People who have an anger management problem often believe that the only way to control their anger is to avoid expressing it.
Of course, it makes sense to avoid destructive outbursts of anger. But avoidance alone is not a sustainable, long-term way to effectively control anger, because it creates its own problems.
The vicious cycle
You are afraid that, once you start feeling your anger, it will be impossible to control. As a result, you bottle up your anger – not expressing it, sometimes not even allowing yourself to feel it.
The feelings stay bottled up… The pressure builds up… And then, suddenly, the volcano erupts!
All kinds of bad consequences follow. For one, your behavior is hurtful to others. But it is also hurtful to yourself, in many ways.
Outbursts of anger are often counterproductive: People reject what you are asking for, at the same time as they reject the way you are asking for it. Or you get what you want but at a cost!
Outbursts of anger also give you a low opinion of yourself: You had thought you could control your anger, and you find yourself controlled by it. All of this leaves you with a more intense sense of pressure, which fuels the vicious cycle!
What can you do, then, if bottling up your anger is not a sustainable solution? You need to realize that there is a big difference between experiencing anger… and acting it out in rageful, destructive ways.
The way to break this vicious cycle is to learn to recognize anger (as well as other difficult feelings) early on, and to develop appropriate ways to deal with these feelings.
Understanding anger, and emotions in general
To effectively deal with emotions, including anger, it helps to keep in mind what emotions are. All too often, people describe emotions as “irrational” and believe that, because they are irrational, they can be simply dismissed by focusing on rational thinking.
Emotions are irrational, indeed, in the sense that they do not stem from the same mind processes as rational thinking. But emotions have their own logic, which is potentially more powerful than rational thinking.
Emotions have been honed through ages and ages of our evolutionary process. Fear and anger are the mechanisms that allowed us to survive and thrive in the face of danger.
Fear and anger are not just ideas. They are deep physiological reactions, similar to the fight/flight response we can observe in animals in the wild. Our organism gathers extreme levels of energy to enable us to fight or flee. At the same time, all non-essential functions shut down: For instance, the flow of blood and oxygen to the brain is sharply reduced; this is the physiological basis for the expression “blinded by anger”.
Being “blinded by anger” may seem stupid, but there is a profound logic in it, developed empirically through ages and ages of evolution. Think of an animal being attacked: its chances of survival are enhanced by its ability to focus its energy on fight or flight. A “deer in the headlights” is less likely to survive than one who jumps to one side or the other.
So it helps to remember that even a reaction as apparently stupid as being “blinded by anger” has its own logic. It is a very logical response to the perception that we are under a major threat, a threat so dangerous that all our resources have to be mobilized to face it here and now, without any moment to waste.
Of course, I am not writing the above to justify giving in to blind anger. I am writing this because understanding what happens in anger will help you put your efforts where they can be effective, instead of pursuing approaches that are doomed because they fly in the face of deeply ingrained mechanisms.
A proactive approach: Changing the experience of anger
The ultimate goal, effectively controlling anger, means learning to calibrate how you express anger in a way that is appropriate to the situation. We’re talking about calibrating, modulating, managing the expression of anger. But that is very hard to do when you are triggered.
In the above section, about Understanding Emotions, I described how the intensity of your reaction is related to how intensely threatening you perceive the situation to be. When you sense you are facing a major threat, it’s going to be difficult to will yourself to stay calm. Even if you manage to stay outwardly calm, pressure is going to build inside as you keep feeling under threat.
So the focus of our work is going to be on changing the way you experience anger.
We will go through a “slow-motion replay” of the difficult moments when you get angry. Together, we will go right into the eye of the storm: We will explore together what happens, in a gentle, curious, and accepting way. We will be dealing with the difficult experiences in manageable amounts, so that progressive change is possible, and you develop confidence in your ability to confront triggers.
We will be also paying attention to body awareness, the felt sense of what happens because anger is not just an idea, it is an intense physiological experience.
Paying attention to body sensations helps you feel grounded in the physical experience of being angry, as opposed to being blinded by anger. It allows you, over time, to “renegotiate” how you perceive the triggers that activate you so that your nervous system is not in a state of intense activation. With a calmer nervous system, you are naturally able to modulate the expression of your anger in a way that is appropriate and effective.
Change doesn’t happen instantly. Success comes from both getting insights into what triggers you, and practicing new habits. Supportive coaching helps you overcome the ups and downs that are a normal part of the process of change.
As you stick with this process, you start noticing changes in the way you react to difficult situations. You notice that you can be effective without being destructive, in fact much more so. And, as you act differently, you experience yourself as a different person: The person you really want to be.