Chapter 24: The William James zone
All the clear communication you’ve been learning can be completely muddied if you don’t communicate clearly with yourself. Part of self-communication is paying attention to your emotions and your body when you get angry. This helps stop your anger from getting out of control and muddying everything up.
When you get angry, your brain sends out signals to your body. Your adrenaline pumps and your body releases hormones. Anger prods your body, saying, “Get ready to act!” Anger is an emotion, but it’s also a physical state. Once that adrenaline starts pumping, your body becomes angry. Even if the cause of the emotional anger goes away, the physical anger is still there, and it starts a feedback loop. Your brain asks your body, “How are we doing?” Your body replies, “We’re really angry!” Your brain reacts by becoming emotionally angry in response to the physical anger, causing your brain to send out anger signals to your body again, and the feedback loop continues.
Brains are surprisingly good at inventing reasons for being angry, even if the original reason has gone away and the only real remaining cause is the adrenaline in the bloodstream. It can be physically impossible to let go of anger until your body has settled down. The rate at which your body returns to its baseline non-angry state varies from person to person. Being in this state of reinforced physical anger is what we call the William James zone, and how long it takes you to get out of that zone is your “William James threshold.” The philosopher William James predicted this effect long before the science of biology was able to confirm it,1 which is why we named this effect after him. The stereotype is that women take longer to cool down from anger than men do, but every person’s William James threshold will depend on circumstance, upbringing, mood, and multiple other factors. It’s best to avoid making assumptions and instead learn to deal with people as individuals.
Jane and Joe’s Example: Shattering the Stereotype
Jane and Joe are having a huge argument. They yell at each other for a long time, both upset and neither communicating in a useful or effective manner. After a while, they stop yelling. Jane sincerely apologizes for her thoughtlessness and Joe thanks her. They kiss. Jane goes into the living room, plops down on the sofa, and turns on the television. Meanwhile, Joe is still in the kitchen and still upset. He needs another outlet for his anger, so he calls his friend and spends half an hour on the phone, complaining about Jane’s thoughtless behavior, her rudeness, and the argument they just had, as well as every argument he can remember in their entire history, and hey, she didn’t even hang the laundry this morning!
Jane’s in the living room, totally clueless that Joe’s still upset. She is out of her William James zone. She feels resolved and content, and isn’t even thinking about the argument anymore.
Joe, in the kitchen, is still in his William James zone. He’s gotten resolution for the most recent argument, but his body is still full of anger, so when his brain checks, he gets the “we’re still angry” response, and continues constructing reasons to hold on to the anger. Since he’s still in the zone, and his feedback loop is still looping, he hangs up the phone and heads into the living room to pick another fight with Jane.
Jane’s been watching TV this whole time, has no idea Joe is still mad, and is flabbergasted when Joe starts yelling at her.
All of this is useful to know, but what does it have to do with communication and problem solving? The answer is this: if you’re aware of the difference between emotional anger and physical anger, some situations become much easier to handle. For instance, if you know that the person with whom you’re communicating has a long William James threshold, when they get angry you can ask for some time to cool down before continuing the conversation. It might be helpful to take a break, to go outside for a few minutes and take a walk, or to be in separate rooms for a while. If anyone involved in the conflict is experiencing physical anger, it will be especially difficult to communicate successfully. This is why it’s often better to wait it out. Cool-down time is a good thing to negotiate before anyone gets upset so that you can ask for it in the moment in a way that won’t cause tempers to flare up even higher.
Being aware of the William James zone can also help you be more understanding of other people’s anger. If you realize that your partner is angry because of something going on in their body rather than because of anything you did, it can help put their angry outburst into perspective. A deeper understanding of what’s actually going on allows you to react with more compassion.
Furthermore, being able to realize when you are in the William James zone can help you overcome your physical anger. If you remember that sometimes anger can be purely physical, and that your brain invents random reasons to explain it, you can temper yourself before you turn that physical anger into destructive words or actions.
Kyeli’s Story: In the Zone
My William James zone lasts much longer than Pace’s. I get fired up, and it takes me a long time to calm down. At first, I felt bad about this because Pace gets over her anger quickly while I stay upset. We then learned about anger being physical, and realized that it’s not a problem, it’s a difference. My threshold is longer.
Now we have tools to help bring me out of the zone before I fall into the feedback loop and start random arguments to feed my fires. After we reach resolution, Pace will double-check with me. She’ll ask how I’m feeling and if I need to go over things again. Often, rehashing why I was upset and what resolution was reached is an effective way to remind myself that everything is now okay. She’ll hug me because physical touch reminds me how much I love her and how little I want to be angry at her. Touch has the added benefit of reminding my body that things are good, which helps break the loop. We’ll do something fun together; laughing is an excellent way to calm down.
Sometimes, we fail to take these steps. We get distracted, we end happily but abruptly, or Pace makes the usual error and forgets that my William James zone is longer than hers. Sometimes in these situations, Pace will notice the anger I’m still holding in my body and ask what’s up, providing me with a chance to connect with myself. Often I’ll reply with, “I’m still in the zone. I need a little time.”
Sometimes I can feel the zone taking hold even before we start to argue. I’ll get physically angry; my heart will start pounding, my eyebrows go down, sometimes I cross my arms, sometimes I cry. I can feel the feedback loop start: my body gets upset, so my brain finds a reason for the upset, and I’ll pick a fight with her if I’m not careful. When this happens, I can often catch myself, apologize, back off, and let her know that I was trapped in the zone. It’s certainly not an excuse to be nasty, but it helps me understand what’s happening.
For me, remembering that my zone is way longer than Pace’s really helps. I’m not broken or wrong or sick, simply different. Knowing the length of our zones helps us to communicate better and to take more gentle care of each other.
Last but not least, remember to cut yourself and your partner some slack! Remember that we are made of meat. If you get angry, that’s okay. In fact, it’s healthy to express your anger rather than repress it. It’s a natural part of the way people are made. Everyone feels anger, everyone experiences the William James zone, and different people (regardless of gender or other stereotypes) have different William James thresholds. Having a longer or shorter threshold doesn’t make you a better or worse person. The important thing is to be aware of it. Knowing about the William James zone can improve your life.
1. William James predicted this effect in 1884 in his article What is an Emotion? which was published in volume 9 of the journal Mind, on pages 188-205.