After over two decades working as a psychotherapist, I have come to learn that Anger Management and the idea of managing anger might very well be missing the point. That is not to say that uncontrolled anger is to be promoted, nor that if one does find oneself letting rip, that it is unimportant to be able to rein oneself in.
But if we focus on what to do when our anger feels as if it is out of control, then we might forget really to understand what the conditions are that give rise to such a forceful angry response and once we gain understanding we can exercise agency in chosing how to respond, rather than just being reactive. And this is where I like to focus in my work.
We often feel that anger overtakes us and arrives from nowhere, as if it is not ours, as if it is something that happens to us. Let me put it to you differently, that anger is not from the outside, but it is ours: it is our very meaningful response to a situation or circumstances, which often we have not contemplated or processed completely.
Let me give you an example. Jason was in the pub with some mates and someone made a joke that his wife must have been pretty desperate to have married him. Blokey banter? Rude and unnecessary? Provocative? Simply silly? An underlying denigration of Jason and his worth? Whatever the intention or meaning behind this remark, within a split second, Jason had punched this man in the face and was poised to kick him.
Jason would say he saw red mist and was not in control of his anger. Afterwards, in the safety of the therapy room, Jason and I worked together, describing the situation, the context, his feelings and the meanings he attributed to the event. In engaging with the many dimensions of this unfortunate episode, we uncovered a lot.
Jason was still angry when he retold the story, and some of the feelings present in the pub were palpable in the room.
>> I can see you’re worked up now, Jason. What is happening in your body as you’re recounting this story?
>> What is it about what he said to you in the pub on that day with your friends around that provoked such a strong response in you? I asked.
These are descriptive questions which characterise phenomenological enquiry. Phenomenology is a discipline that does not look for the expanatory “why?” which seeks answers, justifications, interpretations and causal links. A phenomenological attititude is interested in the “What?” and “How?” of experience. The specificity of this mode of enquiry is very different from questions such as “Why did you do that?”. More importantly it seeks to get to the experience of an individual rather than a generalised theories; it centres the individual in an embodied relationally way to their situation. The enquiry is judgment free, simply curious. In this scenario, Anger is not reified as a thing that jumped out and overtook Jason, but is considered an expression of a meaningful response, even though, quite clearly, it was an unhelpful and even inappropriate response. Once we have comprehensively described a situation, then we can try to make sense of it, allowing the meaning to emerge. This is different from starting with a theory and fitting the story into the theory, rather it is starting from a naive position of not-knowing and allow the meaning to surface, this is called hermeneutics. It is a bottom up approach, not a top-down approach.
Persisting with this attitude in my conversations with Jason, we discovered a lot.
Jason has always felt inadequate. His parents were very critical and he felt he could never do right. He was often punished for his behaviour. He was fidgety at school and did not fit into the academic mould expected of him. He wasn’t as clever or compliant as his sister. His belief system became that he was “wrong”,“bad” and “stupid”. There was no generosity in how his parents or family saw him; his behaviours and lack of achievement (in areas they valued) were in their eyes inseparable from who he was as a person.
Not surprisingly, when Jason settled down and married, he was also insecure in his relationship with his partner as he felt inadequate. So when Jason in the pub on that fateful evening felt judged unfavourably by his mates, he felt shamed and humiliated, because their negative judgment, true or imagined, was actually a reflection of his own low self-esteem. It was hard to be Jason, meeting the world as a hostile place where people might see his vulnerability, flaws and weakness; a daunting world where he was always fearful of being found out to be the faulty person he believed himself to be; and Jason struggled to maintain an acceptable public face and hiding his true unworthy self. Incidents such as the episode in the pub show what a fragile edifice he tried to maintain. He couldn’t just laugh off a comment, because for him, the joke felt like an ontological threat, an attack to his very being; he felt exposed in all his awfulness.
