The Foundations Of Effective Anger Management:
Where to Start if You Want to Change What You Do With Your
Decker MA, LP
Sometimes it seems like anger is all around us. We continually
hear stories from the media about domestic abuse, road rage,
gang violence, and school shootings. Unfortunately, this type
of behavior is not so unusual in our society.
But is this really anger? I think not, after
working with men, women, couples, and families over the past
eighteen years in my practice as a psychologist. All too often,
we become very confused about what it really means to experience
and express the emotion of anger. To change explosive and
disrespectful anger that has become a problem in your life,
it is critical to understand what anger is and what anger
isn't and to learn how to address anger that does arise in
a more effective way.
Your anger does not have to be a destructive and hurtful
force. It does not have to create shame and remorse,
destroy relationships and intimacy, and create negative emotional
and physical consequences on the job, in your car, with your
health, and in in other important areas of your life . Rather,
it can be an energizing and useful force, helping you to build
self-confidence, self-esteem, and self-respect, and assisting
you in actually enhancing your relationships with others.
The way it goes depends on how you actually handle your anger.
Most clients who come to see me about their anger say that
they want me to "get rid of" or "eliminate"
all the anger that they feel. But that is just not the way
it works. When hostile, cynical, and desrespectful thoughts
and behaviors have been a significant part of your life, it
is unrealisitic (and perfectionistic) to think that you are,
"all of a sudden," going to become a "mellow"
and "laid back" individual.
I have had personal experience with anger issues of my own
throughout the course of my life. I will never be that "mellow"
or "laid back" person. There will always be a certain
intensity to the way I say and do things and the way I live
my life. But what I have done, what many of my clients have
done, and what you can also do, is to learn to recognize and
handle your anger more effectively when it does arise. Developing
this ability makes day-to-day living a whole lot easier for
you and the people around you. This article will give you
some things to think about and some concrete ideas about how
to recognize and intervene in the anger you feel.
The place to start to modify what you do with your
anger involves identifying the basic foundations of effective
anger management. Building a solid house requires
a good foundation. So does understanding and changing the
way you experience and express your anger. Below are thirteen
critical concepts that need to be understood and accepted
if anger is to be effectively regulated in your day-to-day
The 1st Foundation: Anger is a normal, natural human emotion.
In reality, anger is an integral part of your
humanity, absolutely necessary for your emotional and physical
well-being. Anger is a fact of life and was part of our survival
as a species in earlier times. How you handle your anger determines
whether it is a helpful or destructive force in your life.
Anger can be appropriate and positive whenever it is expressed
respectfully and effectively. The wonderful thing about your
anger is that it can truly be a source of discovery for you.
It can tell you that "something important is going on"
within or around you that needs to be attended to. It can
clarify and tell you who you are: what you like and dislike;
what your personal limits and boundaries are; when a "core
hurt" from the past has been activated by a person or
situation in the present; when something is threatening to
you; when you have compromised yourself in some way; or when
an injustice has been done to you or someone you care about.
Anger can also be a catalyst, a tool to promote assertiveness
and personal empowerment, and a motivator when you use it
to move toward effective and productive problem-solving, limit-setting,
and conflict resolution. Anger can even actually serve as
a "gift" to others which can increase the potential
for closeness in your relationships with them. This occurs
because, when you respectfully share anger or any of the emotions
you experience, you have taken the risk to become vulnerable
with another person. As a result of this, you have invited
them into your "space" to dialogue with you about
the issue or situation that has triggered your feelings in
the first place. This is the road to trust and intimacy.
The 2nd Foundation: Anger is not the same thing as hostility,
cynicism, withdrawal, aggression, abuse, or violence.
This is an especially tough idea for many
people to grasp, especially if you have grown up in a shaming
and abusive family or experienced bullying, ridicule, and
humiliation at the hands of others outside your family during
your childhood (or if you yourself behaved in these ways with
One of the most important steps in learning to experience
and express your anger differently is to break this mental
equation between anger and abuse. Anger does NOT equal cynicism,
hostility, aggression, and violent behavior, nor does it equal
a punishing emotional withdrawal like sulking, pouting, or
ignoring. The emotion of anger is not what I was talking about
in the examples in the first paragraph of this article. Those
behaviors are, in reality, distortions and perversions of
anger as an emotion. Anger the emotion is very different from
The 3rd Foundation: How we express anger is learned, primarily
from important people in our childhood.
