Consider this scenario. Paul’s daily commute involves a drive to the station. On
average this takes him 25 minutes, but on a good day he can do the journey in 15.
Often Paul is sensible and he leaves himself enough time. But let’s imagine a day
when he errs on the side of optimism as he sometimes does, and imagines that
he will be able to get there in the quickest possible time. And then, halfway to
the station, Paul finds himself stuck in heavy traffic.
How does Paul behave when this happens? Ahead of him there is a line of traffic,
backed up from some traffic lights. It is crawling forward, maddeningly slowly.
Then the person in front of Paul fails to notice that the car in front of them has
moved forward and is slow to move off. Paul is suddenly furious. He leans on the
horn. He shouts abuse at the driver in front. He pounds his own steering wheel in
But what is the actual cause of Paul’s anger? The simplest answer to this is that
the driver who hasn’t moved is making Paul angry. But is that really the cause?
The driver has delayed him by a few seconds. He hasn’t really affected the time
when Paul is going to arrive at the station.
So is it more accurate to say that the clogged traffic is the trigger for Paul’s rage?
Yes, perhaps. But the traffic is something that is to be expected. Heavy traffic in
urban areas isn’t a once in a blue moon thing. It is a common feature of modern
British life. Why is Paul angered by something that is actually a normal and
The truest answer to what is making Paul angry, I would argue, is that he is
angry with himself. Somewhere in his mind Paul knows that he was naïve, stupid
even, to assume that the journey to the station would be an easy one. Sure it can
be a quick drive sometimes. But there are enough occasions when it isn’t, to
make it sensible to build a bit of extra driving time into your plans. Paul didn’t do
that and he feels furious with himself for his own short-sightedness.
Being angry with ourselves is one of most common, and most potent, causes of
anger. For many of us there is something uniquely difficult about feeling that we
have messed up. For some people it involves a powerful feeling of shame. For
some it feels almost is if someone is actually telling them that they were foolish
or inadequate in some way.
Usually this kind of self-criticism has profound roots. Many of us carry around
deeply rooted, highly self-critical, beliefs about ourselves – the ‘I’m rubbish’, ‘I’m
useless’ way of thinking. Sometimes we are only dimly that these beliefs are
actually there. But when they are, making mistakes about something like your
journey time to the station will hit you with a nasty stab of self-loathing. In
short, when looking at your anger dig deep into how you think about yourself.
Self-criticism is the foundation stone of a lot of angry feelings.