Anger is powerful. Anger can lead to destructive behaviors that harm you and your relationships. Countless individuals come to therapy every year in order to receive “anger management”. So many that the idea of anger management in therapy has become cliché and has been parodied over and over again in movies and television. My first name for this post was “Anger Management – You’re Doing it WRONG!” because I’ve seen so many people looking at anger management as a means to learn how to never get angry. You may be thinking “Well isn’t that the whole point?” Nope. Not at all. In this post, I’ll explain some of the problems with how many view anger, an alternative way to approach anger, and some things that you can do to get a better handle on any anger issues you may be experiencing. I’ll also briefly discuss some of my experiences growing up in the punk scene and the snake oil salesman who try to sell you some magic method to no longer experience anger.
Anger Deniers and the Consequences
If I had a nickel for every time I had a client in my office say to me “I don’t know what they’re talking about! I don’t have any problems with anger. I don’t get angry.” I could retire early and instead of writing this blog I’d be traveling across Europe. Strange thing is that most of these clients are in my office for “anger management” where they were either court mandated due to violent crimes, given an ultimatum by a family member, or are in couple’s therapy struggling with problems in their relationship or marriage. The people who “never get angry” always seem to have the worst problems with anger.
There are a few reasons I believe the anger deniers are the ones with the worst problems related to anger. First and foremost, by denying chronic issues with anger control, you lose touch with your own reality. There becomes a disconnect with your experiences and your thoughts. An example would be the person yelling at the top of their lungs “I’m not angry!” while stomping around in a fit of rage. I’m willing to bet that you’ve seen this happen with someone at least once in your life. Aside from not taking the necessary steps to calm themselves, they’re perpetuating the idea that being angry is wrong or shameful within itself. This will only make the problem cyclical. It goes something like this:
Person believes that anger is wrong or shameful
Person is angry but convinces themselves they’re not angry so they don’t have to experience shame ->
since they don’t believe they can possibly be angry they don’t do anything healthy or proactive to manage feelings ->
Eventually, their anger spills over into unhealthy habits (physical/emotional abuse of self and/or others, substance abuse, destructive behaviors) ->
People around them chastise them saying they have an anger problem and say they need to be less angry.
Anger is not bad. It’s not good. It just is….
There are so many ways in which parts of society shame people for simply having emotions. Men are still often told that they’re not real men if they cry and that they should toughen up and don’t show their feelings. Women are continuously faced with negative stereotypes of being overly-emotional or unable to control their emotions. Many new age practices preach that they can “free” people of anger or help them get to a place where they don’t experience anger any more. There is such a push to try to make people more stoic.
These ideas are all toxic. Having emotions is part of being human. It’s part of being alive. Emotions are hardwired into our evolutionary biology. Feeling an emotion is a natural response to our experience in the environment as it relates to our thoughts and past experiences. Lastly and most importantly, feeling an emotion and the extent to which we feel the emotion is beyond our control in the moment.
Anger Management: What we do have control over and what we’re responsible for.
There is nothing wrong with being angry. Just as there is nothing wrong with being happy, sad, or any other emotion you experience. You should not place value judgements on something that is completely out of your control.
While you may not be able to choose your emotions, you do have control over a few things. You can control your thoughts and you can control your actions (this means your words too). Since you can control these, you are responsible for them. While it’s okay to be angry, even fuming, and infuriated, it’s not okay to harm others be it physically or emotionally as a means of acting out your emotions.
If you’ve grown up being taught that it’s not okay to be angry, it may be hard to internalize this. If you choose to continue believing this yourself, that getting angry is wrong, you very well may have chronic problems with anger management as a result.
Anger Management in the Mosh Pit
I remember the pain in my jaw. That iron-like taste of blood in my mouth. The swollen lip and the smile on my face. I was 19 and had traveled 3 hours from Stockton College to see my favorite band Strike Anywhere play a show in a small club in Wilkes-Barre, PA. As a very angry young man, I’ve always been drawn to punk and hardcore music. There was nothing better than going to shows. I’d scream until I lost my voice. I’d stage dive and become one with the chaos and fury. I’d give and take lumps in the pit whether it be a traditional circle pit or involve some violent hardcore two-stepping.
I’ve seen Strike Anywhere play about 8 times and have gone to more shows than I can count, but I’ll always remember this one in Wilkes-Barre. While addressing the crowd Strike Anywhere’s singer Thomas Barnett uttered a word that I had never heard before. He said something to the effect of “Get in the pit. Let this be a catharsis for all of your rage.” I didn’t know what he meant at the time but I soon found out.