Frustration does NOT automatically lead to
aggression, despite much of what has been espoused by "experts"
in the past. Recent research clearly indicates that this is
not even true in the animal kingdom, which is where this way
of thinking arose. How you express our anger is not simply
an "instinctual" or biochemically determined process.
In fact, the most important part of how we express anger is
learned. This is not to say that there are not genetic predispositions
to depression, anxiety, irritability, and other emotional
states. But how you express and act these out is clearly related
to what you have experienced in the living of your life.
One way to think about this learning process is to start
to realize that the family where you grew up is literally
like a laboratory where you learned how to be a human being.
If anger was "acted-out" in a hurtful, punishing,
or disrespectful way in the family where you were raised,
you had powerful role models who essentially molded how you
experience and express your anger and how you look at yourself
and the world around you. The same is true of your experience
with peers and others, even strangers, in your childhood.
If you were picked on, ridiculed, or bullied as a child or
if you did those things to others, you were also given messages
about anger and dealing with other people. When you respond
in ways similar to what you saw or experienced, you are living
out a destructive "life script" that was written
for you by the important people in your environment. But this
script isn't "written in stone." It can be altered.
And you are the one who has the responsibility for doing just
When you slow down and actually think about what you are
experiencing and doing, you can begin to intervene in the
escalation process that, for some, ends in disrespectful,
punishing, or abusive behavior.
The 4th Foundation: Both men and women receive strong cultural
messages about how to express anger.
Both men and women are programmed by our families
and society-at-large to express anger in particular ways,
although these ways are certainly changing some in recent
decades, especially for women. In general, men are taught
to become aggressive and lash out at others when they are
angry. Think about masculine images on TV, in the movies,
and in sports and business settings. What do many men in the
movies do when they confront a difficult situation? They "kick
butt!" And we often talk about men who are angry and
assertive as "tough," "strong," "confident,"
and "take-charge guys." These sorts of family and
societal messages invite many men to communicate their anger
in hurtful and disrespectful ways.
Women. on the other hand, are frequently taught to become
passive and "polite," withdraw from potential conflict,
and "stuff" the anger that they feel. What do we
call women who are angry and assertive? It does not take long
to think of the one word that our culture uses to describe
that behavior in women. And it does not have a positive connotation.
This does not mean that women do not get angry. They do. Often,
people who are consistently passive carry a huge reservoir
of resentment. In a study of 535 women ages 25 to 66 entitled
Women and Anger, edited by Sandra Thomas, she reported that
women frequently get angry, most often at husbands and co-workers.
She also found that, the younger a woman, the more likely
she was to get angry and express it directly. In addition,
she reported that women over 55 reported the least anger.
This also does not mean that women cannot be disrespectful
and punishing. They can. It is not okay for either men or
women to allow their anger to become demeaning and abusive
with partners, children, or others. There are also anger management
classes available for women based on the principles discussed
in this article.
These stereotypes are certainly not accurate for everyone
and in many ways may be changing at this time in history but
there is still some validity in them for many men and women.
It is helpful to be aware of how these messages may have affected
you personally if you are going to do something different
with anger that has become a problem for you.
The 5th Foundation: We need to be honest with ourselves
about our anger and how it affects us and others.
Addressing anger effectively means that you
need to do an honest self-examination about whether your anger
is creating problems, for you or those around you. Denying
that anger is a problem when it is actually taking a toll
on your life is never helpful.
Noticing how others respond to you when you are angry (e.g.
do they "shy away" or seem fearful and intimidated?)
and listening to others' verbal feedback about how they are
reacting to you (i.e. do people tell you directly that they
do not like how you express your anger?) can be helpful "reality
tests." Often chronically angry people do not think much
about how they are impacting and affecting those around them.
Being honest with yourself about whether you have experienced
consequences like the loss of important relationships or even
legal problems can be another way to assess whether you need
to do something different with your anger.
Finally, it is important to be clear about whether chemical
use and mental health issues may be contributing to what happens
with your anger. This does not mean that either of these "causes"
your anger problem. But it does mean that it is critical to
notice whether there is a connection between alcohol and drug
use and disrespectful anger or whether there are underlying
issues like depression or anxiety that are part of what needs
to be addressed in looking at your anger. If these issues
do exist and they are not adequately addressed, little will
probably change about how you handle your anger.
