When the shopping cart was first introduced to stores in 1937, customers refused to use them.

Men avoided them so as not to appear weak. Women thought they were unfashionable. Older customers thought they would seem helpless. The idea appeared dead in the water.

But Sylvan Goldman, the inventor of the shopping cart and owner of a large grocery store, refused to give up.

He solved the problem by hiring models of all ages and genders to pretend to shop while using the carts. He hired a friendly greeter who would offer carts to people and point out that “everyone was using them.” Soon the carts became a normal part of going to his stores. And later a normal part of shopping throughout the US and then the world.

Customers had a knee-jerk reaction to the shopping cart when it was first presented to them. We can have similar knee-jerk emotional reactions in some situations as a result of feelings such as anger conditioned to a trigger. We react with emotion before we can even think about what’s happening.

What causes anger to be a knee-jerk reaction in some situations? And how do we change it?
First, we’ll consider how we get a near-instant feeling of anger in response to some events. This happens because we’ve experienced anger in the same kind of situation over and over so that the mind connects the two together. So for example, if when you were growing up you felt anger when your parents would demand you do what they say, you might feel anger today when someone tells you what to do. After that happened enough times, the mind connected anger to being told what to do.

But why did you feel anger in the first place?
In many cases, anger comes from the meaning we gave the events. We may have interpreted these events to mean we were powerless and this meaning can produce anger. If in the example above, the parent gave the child choices, instead of making demands, the child would not have felt powerless. And as a result, the child wouldn’t feel anger either. This insight that emotions come from meaning turns out to be essential in neutralizing the trigger for anger.

To neutralize a trigger for anger, we go through the following steps of the Lefkoe Stimulus Process
First, we make sure we have a clear idea of the trigger. It might be that the person feels anger when someone doesn’t listen to them.

Second, we discover the earliest experiences in which they felt anger in response to the trigger. Maybe mom or dad often wouldn’t listen when he was a child and the client would feel angry.

Third, we find out the meaning the client gave to those events. In this case, the client felt powerless to communicate since their words seemed to have no effect.

Fourth, we help the client notice that the meaning caused the anger, not the “trigger.” We might say, “Can you see that the anger you felt then came from the meaning of powerlessness you gave to mom and dad not listening, not from anyone not listening in general?”

Fifth, we help the client imagine events in which the trigger would happen, but we would be unlikely to form the powerless meaning. For example, we might ask, “If when mom and dad didn’t listen, you were eventually able to get them to listen by saying ‘you’re not listening to me’ would you have felt powerless then?” If our example works, the client will say no.

Sixth, we ask the client to imagine the triggering event happening in the future and see if it still produces the same emotion.

In most cases, the trigger that had produced anger has been neutralized and the same event no longer makes them angry.

But won’t we be angry if someone wrongs us?
You’ll notice that a lot of people do get angry when they feel they’ve been wronged. They are cut off on the freeway. Someone uses insulting language with them. A friend dismissed their point of view out of hand. Sometimes the anger has been conditioned to those kinds of events and sometimes the anger is caused by beliefs.

But in most cases, we also know people who don’t feel angry on a consistent basis when these kinds of things happen. Those folks have not been conditioned to feel angry about those events, so they don’t.

Summary

  • A pattern of having a knee-jerk anger feeling in some situations is often because the anger was conditioned to a trigger.
  • This conditioning takes place by having felt that feeling over and over again in the same kind of situation.
  • The anger is caused by the meaning given to those early situations, not by the situations themselves.
  • The trigger for anger can be neutralized following the six steps of the Lefkoe Stimulus Process.

When you neutralize a trigger for anger, the event which used to cause you to feel angry no longer will. In fact, you may find yourself less reactive than others in those same situations. The old reaction vanishes as completely as the resistance to using shopping carts vanished for Goldman’s customers.

We teach the process for neutralizing anger in our course the Lefkoe Method Training 3: The Emotional Processes. That training is only made available to students who have taken our previous courses. However, if you’d like to learn more about neutralizing triggers for emotions, you can see this blog post Morty wrote several years ago..