Understanding Angry Incidents: The “WTF?” Model

I hate it when angry incidents go to waste. As in when a blowup happens and we don’t learn a thing; worse, we stuff it down, ignore it or pretend it never happened. I see this as regrettable, because angry incidents of all shapes and sizes—mild, moderate or severe—have something to offer us in terms of insight, if we’re willing to take a look.

A few weeks ago, a colleague and I were analyzing a theoretical framework she was using for her anger management group—it kind of worked, but kind of didn’t—and thought that there had to be a different way of looking at anger with the group she was serving. As we were discussing things, the acronym WTF? popped into my head. We both laughed.

Why WTF?

I used acronyms throughout my psychology, social work and counselling studies—they helped me remember theories, main points and other ideas—particularly when I had to spit out knowledge on tests. They’re a useful memory device.  Psychology has helpful acronyms too, such as those in dialectical behaviour therapy, which brought us DEAR MAN, GIVE and FAST, to name a few.

I like WTF? because:

  1. It’s real. It’s a question that for some of us, we ask when we’re angry!
  2. It’s short and easier to remember; long and complicated acronyms don’t necessarily jive well when we’re angry and are struggling to think straight.
  3. WTF? asks a question and encourages analysis. Analysis is cool because when used regularly, it ultimately becomes proactive and potentially preventative.
  4. I like unconventional concepts. It appeals to the fringier parts of my personality.

The Model

Let’s take an example of an incident of how anger might typically play out in our minds, so we have something to apply the WTF? model to. Remember, we’re using it to analyze an incident after the fact.

The theatre was outrageously busy and ridiculously understaffed. And the cashiers that were there looked so lazy. They clearly could have been working more efficiently! And then this guy comes directly from the theatre lobby, cuts right in front of me as I was approaching the cashier and goes there himself, not even waiting in line for one second! What an arrogant ***! And the cashier didn’t even say anything to him—what a pushover! I swear the guy sneered at me after he left the ticket booth. I’m going to sit right beside him in the theatre and make his movie a living hell!

W – What happened?

Re-write, either mentally or in writing form. Describe the incident neutrally and in detail. Stick to the facts, as best you can. Here, effort is often required to work against the temptation to tell ourselves stories about what “really” happened.

I was lined up at the busy movie theatre for a popular film. I had been in line for 10 minutes and was just about to approach the cashier when a person walked in front of me, coming from the lobby, and went to the cashier instead, not waiting his turn in line. The cashier proceeded to serve him. As he finished he made eye contact with me and he had an expression on his face that I couldn’t quite read.

T –  Thoughts

Identify the thoughts and/or judgments that we have about the situation. This is an important step because being “in” the thoughts unawares increases emotional suffering.

  • The theatre was outrageously busy
  • The theatre was ridiculously understaffed
  • The cashiers are lazy
  • What an arrogant ***!
  • The cashier is a pushover
  • The guy sneered at me
  • I am going to make his movie a living hell

Thoughts seem to be more likely to turn to anger if we perceive that an injustice has taken place or if we perceive that we have been disrespected.

In general, angry thoughts can be about others or the self, such as:

Other oriented:

That person is no good, devious, a scammer, lazy, arrogant, disrespectful, a waster of my time, etc. etc.


I am: a victim, innocent, virtuous etc.

Or, things can turn in the opposite direction, particularly if our sense of self-worth is low: anger can become directed inward and we might think we deserve what has happened or that we are a bad person. There is a lot of suffering in this place and if you find yourself there, I hope that you are taking steps to seek support or help.

F –  Feelings

Look underneath the raw anger to find the feelings underneath which are often driving it. These feelings are often unseen or unacknowledged when we’re angry. Often times, after-the-fact “reflections” on angry incidents are actually closer to emotional ruminations, and we remain stuck in a disempowered emotional state.

Alternatively, taking ownership of our anger feelings and having the willingness to look further and identify the emotions that may be fuelling our anger, can ultimately get us reoriented to feeling better; research shows that identifying negative emotions enhances feelings of wellbeing by activating the prefrontal cortex in our brains and calming the amygdala—a key player in the fight or flight response.

Gettin’ Fancy

For those that want to take the analysis further, or if all hell broke loose, I recommend adding an extra F, as in WTFF.

F – Fallout

Here we identify the consequences of our anger so we can make the connection between the angry outburst and consequences, with the aim of preventing such consequences in the future. However, there is a caveat: recognizing consequences becomes significantly less useful when we use them to beat ourselves up or put ourselves down. In other words, identify consequences responsibly and self-respectfully!

When many of us experience anger, we’re not thinking of the future consequences. Sometimes it’s a trusted friend or someone outside of the situation that prevents us from acting on our impulses and may even spell out some of the possible fallout.

Consequences can be internal, external or both. Internal, in the sense of how we feel about ourselves or what we’ve done, external in the sense of how others were harmed, how we harmed ourselves or how situations have changed for the worse.

In the movie theatre example, it’s unlikely that the person would have enjoyed the movie, and if they did act on the impulse to make the other person’s movie experience a living hell, likely others in the vicinity weren’t enjoying their movie either. Further, if and how the conflict grew, the angry person could have been asked to leave, security/police may have been involved or they could be banned from the theatre—which could be life affecting if that’s a favourite and most convenient place to see a movie. Taking it again further, perhaps their sleep was affected, or they came home and drank excessively to calm down, but felt hungover the next day and missed work. Sitting at home alone, they may have felt embarrassed or alternatively victimized—neither being empowered states of mind. Not a fun night and even extending to days, if they perceive that they could not let go of the emotional residue from the incident or if consequences continued to evolve.

Final Thoughts

I had a few additional, somewhat random thoughts.

  • Anger is not bad. It’s a normal human emotion and can be very useful, healthy and informative in certain circumstances. The goal is not trying to stop or banish anger. Rather, the key is to learn from angry incidences and make changes in our approach, if necessary.
  • WTF? may be offensive to some people. I’m truly sorry about that. If this is true for you, I trust this will not be a helpful framework for you for reflecting on anger.
  • My teenage years were full or righteousness and indignation. I suffered a lot. One thing I have found useful and mind-warpy is searching my memory for examples of having done something to someone else that approximates that was “done” to me. I can usually come up with something and it helps to break through those moments when I’m experiencing that uncomfortable blend of anger and self-pity.
  • There are many ways of WTF-ing: Through quiet mental reflection, writing things down, meditating or meditating in action—as in doing an activity present-mindfully, without distractions. I trust you will find the way or ways that are right for you.