The 6th Foundation: Anger and other feelings are our responsibility.
No one "makes" you become explosive,
punishing, or disrespectful. Others can certainly trigger
and contribute to anger and other emotional reactions you
experience, but no one has the power to "cause"
you to feel or behave in a certain way. In fact, different
people can experience very different reactions to exactly
the same situation or person. And, the very same trigger that
can create a powerful angry reaction in you on one occasion
can provoke a very different and more positive response when
you are in "upbeat" and happy mood. Your feelings
come from within you and are a unique and complicated mixture
of biology and your life experiences. Ultimately, you need
to realize this and become accountable for them.
So often, we expect others to "fix" our feelings
or "make us feel better." And when they do not do
this (because, in reality, they can't), we then have even
more reason to respond with frustration or punishing and explosive
behavior. At some point this process needs to stop. You will
never be willing to handle your anger differently if it is
someone else's responsibility to do it for you.
The 7th Foundation: How we express our anger is a choice.
It may feel like you are "out of control"
and have no choice about how you get angry, but the reality
is that you are constantly making decisions, even if they
are not apparent to you at this point in your life. I often
hear from clients that they "just saw red," "were
completely out of it," and "didn't know what they
were doing" when they acted out in a destructive and
explosive fashion either toward others or themselves . But,
in fact, you are continually making choices about how you
express your anger and "feeling" out of control
is very different from "being" out of control.
Think about whether you get explosive or disrespectful when
you get angry at work or in a public setting like a restaurant.
If you don't, why not? Probably because you could get some
serious consquences if you allowed this to happen: you might
get fired from your job and lose your livelihood or someone
might intervene and actually call the police.
Start to notice places where you may be handling your anger
differently. You can build on this knowledge to learn how
to handle it more effectively elsewhere as well. An important
part of the process of change is to look for times when you
are willing to handle your anger more effectively and respectfully.
These can form a blueprint for what needs to happen in other
situations where you want to do something different.
The 8th Foundation: Acting out or ventilating anger is
not helpful in effectively addressing and discharging it.
In the 1960's and 1970's, it was common practice
to encourage angry people to strike pillows with fists and
bats, hit punching bags and "bobo dolls," all the
while screaming expletives at the top of their lungs. Since
that time, research has clearly disproved these methods as
effective ways to help people learn to handle their explosive
First of all, ventilation (e.g. yelling and screaming)
and catharsis (acting out anger in a physical manner) tend
to increase rather than decrease our physical arousal level,
making us more likely to respond with disrespectful anger
whenever we perceive "provocations" by those around
us. Secondly, these sorts of behaviors circumvent our abilities
to think more rationally about what we want to do and essentially
train us to lash out at others. This sets the stage for explosive
anger and abusive behavior to actually be directed at other
One of the most disturbing examples of the problems related
to acting out anger came when I was working with a domestic
abuse client in the early 1990's. He reported to me that he
had used this "ventilation intervention" in the
late 1970's with a therapist who was supposed to be helping
him learn how to deal with his anger. The therapist had him
go to his knees on the floor, pound his fists into a pillow,
and yell and scream whatever came to mind as he was doing
this. When I asked him how that had seemed to work for him
at the time, he responded by saying, "I thought it worked
great. In fact, I could actually see my wife's face on the
pillow as I punched the hell out of it." Keep in mind
that, over a decade later, he was now court-ordered to attend
domestic abuse treatment.
The 9th Foundation: We often lapse into ineffective and
destructive patterns and "dances" when expressing
All too often, we lapse into unproductive
and damaging patterns and "dances" of expressing
anger, especially with those who are important to us. Frequently,
it may even feel like we are on "automatic pilot:"
We respond to something that has happened, the other person
reacts to what we have said or done, we react to them, they
react to us, and the process continues without much thought
or awareness, eventually leading to hurt feelings and emotional
These "dances" may occur between spouses over
issues like dividing up household chores or one partner watching
too much TV. They could occur between parents and children
over the kids not picking up after themselves or not doing
their homework. They could occur with co-workers over someone
not attending to job tasks that need to get done.
