Many people come to psychotherapy for “anger management.” They may have anger problems in relation to authority, in intimate relationships, with friends, neighbors or co-workers, or brushes with friends, neighbors or co-workers, or brushes with the police due to incidents like “road rage”. The term “anger management” seems to isolate angry behavior as the problem, and makes better control of anger the goal of therapy.
When we look deeper into anger management, however, we might wonder who is the manager and who is being managed. In this case the manager and the one managed are the same person, and yet there appears to be a split. There is one side of the person who is not angry, who is supposed to manage or control the actions of the one who is angry and behaving badly. Many people have already tried a variety of anger control strategies, and the strategies have failed, leading to a sense of powerlessness and inadequacy. Most wish that their anger would just go away, but it seems that the more they try to suppress it, ignore it, disown it, detach themselves from it or punish it, the more out of control the anger seems to become, and the more often it shows up.
They may not admit it, but most people who struggle to manage their anger actually hate their anger and themselves when they get angry. This reaction to anger often causes angry people to relocate or project the cause or source of their anger to another person, event or situation. Doing so, one does not recognize the contribution of one’s own mind in causing and maintaining anger over time. Instead, there is the belief that an external someone or something “made me angry” and is the reason I’m still angry hours, days, or weeks later. Of course, the strategy of disenfranchising anger and excluding it from the “family of emotions,” (if you can think of the range of our emotions as a family), has been unsuccessful and the relationship between anger and the “anger manager” has become unworkable and toxic.
Most people are surprised when I suggest that the first step in redeeming this relationship is to change their attitude toward anger. Anger is an emotion that is not inherently destructive, but tends to become that way when we regard it as a problem, failing to appreciate that under some circumstances anger can be useful. For example, sometimes if someone has been done a great injustice, we may feel what is sometimes referred to as “righteous indignation,” which motivates us to act to right the wrong. A big ingredient in righteous indignation is anger, but of course the action we take must be skillful. Good intentions may produce unhelpful consequences if our actions are not well thought out and ethically justifiable.
The fact that anger may be useful at times when balanced by a consideration of the circumstances and our ability to act skillfully, our negative perception of anger seems to be based upon the belief that anger, rage, and its long-term partner, hatred, are the same. Anger, rage and hatred, while related, are actually not on the same branch of the emotional family tree, but our tendency associate them may make it difficult to recognize important differences.
For example, fact that anger may sometimes be useful cannot be said of rage or hatred. Think of a cozy fire in a fireplace vs. a raging forest fire. Both are fire, but one seems comforting and safe, while the other is destructive and scary. Rage is like a fire out of control, apparently sparked by even a minor event, while hatred is like a fire we can’t extinguish. In reality, most people who say they have “anger problems” actually have rage and hatred problems.
In part, because of our confusion about the differences between anger, rage and hatred, we react to anger by thinking, “I don’t like that feeling. I am a bad person when I feel angry,” which tends to make us want to avoid looking into it, or trying to understand why it is there. The truth is that when we pay attention to anger we will recognize that it comes and goes pretty quickly. When we fail to pay attention to anger, this neglect may provoke rage and hatred, which then stick around, challenging and exhausting us for a long time.
Why would someone not want to pay attention to anger? Very often it is because even a hint of anger causes fear. One may have been a victim of abuse (aggression), and/or witnessed rage, hatred and aggression in one’s family, and not had any models for expressing anger in healthy, constructive ways.
They may have been conditioned to believe that aggression is actually helpful in getting what one wants, or avoiding what one doesn’t want. They may have learned from influential people in their lives to use the threat of rage and aggression to coerce others to meet their needs or demands. Over time, they learned to identify with anger as the only path to happiness and gratification in relationships. This is sometimes called “identification with the aggressor,” a situation in which the victim of rage and aggression, out of fear, internalizes and becomes the aggressor toward others.
What has not happened in most cases is the cultivation of empathy, compassion and loving-kindness as an antidote (or cure for) anger. This means that one must first learn not see anger as an adversary that one tries to subjugate or suppress, but as a manifestation of suffering that deserves to be acknowledged and validated. This means not seeing one’s anger with the “eyes of anger,” which is like throwing gasoline on campfire, if you can imagine that! Rather, it means seeing anger with compassion.
As a therapist, I encourage my clients to cultivate a compassionate attitude, to look deeper into their anger to identify where it comes from. I try to help them to acknowledge and validate the underlying psychological wounds and pain they have not explored. I encourage the angry person not to exclude and isolate anger from the “family of emotions,” but to try to accept and understand it.
When you feel compassion and loving-kindness, you can’t feel rage and hatred at the same time. Therefore, cultivating compassion and loving-kindness toward oneself and others can override an angry impulse to harm anyone or anything. Ultimately, people come to therapy in order to feel happier. To be happy, we must be able to let go of those states of mind that make us miserable, while intentionally generating feelings of joy, patience, gratitude, forgiveness, peace and humor.
We develop negative mental habits over the period of our lifetime that predispose us to react to the range of inevitable stresses of life: traffic jams, unhelpful salespeople, car problems, rude waiters… Not only do we need to be mindful of the potential negative consequences of habitually reacting to frustration with rage, we need to mindfully recognize the benefits of responding differently, with patience, calm, empathy, generosity, compassion and loving-kindness.
We all know that habits are hard to break. To be mindful is a habit that helps people not respond to emotions, thoughts or external events impulsively and habitually. We learn to notice what we feel before we react, and to make a choice about what to do, to realize what is appropriate and helpful, and what is not. This requires practice, outside of the frustrating moment when we might want to put these new habits into action.
For practice, I recommend a type of meditation that specifically focuses on cultivating compassion and loving-kindness. Practicing meditation can help develop compassion, in the same way that weight lifting develops muscles. As an added bonus, meditation helps create greater calm, inner peace and happiness, additional antidotes to a habitually or reflexively angry mind.
It may be helpful to keep in mind what the famous Tibetan Buddhist, the Dalai Lama says about anger. “If I am sure that I can change an undesirable situation, then what is the advantage of being angry? If I’m sure that I cannot change an undesirable situation, then what is the advantage of getting angry? Either way, there appears to be no advantage to getting angry.”
Dave Tomlinson, LCSW is a therapist at Psych Choices of the Delaware Valley. To make an appointment with Dave, please use our “Request an Appointment” form or call us at 610-626-8085.