Threat to our being as human beings (human animals as we are) is not necessarily a physical endangerment as this vignette indicates. Obviously derogatory jests cannot be considered in the same light as an actual murderer coming at us wielding a sharp axe, yet our cortisol response can be elevated as if it were an actual threat of death. And Jason, in this case, felt the threat as an ontological attack, and it triggered a Flight and Fight response, and his expression was to fight.
Anger Management as a practice, as the term suggests, is a means of managing anger. There is of course a value in a mechanistic de-escalation of our heightened responses (let’s face it, it wouldn’t have been great if Jason had harmed his mate and ended up in prison), but without radical understanding and insight, behavioural change alone serves only as a crutch. Anger Management, moreover, continues to characterise its subject as an “Angry person” who is sometimes, if not often, taken possession by an external force of anger. As if this is not problematic enough, in most cultures, anger has negative connotations and, therefore induces guilt and shame because it is “wrongful” thereby making the ”Angry person” feel even worse about him or herself and adding tiers of further bad feelings onto his or her self-construct.
What of radical understanding and insight? How can it help?
Let us think about Jason who arrived in my consulting room believing he was the worst person in the world, quite prickly, feeling quite unsafe and unsure about talking with me. I validated his intrinsic value as a person by meeting him with understanding and without judgment. I expressed my curiosity. I challenged his believe that he was bad to the core. In time, my acceptance of him was reparative. This opened up the space for reflective conversations.
We talked about how he saw the world as a frightening, threatening place. So what he wasn’t good at school? That didn’t make him less than or stupid. Maybe the academic environment wasn’t for him? Perhaps he has other talents and personal qualities that others didn’t have? What a shame his parents hadn’t been available to see him with compassion as he was as a struggling child. What a missed opportunity that they neglected to nurture his self-esteem. We were able to identify that as a child he was receptive to their negative messaging. We saw how counterproductive his defensiveness was when he navigated the world.
We agreed that Jason is an adult now and needs to rewrite his narrative, constructing a different relationship with himself that is independent of the unhelpful negativity that was foisted on him growing up. Jason came to see that he did not have to take on the mantel of the bad person, but had a right to be Jason in all his dimensions. He accepted that emotions are to be understood and not judged for they are a compass as to how we are disposed towards the world and people in it and are helpful guides.
These insights were helpful and relieving. Insight alone does not necessarily deliver someone to a more effective way of living. Look at all the people who have lain on the psychoanalyst's couch 5 days a week for years seeking insight, tantalised by the past. Real therapeutic change cannot be centred on intellectual activity alone. Real insight needs to be embodied and this I call awareness. When Jason engages in our conversations, I ask him to notice what is happening in his body. At first, he used to say “nothing”. Gradually, he was able to tune in and notice when his heart was beating faster or when his breathing was shallower or when he felt tightness in his gut. It was as if he was bringing himself back to life. Over time, as he became increasingly relaxed, he would volunteer insights like, “when I think about dinner times at home, a knot tightens in my chest” and “when you reflected back to me my sadness, I saw myself as a little boy in my bedroom in the dark, all alone after I was sent to bed with no supper for being rude to my sister”. He began to see himself as Jason-as-body, with his body being a source of valuable information about how he orientated himself in the world.
As part of his self-acceptance, Jason learnt that being vulnerable is part of being human and is nothing to be ashamed of. His wife, as it happened, was very supportive of him and valued his greater ability to communicate and give an account of his feelings, and Jason felt more secure in their union and more fun to be around. Jason’s greater confidence must have shown, for people he met noticed he was more relaxed and were generally warmer with him, and by return he became friendlier and less suspicious of them. Daily human encounters were often a source of pleasure for him.
Jason’s self-awareness had become high in our meetings, in our rarified environment, separate from his day-to-day world. Maintaining self-aware-awareness for Jason, as for most people, required a discipline to make this part of his everyday “living muscle”. I encouraged him to set an alarm on his phone every half an hour to remind him to “check in “with himself and to take as many breaths as necessary to regulate himself if he felt tense or stressed. I asked him to be active in thinking deliberately about situations he was going into and to anticipate what might trigger him so he was not taken off guard, especially if he was feeling low or rushed. I asked him to notice people whose company he did not enjoy and keep boundaries about how much time to spend with people he liked less or who created negative atmospheres. I also suggested that he watched how much he drank so he could always be grounded enough to make choices that suited him best.
