Lost a Game? Learn About Dealing with Anger

Whether it’s Monopoly, bowling or checkers, we’ve all played a game against a sore loser. Or maybe, even if you don’t want to admit it, you’re the sore loser! While I’m sure,you’ve said or heard the phrase “It’s just a game,” that doesn’t make the sting of losing any less painful. But this begs the question: Why do we get so angry over losing? And why is dealing with anger important?

Anger itself is neither good nor bad. It’s a perfectly normal human emotion that’s been ingrained in us over thousands of years. Anger is only a problem when it gets out of hand. When someone blows up over losing a game, the game is no longer fun for anybody.

The purpose of this article is to explore why we feel anger, why we associate losing with anger, and how dealing with anger can help us foster more positive relationships with people in our lives, even when we’re frustrated.

Why We Get Angry

There are many reasons we feel anger, but oftentimes the reason we feel it after losing is that we are masking feelings of embarrassment, shame, and insecurity. Before diving more into why we feel anger when we lose, let’s look at Dr. Jerry Deffenbacher’s breakdown of anger.

Trigger

In order for someone to become angry, an event typically occurs that triggers the emotional response. In the case of losing, it’s loss.

However, a misconception about trigger events is that they are the ultimate cause of your anger. While this is partially true, there are always other contributing factors. If not, everyone would have the same reaction to every frustrating event (and hopefully some of us have better methods of dealing with anger than tailgating and flipping the bird to those who cut us off in traffic.

Characteristics

There are two components that come into play here: personality traits and the pre-anger state.

Certain personality traits will cause people to have a shorter fuse than others. For example, a narcissistic person may feel superior to everyone on the opposing team, causing loss to shatter their image of self much more than someone with lower self-esteem who may expect to lose. This results in a more intense reaction to loss.

The pre-anger state depends less on the character of the person involved and more on the events leading up to the trigger. For example, a typically calm, docile person may be on-edge if they are hungry or tired. In cases where the mood of a person is already low, losing a game might just be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.

Cognitive Appraisal

This refers not just to the triggering event, but the perceived intent behind it. This is where the “It’s not fair!” argument comes in. The feeling of loss can be much more painful when you believe the other team cheated or had the upper hand in some way.

The Agony of Defeat

Research from 2010 by Maarten van Boksem (RSM) studied participants who played games in the laboratory while connected to an MRI scanner and EEG cap. The readings demonstrated that brain activity after losing is incredibly similar to that of a person in physical pain. Essentially, when you lose, your stress response is your brain telling your body to avoid the situation.

This response is generated by the anterior cingulate cortex, which is the area of the brain responsible for reward anticipation, decision making and identifying errors. When we lose, we use our experience to avoid pain (defeat) and maximize reward (victory)–the same process we used when learning to walk. So when you or your friend blows up after losing a friendly game of backyard volleyball, remember that the anger and frustration results from evolutionary biology, and it is perfectly natural.

Think of it this way: You’re a cave person out in the forest hunting for your family’s next meal. You hurl your spear, and the critter escapes. Your frustration today is borne of your ancestors’ biological need to “win” at hunting. This way of thinking is also what causes us to become more reckless and riled up during competition. In your ancestors’ minds, losing = death.

In today’s world however, this biological response is not only unnecessary, but it can also be detrimental. In fact, long-term stress can lead to depression and burn-out as well as increased risk of cardiovascular disease. This further demonstrates the importance of dealing with anger in a healthy way to protect our physical well-being.

But possibly even worse than physical consequences, being a sore loser can be devastating to your relationships and social life. After all, who wants to hang out with the maniac who throws Candy Land across the table when they draw the Plumpy card? Instead, dealing with anger in a healthy way can help improve our mood and our relationships.

Dealing with Anger

Whether it’s a game of poker with your friends, a sporting event between your favorite team and their rival, or an argument between you and your significant other, your reaction to losing should never be so dramatic that you cause anyone to feel uncomfortable or fearful. If you have a tendency to blow up over losing, follow some of our recommended tips for dealing with anger:

Expect to Lose Sometimes

A huge factor behind anger is the divide between expectation and reality. If you go into a game expecting to win, it’s that much more devastating when it doesn’t happen. When you keep in mind it is a possibility that you will lose, defeat will feel less painful; just because you won your last cribbage game doesn’t mean the cards will be in your favor the next time around. And remember, losing is all part of the learning process.

Avoid Triggering Games

Do you have traumatic memories of losing to your dad at croquet? If so, you probably shouldn’t play croquet. This is especially true if you are prone to projecting your memories onto someone vulnerable, like your child.

Don’t Keep Score

Yes, this is the competitive person’s worst nightmare. Some sports lend themselves to scorekeeping in a more collaborative nature, such as counting how many times you can volley a ping-pong ball back and forth rather than trying to get the person across from you to miss. This way you can compete together against your previous score, rather than against one another in a way that could create hostility.

Don’t Blame Your Teammates

If you are frustrated with your performance, dealing with your anger by using these feelings to up your game in the future would be a healthy response. However, if your teammates gave what you see as a sub-par performance, this does not make it okay for you to taunt/ridicule/humiliate them. If this is your method of pushing your team, you will not earn respect as a leader.

Take Breaks

This strategy is especially good for video games or other single player activities. If you’re stuck on a level, continuing to play after your stress has risen doesn’t make you more likely to beat the level; it makes you more likely to beat your computer with a stick. Instead, when you start to feel worked up, walk away until you feel ready to re-approach the game with a level head.

Read the Instructions

While nobody wants to put off the fun of a game in order to sit and read the rule-book, it is a good idea to do so that everybody is on the same page. It’s important to establish the same set of rules for everybody so that nobody feels cheated out of a victory.

While you may feel confident, you can figure out that new video game you bought, it is likely a good idea to sit through the tutorial, so you know exactly what your mission is and the best ways to accomplish it.

Find an Alternative Outlet

The first step of this is to excuse yourself from the situation–you don’t want to beat the stuffing out of your child’s teddy bear while they are watching. Instead, step out of the room. Try taking calming breaths, squeezing a stress ball or even doing physical exercises.

Seek Counseling

If you’re having problems dealing with anger when you lose a game, you’re probably having anger problems in other areas of your life, too. No matter what the trigger is, excessive anger can drive a wedge between you and your family, friends, and coworkers. Cognitive-behavioral therapy with a licensed therapist can help you in dealing with anger in healthy ways.

Conclusion

Remember, anger is not inherently bad, and when channeled appropriately, it can help us learn and grow from our experiences. But while we can let our frustration with losing help us improve our game, it’s important to not let it get out of control.

Dealing with anger is an important skill in terms of creating healthy relationships between each of us, the activities we enjoy and the people we love. Next time losing makes you want to kick and scream and throw your cards onto the floor, remember what games are meant for: having fun and building teamwork.

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