Anger management counselling
This article looks at three different types of anger; anger in its outward expression, in its inward expression, and the constructive use of anger. I then ask if anger management therapy can somehow find a balance between them.
Anger, a feeling like any other, is a part of each of us. We’ve all experienced some level of anger in our lives, ranging from the mildest irritation to the darkest rage. Typically, when we think about ‘anger issues’ our thoughts tend to the more volcanic end of the spectrum; to anger’s more disruptive, destructive qualities, But, like all things, anger has a flipside, and in learning to channel our rage more constructively it can be important to remind ourselves of anger’s more positive qualities. Anger management therapy can help give us this perspective.
A natural emotion, anger is an integral part of our evolutionary make up, which in less civilised periods of our history helped us detect and respond to threatening situations. In more modern times, anger can remain an ally, telling us what we will or will not tolerate; where our boundaries lie as we make our way through life.
On occasion, anger is an appropriate response; a natural response to being unfairly hurt, criticised, or violated. Anger can also motivate us, pushing us onwards to achieve the things we want in life. It gives us the impetus to change those aspects of our lives that we’re not happy with.
Without these positive qualities of anger, we might find ourselves buffeted about by life events. And, if only we could confine anger within such constructive channels, it needn’t ever concern us.
Types of anger: Outward anger…
When we think of anger, we most often think of anger that is projected outwards.Unfortunately this sort of anger all too often slips out of our control. Like a trashing wild bull we can’t seem to keep a grip and it causes havoc for us – destroying the china shops of our lives – eventually affecting our relationships, our health, and our overall happiness.
Often small things that don’t appear to warrant strong anger can cause intense feelings or explosive outbursts. Perhaps some small thing has made us so angry we’ve wanted to lash out, shout or throw something. Or perhaps somebody has inflicted what may seem to others a petty injury, yet seems to us a substantial wound. We may find ourselves so enraged we feel like shouting at them or wanting to hurt them. This sort of angry outburst – acted out often enough – has a devastating impact on our relationships – both personal and professional. This causes us even more misery.
A surge of anger can escalate rather than solves problems. In some, extreme cases, its counter-productivity is matched by its dangerousness. This kind of outburst – if it leads to some sort of violent confrontation – puts us and those close to us in danger. As Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius put it in Meditations, ‘How much more grievous are the consequences of anger than the causes of it.’
The absurdity of anger
We may begin to recognise this anger has an irrational quality. For example, when we hurt ourselves with our own anger. Perhaps we meet someone – a friend or a stranger – and they say something intended to insult us. They only intended to insult us once but we take and repeat it in our minds, perhaps ten times, perhaps a hundred times, perhaps for the rest of our lives, insulting ourselves multiple times over. By holding our finger down on the replay button, we prolong the injury. This seems absurd.
Rather than ever admit such absurdity to ourselves or to others, we instead take solace in the nobility of our cause. Fortified in our righteousness, we assure ourselves that our acting out is warranted.
To admit we may be wrong or overreacting would be to show weakness, when we’ve gone to such lengths – by displaying our anger – to show strength.
There is a second type of anger, a type which finds inward expression. This can be divided into either repressed or suppressed anger.
We repressed our anger when we’ve were given the message that it wasn’t ok to feel angry. Perhaps we’ve were taught as children that being angry wasn’t nice. So we developed ways of squashing our anger down, of keeping it safely hidden away. Often we repressed it to the extent that we are quite unaware of how angry we truly are. Then as adults we find ourselves feeling guilty when we harbour malevolent feelings or when we secretly plot revenge, especially towards our loved ones. Rather than admit to this ugly side of ourselves, we hide ourselves from ourselves. Such unruly emotions threaten our kindly or sympathetic self-image and so we keep our anger hidden in the shadows.
…and suppressed anger
Suppressed anger – anger slightly more to the surface – often manifests non-verbally, for example when a partner or colleague is subjected to the silent treatment. Passive-aggressive communication becomes another way suppressed anger finds expression, for example via sarcasm or ‘humour’. Conversation has become too difficult for us and so we find other ways to communicate. These modes of expression may seem beneficial in the short-term – if nothing else as a punishment for our persecutors – but ultimately they are unhelpful. These communications don’t really express the things that truly bother us. The way we’ve learned to express ourselves as infants no longer serve us as adults. Anger management therapy has yet to teach us that catharsis is possible with good communication.
Suppressed or repressed anger often has the unfortunate effect of turning back in on us. In doing so it becomes self-destructive, eating us up inside. This can lead to illness or to symptoms such as depression or low self-esteem. Unable to cope with such feelings, some of us turn to self-harm or to substance abuse. Preferring not to hurt others, we become the target of our own anger.
The Buddha said non-expression of anger is like holding a hot coal. We intend to throw it at someone else, but – in not letting go – we end up burning ourselves.
Anger management therapy
How then do we find a balance between these two extremes? Is it possible to express our anger without hurting others? If we take our anger away, won’t we be left defenceless?
The first thing to remember is that anger management therapy is not about getting ‘rid’ of our anger. Instead, we attempt to understand it; both its causes and effects. From there we try find a healthier way to express ourselves, channelling our anger from destructive and into constructive outlets.
One of the first things is learning to recognise what precipitates our outward anger. In learning what triggers our anger and we develop the skills we need to handle ourselves more effectively. Seneca, another Stoic, wrote an entire book on anger (aptly titled ‘On Anger’). On the subject of what those triggers he wrote, ‘the best course is to treat the sickness as soon as it becomes apparent … detecting one’s passion, as soon as it arises: diseases have symptoms as their harbingers.’ If we deal with the ‘symptom’ as soon as it appears, we won’t have to suffer the ‘illness’.
You can run, but you can’t hide
However much we might try, we can’t control the external situations that provoke our anger. Similarly, trying to escape or hide from external circumstances has the same result. We always carry ourselves with us; wherever we go, there we are after all. and even though we move to a different country or found a new partner or new job, we react just as we did before. Try as we might, we can’t outrun ourselves. Anger management therapy can teach us to manage our internal attitude to both the people and situations that provoke us. Ultimately, it’s much better to change our own mind-set than to change the minds of everyone and everything around us.
For the individual with repressed anger, we begin the difficult work of uncovering. This starts with first recognising the anger, then recognising the ways it has been harmful to us. With further work we uncover the root of our rage and/or the reasons we repressed it. Armed with this knowledge – and in the safety of the therapy room – we slowly begin to find a way to express our anger outwardly.
Owning your feelings
In anger management counselling we work to uncover any other emotions that might be hidden underneath our rage. This could be fear or shame, guilt or embarrassment. We sometimes discover our anger is a mask that cloaks some part of us we’d prefer wasn’t found. It’s easier to project onto others rather than face the vulnerabilities within ourselves. In digging under the surface – though we may not always like what we find – we begin to discover our true selves. And though that truth may sometimes be ugly, it will set us free. Or as Erin Brockovich put it, ‘the truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off!’.
Ultimately, we learn to take responsibility for our angry feelings – owning them – and not act them out in destructive ways. In doing so we learn to communicate in more effective ways, bringing harmony to our relationships. In learning to manage our anger constructively we can contribute to success in our professional lives.