Anger management is a considerably frequent topic in therapy, both in our work with individuals and couples. Some people seek therapy on their own to get help, whereas others are court ordered to address anger management. Anger can cause toxic divisions between people, have partners lacking senses of safety or predictability in relationships, and induce powerful shame and embarrassment in the one who struggles to regulate emotion. Fortunately, people can make significant strides in their relationship to their anger in a relatively short time.
The first key element of working through anger is to openly and earnestly explore what functions it serves in one’s life. It can in fact be an adaptive mechanism at times, and recognizing this normalizes and validates it, undermining some of the resultant shame which can occur when one has problematized their anger. Speaking broadly, there are two general functions it serves with people. First, it serves as a communicator when one feels they are not being listened to (albeit a less-than-skillful communicator). Exasperation in not being heard can lead to a person, purposefully or unconsciously, choosing to increase the volume and vitriol. Second, as Sue Johnson explains in Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT), it can serve to obscure the more tender, intimate feelings, such as loneliness, fear or hurt. If one contacts and communicates these primary feelings, the protection of anger isn’t as needed in one’s life. Successful working through anger requires a skilled and intentional replacing of these functions.
The next key in approaching anger is simply to allow oneself the space to intervene with it. Buddhist psychologist and meditation teacher Jack Kornfield refers to this as taking the “Sacred Pause.” The hormones associated with anger, testosterone, adrenaline and cortisol, lead to racing thoughts and a sense of needing to declare one’s truth (loudly and forcefully) as it occurs. Taking a moment to reflect, calm oneself into a place of internal stillness, and respond rather than react is critical in this work. Many people are never taught this skill and can make great strides at this when taught in therapy. Once that space has opened up, a gentle breathing exercise such as deep diaphragmatic breathing can be a way to soothe the physiological impacts of the stress hormones. Another way to allow ourselves the opportunity to monitor our feelings and ensure they aren’t hurling us around the room is to be sure to listen with openness and repeat back what we are hearing prior to responding. This can slow down the conversation in a way that we may gain some distance from our habitual triggers.
Cognitive therapy can assist with another important part of managing one anger, which is learning respect for others and for opinions that differ from one’s own. Once a person gains insight into what purpose their anger serves, learns to manage the hormonal rush associated with anger, and becomes a better listener, the next challenge is to not get riled up if what one hears or experiences is not what they want. Mutual respect for others’ right to have a different way of thinking, even if you disagree with it, assists a great deal with staying calm.
Having learned to remain calm and listen, the next step is being able to communicate one’s thoughts and feelings effectively. Building communication skills is thus also important to emotion regulation, because it is easier to avoid becoming angry when you feel confident in your ability to clearly express yourself.
Finally, it can be instructive to inquire into what exactly our triggers really are. A common theme is a lack of control leading to frustration or rage. For these people, there can exist a vicious cycle in which they feel powerless or out of control, become frustrated, and then their emotions themselves dictate their words and choices, which reconfirms this feeling of being out of control (only now it’s their own feelings controlling them!), and an instantaneous negative feedback loop is born.
Through a deeper understanding of anger’s place in one’s life, its birth and how it perpetuates, along with some simple emotional regulation and communication skills, people are able to make significant strides. While people on the other end of someone’s anger feel hurt by it, the anger also takes a toll on the person who is angry… it does not feel good to be consumed with anger. Thus these strides in new anger management skills benefit both the individual and those around the person…everyone benefits!