“It’s OK to be me” was the type of narrative I tried to help him embrace and embody.
“I don’t like this situation, but I am fine and safe” was another phrase that helped him ground himself, bringing himself into the present moment and avoiding responding as if he were still a child at home.
“Do I want to stay here socialising or am I ready to leave and go home?”
Jason worked hard on himself and established a greater resilience ready to deal with challenging encounters in the world at large, the bad drivers, the dismissive person at the till in the supermarket, the mates who made disparaging jokes down the pub.
Importantly too, with his increased facility for self-expression, I helped him find ways of asserting his position. We played with scenarios he had found challenging and he tried out different responses. Inevitably we revisited many times the scene in the pub and as part of the dramatherapy checked out what he might have said. His favourite response was this one:
>> She might well have been desperate to marry me, but I thank my lucky stars every day of my life that she did.
He said that when he practised this reply, he felt at peace and good. And not threatened or vulnerable.
Existentially, as human beings in the world, we are meaning-seeking creatures, we have thoughts and feelings, and we take action in the world. We live our own lives in a world with others and cannot separate ourselves from this shared world of being, even as hermits we are choosing to be apart from others which implies their presence. We create our self-constructs, identify ourselves, based on experience and information we glean from people and the world around us; we are relational beings. Given that we get older, have a multitude of experiences, that things around us change all the time, as relational beings we are never fixed in who we are. I am not the same as when I was 5, 15, 25 or even 50; my views and understanding has changed and I make different choices now than I would have 30 years ago. We are plastic in the sense that we are mutable, in fact, we cannot help but change, even if we try to be the same or to convince ourselves we are the same. We are in flux. Of course, there is that sense of continuity of self, held together by memory, but there is no actual fixed self. For many that might be scary, not to be able to attach to a fixed definition; for others it is a liberation and an exciting fact to embrace. Being self-in-process means we have the freedom to overcome ourselves, and do not need to accept labels that might burdened us for years. We do not of course have ultimate freedom: I could not necessarily become a multi-millionaire and I certainly cannot be the Queen of Sheba, there are limits to my situation, but what I can do is choose not to be defined by external definitions of who I am, nor even be defined by past events. We are existentially a combination of the three Ec-stasies of time: past, present and future are all one in our present experience, we are our temporality, we are the totality of all our dimensions of time. This means my past informs my present which is always, inevitably future directed, for as soon as I say “now”, I am already propelled into the future, and choices imply the future as we make choices all the time. There is no causal linearity, every moment is a new step into the future of our making.
So Jason interpreted himself differently and shook off the shackles of feeling wholly unworthy as a human being. Instead of accepting others’ perceptions of him and of meeting the world as a place of menace, he took a different attitude. He shunned the negative voices of his past and replaced them with a mantra of basic self-acceptance. He stopped projecting onto others and took responsibility for his responses to difficult situations; it became a challenging game for him and he delighted at this new-found creativity. Jason discovered a playfulness in himself that he didn’t know he had.
Jason still needs to check in with himself and is mindful that because of an unfortunate history he cannot be complacent. But he no longer thinks he is an “Angry person” or bad or mad or wrong and he knows that it is his responsibility to choose how he reacts to situations, however, annoying or challenging they are. He understands about his Flight and Fight responses and what happens in his body when he is triggered, information which allows him to accept that the poor treatment he received when he was younger has left a shadow, and also to understand that he is a human being, like any other human being and being vulnerable is part of being human.
Heidegger, M (1962) Being and Time. Macquarrie & E Robinson (Trans). New York, NY Harper and Row
Jason is a fictional composite character