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The Foundations Of Effective Anger Management:
Where to Start if You Want to Change What You Do With Your Anger

by Dave 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 life.

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 others).

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 this.

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 that.

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 anger.

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 human beings.

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 anger.

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 distance.

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 resolution.

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 strokes.

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.

Some things to think about related to this article


© 1996 David J. Decker, MA, LP
Phone: 612-725-8402 or 651-646-4325 -





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