I’ve taught anger management to groups of police officers, incarcerated felons, Marine drill instructors, and school teachers, as well as to many individuals – some of them referred by the Family Court. A lot of people with anger problems are highly resistant to attending anger management classes or counseling sessions, so I’ve had to learn how to get past people’s defenses if I was going to help them.
My definition of anger management took a lot of people by surprise. “Anger management,” I’d say, “doesn’t mean that you don’t get angry anymore, or that you can control when you get angry. Everybody gets angry, and sometimes anger can be a good thing. Anger management simply means that no matter how angry you feel, you can still make good decisions and you don’t do things you’ll have reasons to regret later. It means that you don’t let your anger control you.”
Nobody has absolute control over their emotions. Sometimes we feel carried away by them; it’s part of the human condition. People aren’t accountable for what they think and feel, but for what they do. In certain situations, like combat, anger may help you to survive. But if your anger creates problems in your life, you can learn to stay in control of your behavior when angry. In order to do this you first need to understand some things about how your anger affects you: your personal triggers and cues, and your choices.
The roots of anger in childhood. You’re less likely to have anger problems if you grew up in an environment where your primary role models practiced anger management. Some parents know the right words to say to their kids: “Just because you’re angry at your brother, that doesn’t give you permission to hit him.” But role modeling works better than lecturing, and if adults can’t practice what they preach, their children learn more from what they do than from what they say. If you grew up with physical or emotional or sexual abuse, you’re not necessarily destined to have anger problems, but it’s more likely that you will. Bad tempers aren’t an inherited trait; but if you have one, you probably came by it honestly. If we were taught by our social environment that violence is a solution to interpersonal conflicts, we need to learn that there are better solutions.
Abraham Maslow said that if the only tool you have is a hammer, you’re likely to treat every problem as a nail. Some people learn to rely on anger and physically- or verbally-aggressive behavior, using intimidation tactics and threats to get their way, and resorting to violence when they don’t. Sometimes people take out their anger, not on the person who triggered it, but on those weaker than themselves. Dad yells at Mom, then Mom smacks Junior, who kicks the dog. It’s called displacement.
Triggers. The first step in learning anger management is to be aware when you’re angry. This may sound elementary, but often people who are angry are focused on externals, not on their here-and-now feelings. “I’m not ANGRY, you messed up!” People have different triggers for anger, and awareness of your triggers can help you to own what you’re feeling right now, and take those feelings into account when you choose how to respond to the situation. Sometimes the best thing to say is something like, “Look, I’m just too angry to continue this now. Give me time to chill and we can take up where we left off.” Personal insults, taunts, or sarcasm may or may not be triggers for you. Tone and loudness of voice, and body language, may be triggers if they remind you of someone with similar features. Situations (i.e. traffic jams) can be triggers. We all have identifiable triggers, and it helps to know what they are.
Cues are physical sensations we predictably experience when we’re in a specific emotional state, although a focus on the triggering experience might eclipse our awareness of our subjective state. Common cues for anger are a rapid heartbeat, heavy or rapid breathing, tensed muscles, a flushed face, and an adrenaline rush. Awareness of your cues in the here-and-now can help you to recognize and own your anger, and make good decisions despite it.
Owning your anger means not blaming others, or external circumstance like traffic jams, for what you feel. As a therapist I’ve encountered many people who typically, reflexively blamed others for their feelings, rather than owning them. “You make me so angry when you talk to me that way” is a cop-out, a manipulation. If others are responsible for your anger, then they need to change their behavior to stop “making you mad.” The idea that others will always have the power to make you mad puts you at a disadvantage in relationships. It’s much more rational to think of it as, “When you talk to me that way, I get angry.” If you don’t own your anger, you give away your personal power. If you own your anger, you can learn how to make decisions you can live with, no matter how angry you are at the time.
Physical anger management. Here are some suggestions for physical things you can do to deal with angry feelings. (1) Vote with your feet. Walk away from the triggering situation, if that’s an option. Stay away until you calm down. (2) Slow your breathing. You don’t have an on/off switch for your anger, but breathing slowly has a physiological calming effect. (3) Physicalize your anger. Once you have the opportunity, release your anger by exerting yourself in harmless ways: do pushups, run, shadowbox, work out on a punching bag, or whale away at your bed with a pillow.
Mental anger management. In teaching anger management, I’ve compared anger to building a campfire. You can’t start one without an initial flame or spark, and once it’s started you need to keep adding fuel, or it will go out. First you ignite twigs from the spark, then you throw branches on the blaze, then logs. Anger is like that. It starts with a spark (trigger) and needs fuel to grow. The fuel that’s required for momentary anger to grow into a rage is angry thoughts. All people engage in self-talk. Some of it helps us to feel compassion for others and to make rational decisions, some of it can lead us to do irrational things that we’ll regret later. Rational self-talk (“She didn’t mean to hurt my feelings.”) can extinguish a blaze of anger, while irrational self-talk (“He needs to get his butt kicked!”) can turn a spark into a bonfire. Rational thinking will be a continuing topic here. It’s a cornerstone of cognitive therapy.