If you think about it, expressing anger ineffectively in
these "dances" is a lot like the relationship between
a puppet and puppeteer. Someone else is "pulling your
strings" and determining what you do in a particular
situation. You essentially give away your personal power to
be who really want to be. Part of what is important to realize
is that you can take a different "dance step" at
any point in this "power struggle" process and figure
out what makes more sense to you than simply repeating the
same old interaction. This allows you to identify and follow
your own "game plan" for who you want to be, which
can often lead to more effective problem-solving and conflict
The 10th Foundation: Handling anger poorly can create significant
consequences in many areas of our lives.
The potential consequences related to explosive
or disrespectful anger are myriad and create enormous havoc
in many peoples' lives. In your family, you can create emotional
distance; a decrease in trust, safety, and intimacy; and eventually
even the complete loss of relationships with your loved ones
through separation and divorce. Legally, explosive and abusive
behavior can lead to restraining orders, arrests, probation,
and even time in jail. On the job, disrespectful anger can
lead to being suspended or put on "probation" for
acting out at work, quitting abruptly due to continually feeling
hostile and dissatisfied, or even to getting fired. And finally,
don't forget your physical well-being. Hostile and cynical
attitudes and explosive and punishing anger can lead to significant
health consequences, including headaches, chest pain, and
even major cardiovascular problems like heart attacks and
The 11th Foundation: Handling anger effectively can create
self-esteem, self-respect, self-confidence, and the potential
for trust and intimacy in relationships.
If you actually learn how to handle your anger
and make it a useful and productive force in your life, you
can end up feeling better about yourself and the people who
are a part of your day-to-day living. By the way, they will
also end up feeling better about you and the relationship
they have with you. Another by-product of doing this is that
you are able to generate a belief that you can handle what
comes up in your life, no matter what the issue, problem,
or conflict happens to be. That is a very empowering stance,
since stresses and frustrations will continue to be a part
of your life for as long as you are on this earth. The goal
in life is not to completely avoid stress and aggravation
but rather to learn to handle them effectively when they arise.
The 12th Foundation: We can, in fact, actually change the
way we experience and express our anger.
In both my own life and in my clients' lives,
I have seen this happen over and over again. There is a myth
in this culture that "angry people can never change."
This is a lie. You do not have to stay stuck in the same old
destructive ways of dealing with your anger and hostility.
The ultimate goal in effective anger management is to take
back the power to be who you really want to be and to be a
proactive player in your life rather than simply being reactive
and allowing others to determine who you are, how you feel,
and how you act. There is no mystery or magic to this process
of changing who you have been. It is just plain hard work.
But, if you open yourself to learning new ways to deal with
your anger, you can be among those who actually make a difference
in creating a saner, more peaceful, and safer world for all.
The 13th Foundation: Changing what we do with our anger
is an ongoing and lifelong process.
There are no "quick fixes" when
it comes to learning to deal more effectively with your anger
if it has become an issue in your daily living and has negatively
impacted your own life and the lives of those around you.
The reality is that it takes conscious awareness of who you
are and how you are responding to what happens within and
around you and a willingness to expend the necessary time
and energy to focus on changing the destructive habits you
have developed from the past. As is frequently noted in Alcoholic
Anonymous, the process of change related to abusing alcohol
or drugs occurs "a day at a time." This is also
true for your anger. If you have been an angry and hostile
person, it is unlikely that you will magically become a "mellow"
and "laid-back" individual. But, with hard work,
you do have the potential to dramatically alter your disrespectful
and damaging attitudes and behaviors and live a much more
satisfying and fulfilling life in the present.
If anger has created problems for you, start to question
how you have previously thought about your anger.
Consider and try to put into practice some of the ideas presented
above. They can offer helpful guideposts for beginning to
change how you experience and express your anger in the future.
Your anger does not have to be a "dark side," a
shadowy sinister part of you that comes out of nowhere and
destroys much of what could be good in your life. You have
the power to acknowledge and get to know your anger so that
you take charge of it rather than it taking charge of you.
Make a commitment to yourself and the ones you love to address
your anger if it has become an issue for you. Doing this can
literally be a life-changing experience.
© 1996 David J. Decker, MA, LP
Phone: 612-725-8402 or 651-646-4325 - www.ANGEResources.com