Those anger triggers: ‘Collecting Straws’

It’s morning and you are getting ready for work. But you’ve run out of your favourite breakfast cereal. Or there’s no milk. Or you can’t find your keys. And you think to yourself  I just know it’s going to be one of those days!

You’re about to begin collecting straws.

From now on you will be on the lookout for things that aren’t to your liking; things to get annoyed about. You’ve set your mental filters to notice things you disapprove of – and from now on you ignore things that you might otherwise feel good about.

For some people this is a thing they do for a few minutes or hours. Other people collect straws over weeks or months. And become quite upset or angry in the process.

And it’s not about the intensity of the irritations. It’s the way they add up: it’s the way we keep track of them so they mount up in our mind – until we reach tipping point – the ‘last straw which breaks the camel’s back’.

That’s it – I’ve had enough!

Let’s say Jo is having a ‘one of those days’ days.  In her view ‘nothing is going right’ for her today.

She is shopping and in the supermarket is bumped by someone’s trolley. Anyone else might be mildly irritated by the other persons’ clumsiness.  And on a good day Jo might have let it pass, too.

But not today. Because she is ‘gathering straws’. She is on the lookout for things to add to her belief that today is one of those days and that the world is out to make her annoyed.

So she explodes with fury, creating a scene that she may later feel embarrassed about or experience self-hatred or guilt.  The intensity of her outburst is due to the feelings that having been building up since she first thought to herself It’s going to be one of those days! or Why is everyone so insensitive today – am I invisible or something?? 

And the unfortunate person who bumped into her while searching for the chocolate biscuits on the top shelf bears the brunt of this accumulated irritability or anger.

Days or weeks of ‘collecting’

People with a strong anger-habit do this a lot.  They are on the look out for things to feel angry about.  They don’t just collect reasons to feel angry over just a few hours. They can spend weeks, months or a lifetime doing it.

This accounts for their quite over-the-top response to even quite insignificant events.

When these people reach their ‘ final straw’, the trigger event which emotionally tips them over, the explosion can be quite severe and may even result in physical violence.

How does ‘gathering straws’ work?

It’s about how our mental filters work. In psychology it’s called confirmation bias.

We find what we set ourselves up to find.  Because of how we are using out mental filters we find evidence to support our prejudice, our current stance, our beliefs.

If I have a belief that the world is out to get me, or that nobody respects me, or that my partner, friends or family hate me then I will find lots of evidence for this. And I will ignore any evidence that contradicts this.

All these little pieces of ‘confirming’ evidence are carefully collected along with our irritability about each situation. Mixing metaphors, it is as if we have a cooking pot into which we put every event and keep it simmering. Then the point is reached where we have had enough and we explode.

It’s as if the final straw event has tapped into our ‘unfinished business reservoir’ where our memories of anger and injustice and disrespect are stored.

In the case of severe anger this reservoir can include memories of slights and injustices going back to childhood.

What to do about the “gathering straws” habit

Happily, this isn’t something you need to work hard at.

It’s quite simply a matter of noticing yourself doing it.

Since it’s a habit that you have developed it works automatically. You do it without noticing that you doing it. So the answer is to start noticing yourself doing it and… stop it, each time!

No need to feel bad about the habit nor get upset or angry. Every time you notice yourself beginning to gather straws simply go “Oh, oh – here I go again gathering straws – totting up the list of things to feel bad about!”

And if you truly want to get rid of this habit then it really is that simple – use a little persistence.