'll find it's a much easier way to live.
posted by Rewind at 7:52 AM on August 29, 2008 [8 favorites]

I have a friend who has the same issue, Xanax or weed really calms her down, and makes her easier to get along with.

That, and she's close friends with me and one other girl. We are really laidback, and rarely stress out over things. We seem to mellow her out, well, sometimes.

Maybe you can find a new friend who's your opposite, and maybe it will rub off on you some.
posted by sixcolors at 7:58 AM on August 29, 2008

Anger often happens when someone's expectations are not met. "They shouldn't do that!" So, maybe challenge that expectation and work toward more acceptance that people always have and always will do "that." "Rules were made to be broken." "People have been shoplifting since time immemorial." "Yeah, if I didn't have to wait at the gate for my friend to buzz me in, I probably wouldn't." More here.
posted by salvia at 8:11 AM on August 29, 2008

follow-up from the OP
Rewind, that's EXACTLY what i was getting at, only articulated so much better. I can distinctly recall sitting in a car and commenting to friends "See, driving works because we all agree on a set of rules, and this guy..." (I'll let you imagine the rest - it's typically not nice). I'm going to give your idea a try -- thank you so much!
posted by jessamyn at 8:13 AM on August 29, 2008

If people not following the rules bugs you, I suggest you travel a bit, to a country where people follow the rules even less. I don't know what country you live in but as an American, one of the things I always enjoy most after coming home (from Mexico, for example) is how neat and safe the US is kept, and how logical and orderly people behave (by comparison).

Who knows - the contrast may help you appreciate what you have.
posted by scarabic at 8:15 AM on August 29, 2008 [1 favorite]

If people not following the rules bugs you, I suggest you travel a bit, to a country where people follow the rules even less. I don't know what country you live in but as an American, one of the things I always enjoy most after coming home (from Mexico, for example) is how neat and safe the US is kept, and how logical and orderly people behave (by comparison).

Or going to really seedy parts of big cities or rural areas.
posted by sixcolors at 8:34 AM on August 29, 2008

I have this going on in my head all the time and I've just started to live with it. It helps that as I've gotten older I've made more boneheaded mistakes in my life and it's made me more humble, at least after a couple of minutes.

Brain dialogue:
F***ing D**kwad! Who does he think he is! Oh. It's a woman. A panicked looking Indian woman. And now I'm all pissed about something I've probably even done before. Or I bet I've done worse and not even noticed. Well. She still sucks! Yeah! (But by now it's sort of difused and no fun.)

Also, what crush-on-a-stick said. I do this more when the rest of my life is out of control. There is something about righteous indignation that can almost become it's own (dubious) reward. In some weird way I feel like I'm taking action even though the outcomes are invariably negative to myself and likely to the people around me.
posted by small_ruminant at 9:44 AM on August 29, 2008

Any help digging into why that angers me so, or how to deal with it to reduce it to mild displeasure?

Trying to changing your mindset could work, but I think it might also be worth looking into your lifestyle to see if there might be factors making you more likely to be irritable at certain times. For example, I love salty food but I've learned that I have to avoid it as much as possible because of how crabby it makes me.
posted by tomcooke at 9:47 AM on August 29, 2008

for example, if people tailgate me through the resident gate at my apartments. I suspect being a bit miffed on this is about normal, but I get flat out angry, and afterward, wonder why. Any help digging into why that angers me so, or how to deal with it to reduce it to mild displeasure?

I sometimes get this. For me it's because (in your example) that person tailgating me could be an intruder or somehow result in me getting into trouble / blamed for something. In terms of rule breaking, it irks me too, but only because it seems unfair that someone else can "get away" with breaking a rule, yet I can't because I don't want to get blamed for doing so.

Essentially, I spend my whole time avoiding situations where I can get blamed. Perhaps you are the same.
posted by wackybrit at 9:52 AM on August 29, 2008

Ooo that's totally true. If I haven't slept a LOT I get anxious and crabby way too easily. And since I'm not falling down tired it's hard for me to remember that they're related.
posted by small_ruminant at 9:53 AM on August 29, 2008

Also, for me: coffee (even decaf) and Dr. Pepper make me way more irritable. And low blood sugar, or a crappy diet in general, like eating only a croissant for breakfast.
posted by small_ruminant at 9:54 AM on August 29, 2008

(totally true-ing tomcooke, by the way. My comment wasn't a total non-sequitar.
posted by small_ruminant at 9:55 AM on August 29, 2008

Since you liked rewind's approach, I suggest that you take a look at a book called Everyday Holiness by Alan Morinis. It is based on a Jewish approach to improving your basic character traits but you can use the practice without going into the religious part. The reason I'm suggesting it is because it is founded on the idea that you reduce negative traits like anger not by trying not to be angry but by increasing the opposite, positive trait - patience, tolerance etc.
posted by metahawk at 9:59 AM on August 29, 2008

I'd recommend fixing the things that you can that currently add stress to your life, and work on the things you can't fix in therapy. If you can free yourself up from other background / large causes of stress, then I suspect the rules thing will be a lot easier for you. It's easier to have a sense of humor and flexibility when there aren't other stressful issues lurking about.

