Perspective Shifting: An Effective Strategy for Anger Managment

Where you focus your attention determines what you see. It is that simple and it is also so very complex. I will share with you that I grew up seeing the world as a very hostile place, occupied by people who were out for only themselves, and so that's the type of person I became. I would lie, cheat, and steal to get what I wanted, and if people got hurt in the process, oh well, that was their problem. Since that was my perspective, or world view, then what showed up were those same types of people, and all of the consequences that can be expected of that lifestyle. That is to say that your friendly, loving, and hopefully enlightened therapist manifested violence, cops, judges, jail cells, anger, depression, addiction, relationship problems, stress, and a host of other problems into his life.

Now I live in a world where, among other things, psychology, and understanding human perceptions necessarily and thankfully takes up a good portion of my own thoughts. So while I could go on about how the concepts of "schema" and "schemata" can be traced back to Plato, Kant, and Piaget, let's say I didn't. However for the sake of understanding the concepts of schema and schemata lets jump to the 1930's when Sir Frederic Bartlett and others conducted research in areas such as thinking, memory and attention. Those folks laid the foundations for our modern understanding of how we process information from the world in order to interpret what happens around us. From this came awareness that we interpret information to fit how we already think. Yes, we are basically preprogrammed at a very early age to see the world from a particular perspective. We will touch more on that later.

Bartlett's findings were largely ignored because the predominant approach in psychology during that period was based on the work of people like Watson and Skinner who were showing that rewards and consequences shaped behaviors. This was called "behaviorism", and it dominated the psychological landscape for decades. Then in 1967 Ulric Neisser wrote a massively influential book called Cognitive Psychology. Now, four decades later, cognitive therapy is used frequently for a variety of psychological maladies.

The underlying concepts are that people are dynamic information-processing systems whose mental operations might be described in computational terms. So, thinking about your computer, if you come across a PDF file, and you don't have an Adobe reader, you will not be able to read the file on your computer, ever, unless, of course, you introduce a new way of interpreting the information. In this case that would mean that you download an Adobe reader. Neisser emphasized that it is a point of view which postulates the mind as having a certain conceptual structure. Point of view, or our individual perspective, determines, shapes, and defines what we see and how we interpret all of our sensory information. Coming to grips with that alone can be a life changing awareness. To understand that fully is to understand that what happens in the world does not impact us nearly as much as our interpretation of what is happening.

Allow me to put this into a practical application that I think most people can relate to. Who among us doesn't get upset or frustrated to some degree when we are stuck in traffic? Well let's say that the reason for the bad traffic is because you are traveling in the middle of one of our wonderful Minnesota snow storms, and traffic is crawling along or standing still. In that moment when your upset is starting to escalate think about those brave souls who came before us, who endured these winters with no car. Think about how, at that moment, you are not walking through that storm, but instead you are warm inside your car. Maybe you have a radio or CD where you can enjoy sounds other than the howling wind as it bites your face. Think about how you will probably be going to some kind of warm building where you work, or have loved ones, either of which is a blessing. Consider that you are well fed and will probably never have to know starvation. Perhaps you can focus on the fact that the most poor of us are still among the wealthiest and well-off people, not only in the world now, but of all time! Remember that most of us have things as a part of our daily life that Kings and Queens could not even have imagined, like, well..., like a car. That is only one example, but I am here to tell you that you can do this kind of perspective shifting all the time, and it gets easier with practice.

Like all human characteristics that we are endowed with, schemata serve a valuable purpose. We can quickly organize new perceptions into schemata and act effectively and efficiently. For example, when we get a new pair of shoes we don't have to relearn how to put them on and tie the laces. Of course that applies to most everything we do on a daily, moment to moment, basis.

However, schemata can also influence and hamper the uptake of new information. Existing stereotypes and beliefs bias our interpretation of data. So having an understanding of our own schemata is helpful in a variety of important ways, including how it influences so much of what we see, and then remember, as the "truth". In fact research shows that we remember things that have never happened. We distort events and place things into our memories to fit our schema based on our expectations. For example when shown a quick episode of two men, one well dressed and the other a thug, in a conflict where the well dressed man pulls a knife, people often times report that the thug pulled the knife. Brewer and Treyens (1981) demonstrated that the schema-driven expectation about what one might see in an academic scholar's room could lead to erroneous memories. When asked to describe what kinds of objects where in the room many of the participants of the study described seeing books where there weren't any simply because that fit their schema of what they would see.

