Part one of a four-part series on anger
Let’s be honest. All of us get angry now and then. Anger is built into our biology. It’s completely normal to experience some degree of anger when we think we have been wrongly blamed, rejected, misunderstood, or ignored. In fact, anger often emerges automatically. For example, our brains are hardwired to become highly alert and impulsively agitated if our children or loved ones are threatened, hurt, or mistreated. These reactions were helpful in our evolutionary past when threats were directed to our food sources, territory, or life itself. Today, in contrast, most threats are verbal or social in nature as when we discover others think we are not intelligent or attractive or trustworthy, or when we discover they are gossiping about us behind our backs. These modern-day triggers do not call for a strong anger or aggressive reaction. Unfortunately, the importance and power of such insults is frequently blown way out of proportion.
Milder anger. Some mild and moderate anger can be positive, operating like an internal GPS system – signaling that something isn’t right and energizing us to face a problem that is being avoided, to stick up for ourselves, or to make an important life change. Anger can also lead to zest, excitement, and passion. Anger, at this milder end of the spectrum, is life-enhancing.
Stronger anger. In contrast, sometimes anger gets out of hand. The most regrettable and cringe-worthy things you or your clients have done were probably fueled by anger. If asked what caused anger in those moments, most of us automatically blame other people or particular circumstances. We hear it all the time from friends and family members, as well as clients and colleagues. They exclaim such things as, “My?boyfriend pissed me off”, “My children made me so angry”, “My boss infuriates me”, “It’s the traffic that makes me want to explode”, “Those &%@* neighbors shouldn’t leave their trash out all day long! They really tick me off”! The problem with such statements is that they sneakily reinforce the idea that moderate to strong anger is an automatic and uncontrollable reaction to unwanted and aversive situations that is fully caused by others or by circumstances. If your clients, or you, see the causes of anger as wholly external, it will always be someone else’s fault. This attitude will undermine the self-reflection and motivation necessary to reduce anger reactions in the future.
When anger is strong, occurs too frequently, or lasts too long, it contributes to significant loss and suffering. Such negative outcomes are all around us. Think about how many family, relationship, or occupational conflicts you have witnessed that resulted from anger. Or, think about the marital and family violence that has followed angry, verbal arguments. We have all witnessed the dysfunctional results of feeling angry, or of being the recipient of someone else’s anger. These include a wide range of negative outcomes such as ruined relationships, derailed careers, impulsive and destructive decisions, road rage, severe cardiovascular medical problems, and violence, just to name a few.
Three tips. Given this background, here are some take away treatment tips:
1) Help clients recognize that holding on to anger and bitterness, and staying stuck in a cycle of self-justification, is more likely to be harmful than helpful. This can be accomplished by exploring the outcomes of specific anger episodes (e.g., “What good came out of your anger in this situation?”; “What was not so good about your anger in this situation?”). Angry clients typically do not appreciate that their anger is more destructive for them than for the target of their anger.
2) Think about how your clients describe their reactions to unwanted situations. Beyond being alert to their tendency to blame others or external factors for their reactions, be on the lookout for language that suggests a pessimistic belief that change is not possible because they have “always been this way” or because “anger runs in the family.” Instead, foster an optimistic outlook. Help them understand that with effort and practice, managing anger is possible and you are there to help them in the process.
3) Ask clients to consider their role, no matter how small, in the events that led to strong anger episodes. Use non-blaming statements, such as, “Although I recognize how bad [the other person’s] actions were, I wonder if there was anything you could have done that might have led to a better outcome?”
One of the first steps towards anger reduction rests on learning to take personal responsibility for feeling angry and recognizing that strong and long-lasting anger is really a form of self-inflicted distress. The negative parts of the world will always exist, but all of us can learn skills to reduce excessive anger, negotiate better outcomes, and manage personal environments in order to live a happier life.
There are many useful anger management skills out there. We’ll touch on some and provide additional tips in this series.
Howard Kassinove, PhD, ABPP, is a board-certified clinical psychologist, former chairperson of the psychology department at Hofstra University, and past director of their PhD program in clinical and school psychology. Kassinove is a fellow of the American Psychological Association, the American Psychological Society, the Albert Ellis Institute, and the Behavior Therapy and Research Society. Editor of Anger Disorders, he has published more than sixty papers, and has lectured widely in the United States, Europe, and Asia.
Raymond Chip Tafrate, PhD, is a clinical psychologist, and professor in the criminology and criminal justice department at Central Connecticut State University. He is a fellow and supervisor at the Albert Ellis Institute in New York City, NY; and a member of the Motivational Interviewing Network of Trainers. He frequently consults with criminal justice agencies and programs regarding difficult-to-change problems such as anger dysregulation and criminal behavior. He has coauthored numerous books, and has presented his research throughout North America, Europe, Asia, and Australia. He is coauthor, with Howard Kassinove, of the popular self-help classic, Anger Management for Everyone.