Here's an example. I was in grad school and poor. I was stressed, and I was pretty inflexible. Lots of things drove me crazy, and I probably drove others crazy too.

Had I taken out a student loan, I would have been under less stress - I could have afforded my own apartment, rather than sharing it with roommates, I could have had decent health insurance, and I would have been free from short-term cash concerns. Fixing these big things would have given me a lot more stability, and I probably wouldn't have been as worked up about the small stuff.

At the same time, I would have benefited from therapy to deal with the stress and uncertainty of grad school. I couldn't "fix" these things like I could the money situation, but I could have worked through them with a therapist.

Good luck.
posted by zippy at 11:20 AM on August 29, 2008

Or going to really seedy parts of big cities or rural areas.

Or pretty much anywhere in New York City.

You might think a road has three lanes, but I guarantee you someone will find a way to make it seem like four lanes. Or two lanes. Or a parking lot.
posted by sondrialiac at 11:57 AM on August 29, 2008

Any help digging into why that angers me so, or how to deal with it to reduce it to mild displeasure?

This is the kind of thing you can talk about with a therapist. Both parts, the "why" and "what can I do about it?"
posted by exphysicist345 at 2:50 PM on August 29, 2008

What helps for me is to think about why what they're doing is OK or at least understandable.

Running a close red light: ooh, must've mis-estimated the length of the yellow. Tailgating you into the apt complex: if he can get in on his own, why waste the time for the gate to close and then open it up again? He might even be blocking traffic if he did that. Driving too slow on the freeway or not merging smoothly: Maybe it's a student driver or someone else inexperienced - I remember how scary freeway driving was to me at first. Or, maybe they're just trying to be courteous by letting other people go ahead of them, even though they technically have right-of-way.

Those are all traffic examples, and in other situations where there's more opportunity for direct confrontation it's harder to take that time. In those cases I've found it helps to just consciously think to myself, "This is going nowhere." and put it aside. Sometimes I still feel a bit uncomfortable about it, but anger grows when you indulge it so ranting about it to your friends or getting into a shouting match only makes it have more of a hold on you.
posted by Lady Li at 3:31 PM on August 29, 2008 [1 favorite]

Could be that you're angry about something else that's important but kind of difficult to be angry about (say, something about your relationship, or a loved one, etc.). It's a *lot* easier to be angry at a stranger than at a loved one who you care about, and may be nervous about hurting his/her feelings.

Or, there's a Jungian concept called the "shadow," which is basically made up of all the parts of ourselves that we've labelled unacceptable. When you come in contact with someone who's manifesting some of the tendencies that are in your shadow self, you can get really mad really quickly, because you had to do all that work to push that element of your personality away. According to this theory, it might be that early in your life, you just *loved* breaking rules, but you had to sublimate this tendency to get along. Thus when you meet up with a rule breaker, you are furious, because you had to force yourself to stop breaking rules, and here's some moron going ahead and doing it!

One way to test this is to play around with breaking some of those petty rules yourself. If you get a charge out of it - like a fun/gleeful feeling - consider that maybe you need to loosen up and enjoy breaking some of those stupid petty rules yourself.
posted by jasper411 at 4:11 PM on August 29, 2008

On the road, I practice a method I like to call purposeful passive aggression. Want to tailgate? Then I'm going to slow down and let you pass. Forgot to signal your lane change? I'll turn my signal on briefly to remind you. Any other manner of misbehavior on the roads? You get a "what the heck was *that*?" look.

The only way to have a polite, respectful, non-neurotic society is for people to give instant, friendly (or at least non-aggressive) feedback when they feel like they've been wronged. Or righted, for that matter. People's memories are terribly short when we are inside our own heads and nothing important is going on. If we don't get feedback at the moment of a screw up, that honking and swearing a quarter mile up the road is meaningless to us, and now we think you are a jerk.

It's changed my life. I don't have to fret over so many of the stupid things that we fret over, because I did the right thing at the moment.

Which is not to say that some road rage doesn't still occur, but it's rare, and it's usually when someone does a blatant fuck-you to me on the road. Case in point: I'm driving in the right lane of an expressway. There is one of those two lane merge ramps to my right. An on-ramp of some kind. The ones where the left lane of the merge ramp merges instantly with the right lane of traffic, and then the right lane of the ramp continues on for a half mile or so to allow for further merging. As I'm coming up to the ramp, I see a guy coming around the bend in the right lane, going quite a bit faster than me. But hey, he's in the right lane. He will pass me momentarily and be able to merge ahead of me. Neither of us has to do ANYTHING to get out of the other person's way. That is, until he changes lanes into the merge area and then tries to occupy the same space as I do. I move to the left to avoid an accident, and look at him with my "what was that" face. And he literally wags his finger at me- you know, the naughty naughty finger wag. BLAMMO! I was seething.
posted by gjc at 6:07 PM on August 29, 2008

I think it was John Wesley who said that you should apply the rules as strictly as possible to yourself, and as loosely as possible to others.

I add to that, the belief that others probably a) do not know the rules; or b) do not understand the rules. They may also not care about the rules, in which case back to John Wesley.

So, I drive defensively. And relax.

(I probably break some rules too.)
posted by blue_wardrobe at 8:56 PM on August 30, 2008

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