The Merriam-Webster Dictionary gives the following definitions for catharsis
1 : purgation
2a : purification or purgation of the emotions (such as pity and fear) primarily through art
2b : a purification or purgation that brings about spiritual renewal or release from tension
3 : elimination of a complex by bringing it to consciousness and affording it expression.
I’d hear this word countless more times in school while training to be a therapist. Some of the very first things I learned about was the importance of recognizing your feelings and the negative impact that denial and repression can have.
Like many angry, angst ridden teens growing up in the 90’s and early 2000’s, I took refuge in the punk and hardcore scene. At a time when I was more destructive I didn’t just look forward to getting in the pit, taking some hits and giving them, I needed it. This was my outlet. That was my way of purging. In most circles in the punk and hardcore scene at the time, there were unwritten rules and expectations regarding this behavior that I would say excludes one from the moral conflict of doing no harm to others. It would take me an entire other article to fully explain, but think “If you get in or too close to the pit, you are consenting to the possibility of getting hurt by collateral damage of limbs flying, stage diving, and any other craziness. If anyone is obviously and purposefully trying to hurt others or those much smaller than them, they’ll be dealt with.”
The Façade of the Peace Guru
Many individuals claim to have a method or a spiritual path that will free you from your feelings of anger. Some spiritual or religious groups will aspire to this. Some self-help writers and speakers will preach that they know different methods to help you never get angry or lose your temper again. The ideas of Stoicism reflects this. All these claims do is further perpetuate the problem of people equating a natural feeling to something that is wrong or shameful.
It’s no wonder so many people are drawn to these ideas. Most people don’t enjoy the feeling of being angry. At times,- not managing these feelings correctly has caused them substantial problems. Imagining that there’s some quick fix, routine, or belief system to help delete anger from their lives sounds so enticing that they buy into it. Unfortunately anyone pushing these beliefs is nothing more than a snake oil salesman. Managing your anger is skill, a matter of self-control, and discipline. It takes time and a lot of hard work to get good and stay good at controlling your anger. Along with this, even the best of us will slip up from time to time.
What Healthy Anger Management Looks Like
Once you’ve accepted the fact that you are indeed human and not some emotionless robot you’ll be on the right path. Good mental heath and control over your anger doesn’t look like the image of a person who never gets angry all the time. It looks like the following:
-A person who is self-aware realizing how events in their life are making them feel. Along with this, someone who can differentiate if one emotion may be an attempt to cover up another. Ie. Many people who are feeing sad or guilty feel angry as a subconscious way of covering up a feeling that may cause them more pain.
-Someone who can recognize their feelings of anger without thinking that it is wrong or experiencing shame.
-A person who has enough self-control to not regularly act out of impulse when feelings of anger are triggered.
-Someone who can verbalize their feelings in appropriate ways without taking their anger out on others for the purpose of harming them.
-Lastly, someone who recognized that stress and anger are parts of every day life and in turn, takes actions every day to release these feelings in healthy and appropriate ways.
- Work at recognizing what’s making you angry on a daily basis. Meditation, journaling, talking it out with friend are some things you can do to help with this.
- Work at reducing your impulsivity. When strong feelings are triggered, give yourself a time out before reacting so you can make a plan of how you want to handle the situation.
- Make sure that you’re regularly taking care of yourself so you are not becoming overwhelmed by life’s stressors. Refer to the Mental Health Checklist
- If you are feeing as though you are really struggling with controlling your anger and are afraid of it causing significant impairment to your day to day functioning. Consider getting connected to therapy
- If you’re struggling with controlling your anger, it’s a good idea to either cut down or completely eliminate drinking alcohol or using any other mind altering substances. Drinking and using drugs will only make it harder to stop yourself when you’re feeling impulsive.
- Lastly, if you’ve cut down/out drinking and substance abuse, have tried your best to take care of yourself and you feel as though your anger is still controlling you instead of the other way round, consider talking to your doctor or a psychiatrist as medication may be helpful in managing your anger issues.
The Big Take Away
Don’t be ashamed of your feelings. You’re not a robot. Having strong feelings is part of being alive. As long as you live, you will get angry from time to time. After all, life is tough and there are a lot of things to be angry about. Sometimes you’ll get so angry that you may struggle with it. You are and always will be responsible for your actions and words despite how strong your feelings may be.
Nobody else but you is responsible for how you act or what you say when you’re angry. Find ways that work for you to purge your anger without harming yourself or others. Most importantly, do this regularly. With time and practice, you can experience all of your emotions and choose how you want to express or purge them, rather than letting them build up so much that your impulses push you to act out destructively.
A special thanks to my friend Bran (top image) and brother-in-law Jace (middle image) for providing faces of anger.
I’d love to hear from you! What makes you angry? What do you do to help purge your angry in healthy ways? Comment in the section below!
-The Web Shrink
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