I had a client come to me not that long ago seeking help for anger management. We started by exploring why he thought he needed help with his anger…
David: What brings you in?
Client: Apparently I have an anger issue.
D: Do you?
C: My wife thinks I do.
D: Is she right?
C: Well, I get angry.
D: Can you give me an example?
C: Last night at the dinner table. Everything was fine until she looked at me and accused me of being mad. That’s when I lost it.
D: So, were you mad before she asked you?
C: No, that’s what makes me so mad. I hate when she accuses me of being angry when I’m not.
D: Why did she think you were mad?
C: Well, I’m a pretty soft spoken guy and the table can get really noisy when everyone is talking. So, I said something and they didn’t hear me, so I raised my voice.
D: So, you started yelling, but you weren’t angry.
C: That’s right.
D: Why weren’t you angry? I get angry when I’m ignored.
We are taught in our families, in our schools, in our churches, and even in our after-school specials that we are supposed to control our anger. Why? Because anger is bad. Anger can lead to a lot of bad things: broken relationships, holes in the walls, trips to the hospital, jail time, saying things we don’t mean, and so on. Besides, it just isn’t nice.
Not that anyone will say that anger is bad. When asked, most of my clients say “it’s what you DO with it that’s bad.” With that in mind, we DO everything we can to control our anger… or get rid of it… or silence it. We attempt to either chain it up in the basement or throw it out with the garbage. For many people this works very well. They remain calm and polite and they sit and discuss their differences like civilized people… (I hope you can you see me rolling my eyes over that last sentence!)
But this doesn’t work for everyone. And it didn’t work for my client – that’s why he was there to see me.
We explored all the normal steps to manage anger and he could list all the usual things like counting to ten and going for a walk. He knew anger management strategies better than I did. But still, he “lost it” when his wife asked if he was angry. And that’s why he came to see me: to stop getting angry.
D: I want you to try something different.
C: What’s that?
D: Get more angry, more often.
C: WHAT? (At this point he might have been getting angry that he was wasting his time)
D: I think you were mad, and that’s why you yelled.
C: But I wasn’t angry… until she accused me. (He’s getting louder now)
D: But you raised your voice.
C: Yeah, because I wanted to be heard.
D: Were you mad that you were being ignored?
C: Well, I was annoyed, but I WASN’T MAD.
D: And that’s the point.
This was a client that had a long history of relationship breakdowns due to anger. His parents’ divorce, his first wife, some of his friends, and several jobs, all relationships that ended in anger. Somewhere along the way, he had learned that if he didn’t hide his anger bad things would happen. So, when his wife accused him of being angry, he got very defensive.
He had made a habit of pushing his anger aside and denying it. Of course, he had other examples of getting angry that were more extreme than this, but a common thread to all of them was that the explosions came after a period of relative calm. Periods in which there had been personal insults, hurts, injustices that weren’t addressed. He considered those periods successful because they didn’t have any arguments or angry explosions. Unfortunately, they also didn’t resolve any issues and instead the anger built up.
C: What’s the point?
D: You were annoyed at not being listened too. You raised your voice because you were hurt. Your wife was right when she said you were angry because you were annoyed (which is just a smaller version of anger).
D: Next time this happens, I want you to look at your wife and agree with her. Then tell her why you are angry.
C: Because I was being ignored?
D: That’s what it sounds like.
At its root, anger represents a problem. In many cases, it is a problem that can be solved (unsolvable anger, or anger related to grief is a different issue and will be discussed another time) and when we stop and pay attention to why we are angry in the first place we can find ways to make it better. Or at least avoid making it worse.
D: Don’t misunderstand me. I don’t mean yell more, or start throwing things, but acknowledge that you’re mad. Then think about how to solve that problem.
In this case, the problem was that the client was feeling ignored. A reasonable response to not being heard is to speak louder to get peoples’ attention. When he denied his anger about not being heard two things happened: first, he actually became more angry; second, whatever he was trying to say originally was never heard because it was lost in all the yelling. Denying the anger made the problem of not being listened to even worse.
The client came back to me 2 weeks later beaming.
C: It was amazing. I told them I was mad because they weren’t listening… and then they asked what I was trying to say! The rest of the meal was a really good conversation!
I saw that client for 2 more sessions. He sent me an email 6 months later thanking me. In the past, he had attended several anger management classes, read some self help books, and received counselling. He said that this was the first time he had ever been given permission to be angry and ironically it was the calmest he had felt in decades.
Don’t hide from your anger. Next time you get mad, ask yourself why you are angry. Where is the hurt? Once you answer that question, you can decide how to best solve the problem.