So then it follows that we all are likely to have a storehouse of memories from past events that didn't even happen to us. Do you think then that those false memories then impact our mental health? You better believe it! For me that understanding wiped out a whole lot of resentments that I carried for a good part of my life. Since I fully believe in the adage that "resentment is like taking poison and waiting for the other person to die" I had effectively stopped poisoning myself with just that shift in perspective.

I used to work at a treatment center located in Minneapolis that housed and fed addicts who were homeless. The program owned apartment buildings located close to the treatment facility and the accommodations were inspected regularly and up to code. There was a housing staff of approximately eight people to address maintenance, moving in and out, client conflicts and whatever else surfaced. I would regularly hear our clients complaining. To be clear most clients were grateful for the place that they had, but there were always grumblings by the few who didn't think that the apartment was clean enough, their roommates were taking their cereal, the walls needed painting, or whatever. Keeping in mind that these people received housing, food, medical, housing staff, clinical and employment counseling staff and services, and more, for free, yet they complained regularly. I used to share with them this idea of perspective shifting. Let's take two people coming into the program on the same day. One is looking downward and seeing dirt on the floor, dirty dishes left by the last person in the apartment, or maybe the trash wasn't emptied, and he is complaining. His buddy is looking upward and seeing a roof over his head, food in the cabinets, clean dishes and free cleaning supplies, and he is grateful. It is the exact same place, but where they focus their respective attention has determined what they see. Of course that in turn shades their experience in that moment. One is positive and has a much better chance of success in that environment than the other. Trust me, the complainers either learned to shift their perspective, or they went back out on to the streets to use some more, usually sooner than later.

The next thing I want to share with you is how to go about this and the difficulty that you will face. Again I'll use a metaphor. Imagine a field that is a hundred square miles and which has never been driven over. It is flat and there are no obstacles, and it has unlimited potential for the amount and types of paths you can create. We will take our 4x4 and drive the same path in one particular spot over and over until there is a rut. If that rut is deep enough when we drive our vehicle around the field randomly, we eventually will hit that rut. Our wheels will then follow the path until we come out the other side. That is, metaphorically, your frustration and anger response.

If we want to break out of that rut we will have to use some effort to force the wheels, while we are in it. Practicing how to do it ahead of time, and assuring ourselves that we will do it once we are in the rut are good strategies, but the real work of breaking out of that rut happens while we are in it. Some neural pathways are very much like that. In order to shift our perspective to enjoy the great rewards that come from this developed skill, it is necessary to think how we are going to respond ahead of time. For example, plan to use this strategy of perspective shifting the next time you're stuck in traffic. Use this tactic while you are in your frustration and upset, because when you feel most justified in being upset is when we most need to work on it. You can also practice with small annoyances every day. Then, when you have learned to shift your perspective successfully enough times, there will come a point where you have created new pathways out of your distress. The ability to do this will become second nature for you until you do it for so long that it will literally change the the form and function of your brain. As that happens you will no longer do this with effort but it will be your automatic response. No longer will you need to manage being upset (as in "anger management"), because you won't have any upset to manage. When your internal world changes, then your external world will follow suite. Simply put, if you stop thinking in negative terms, then negativity will stop showing up in your life.

I believe with all that I am that you can do this and that you will realize benefits beyond anything you can imagine. Think of it this way; how can it hurt to try? I sincerely hope that you work at it, and get good at it, because you're worth it.


Bartlett, F.C. (1932). Remembering: A Study in Experimental and Social Psychology. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

Neisser, U: Cognitive Psychology, 1967, New York: Appleton-Crofts


DAKOTA BAKER MA,LPCC,LADC TELEPHONE: 612•750•5378 FAX: 651•636•0243 EMAIL ME PROUD MEMBER OF: Minnesota Psychological Association MARRCH
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