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|Dealing with anger - emotion, behaviour and implications for therapy
Anger generally gets a bad press and is usually associated with violence. In the media we witness countless examples of assault and
violence, often against women or amongst young men. We rightly judge this behaviour as despicable and tend to feel (ironically) angry and
outraged ourselves at violation of other people’s rights. We also tend to associate anger as a problem peculiar to men. This seems to be
justified when we watch any number of American TV shows and see men adopting defensive, aggressive and offensive postures, attitudes
and language. The baddies are aggressive but essentially cowards while the hero is charming but also the toughest when the going gets
rough. Of course he generally gets the girl and our approval. To varying degrees we get excited about watching these archetypal struggles
between good and ‘evil’, enjoy condemning the villains and celebrate the triumphs of the hero.
Anger is a feeling, an emotion, which is common to all of us. It may evoke or be associated with other feelings such as hatred, resentment
and even excitement and sexuality. Anger may lead people to behave in defensive and aggressive ways, both non-verbally (eg shutting down,
not talking, glaring), verbally via insult, abuse and sarcasm, and physically as in physical aggression towards objects, self or others. Our
thoughts may also become consumed by anger when we dwell on our sense of being violated and focus on revenge or payback.
Looking at anger from these largely negative perspectives it is easy to think that anger IS bad or evil and should be regarded as a weakness,
something primitive and not worthy of civilized thought or behaviour. I have observed working class men (interestingly in an Anger
Management class) deny that they ever get angry! They admitted that they felt frustrated and defended their aggressions by saying, “they had
it coming to them”. But admit to being angry? No. Owning anger for them implied weakness and lack of control. Anger is often regarded as
socially unacceptable. “Don’t be angry”, “Grow up”, “If you can’t say it nicely don’t say anything”, are messages that have been promoted to
children in many families, reinforcing the stigma associated with feelings of anger. There are cultural differences in emotional expression and
anger is more acceptable in some more than others. There are dangers to suppressing anger however as some evidence from research into
U.S. couples showed where anger suppression was associated with greater physical violence.
Anger is emotional and is rooted in our primitive, ancestral, ‘old’ brain. It can become obsessive, self destructive, out of control and lead to
aggression and destruction of relationships. But it is there for a reason and is worthy of our respect. We do not have to agree with or tolerate
aggressive behaviour or violence but we all have a right to our feelings and not less the person who feels angry. Social change has often
been in response to a sense of injustice (and rightful anger) – witness the eighteenth century anti-slavery campaign, women’s right to vote,
anti-apartheid and the continued focus on the need for change in the Middle East.
So what is anger about and where does it come from? Anger has been defined as a response to feeling threatened in some way. We may
feel attacked, unfairly treated, hurt or in pain. We may believe our material, familial, spiritual or societal interests are under threat. If we are
mature and highly self aware, we can recognise we usually have some choices in how we respond to a threat, but at our core our ‘instincts’ or
reflexes want to respond. This core response to danger has been called our ‘fight, flight or freeze’ reaction. Fight if we have the resources,
flee if we do not, or freeze if we feel overwhelmed or flooded.
These reactions can be measured biologically as well as behaviourally and psychologically. When threatened our pulse rate and blood
pressure will tend to rapidly rise, glucose levels increase and the adrenal glands activate to heighten our ability to respond (think of the effects
of drinking a double shot of strong, black, expresso coffee). Unfortunately the brain’s ability to perceive, focus and think (in other words what
it is attending to), becomes limited by its being on high alert, looking for and responding only to danger cues. The brain’s ability to process
other information (eg listening, empathy, conceptualization, self-questioning) thereby becomes severely limited. This of course has major
implications for our potential ability to deal with conflict, overcome difficulties in relationships, manage our own stress levels and the stress
levels of others. There is also evidence that there are gender differences. Women tend to be able to self soothe and calm their anger
responses quicker and easier than men. (However, this can lead them into suppressing their feelings which may eventually have a negative
impact on their well-being and their relationships.) Men are used to finding relief in retaliation (which is often destructive) and take longer to
self soothe and calm down. Women are also not immune to retaliation as men well know. However old patterns do not have to remain
dominant for ever. With effort (and sometimes outside help) we can learn to control our impulses and calm ourselves, without suppressing our
rights to self expression and compromising our physical and mental health and our relationships in the process.
We have a right to stand up for ourselves, assert ourselves and voice our anger and disapproval about things and people who abuse, threaten
or hurt us. Feeling angry does not give us the right to retaliate aggressively (except perhaps in some extreme situations) and retaliation
generally leads to escalation both at an individual, group and societal level. However, neither men nor women can be expected to tolerate
behaviour or language which is contemptuous, hurtful or abusive. One can learn to contain, but also maintain and express anger to struggle for
equality, respect and good relationships. Our ability to appropriately express our anger, demand respect and equality is as important as our
ability to be loving and compassionate. When we have the ability to have a difficult conversation we do not need to get into an abusive
Implications for therapy – supportive counselling, psychotherapy and CBT.
Anger in a client, whether seen individually or in a couple relationship presents particular difficulties. In the first instance the counsellor is
themselves confronted with anger in the room and this may well be perceived as a threat by the counsellor The counsellor may feel personally
challenged in terms of his or her authority and ability to control the session. If a biological response is elicited, the counsellor’s responses may
well become elevated along with his or her pulse rate. They may become defensive, judgemental and go on the counter-attack. (“Is your
anger really helpful here? You don’t seem to be listening to what’s being said” “it might be useful to look at some anger management here”).
Secondly in a couple situation, if one person is seen as the most angry then the counsellor may identify with ‘the victim’ and feel they have to
go into battle for them. So self soothing for the counsellor as well as helping the client self soothe is very important.
Given anger is a natural response to a perceived threat, validation of the feeling is generally always appropriate. “I can see that you’re angry”.
“You seem to be feel really angry about that.” It is important that the client feels heard and their emotional state recognised and empathised
with. Recognition can help the angry person feel supported – they are not being met with defensiveness and further perceived threat.
If the counsellor is finding it difficult, saying how one feels may be useful – “I’m sorry, but I’m finding it difficult to focus on what you are saying,
would you mind speaking more calmly/quietly?” “
Offering a time out can be helpful, “You seem to be very upset, shall we take a short break?” Or, “It seems like your feelings are making it
difficult to hear what I am saying, I’m not sure I can help you at the moment. Shall we reschedule another time?” In other words we need to look
after ourselves and maintain our own boundary which also provides relevant modelling behaviour for the client. I have been in situations where
I know I have reacted in some way which has not been helpful for the client and have generally apologised with good results.
The next task may be to offer some education around emotional flooding, its physiological and psychological consequences as outline
above. This can be gone into in some detail to emphasize the normality of the reaction and feelings and also offer a rationale for teaching self
soothing strategies. Useful strategies can include time out, mindfulness, calm breathing, taking one’s pulse rate and engaging in pleasurable
activities. It is important for the client (and sometimes the counsellor) to recognise that prevention is better than cure and that after the
reactivity has set in, it may take between thirty minutes to an hour before they are able to listen, articulate their feelings and reflect on what is
From a psychotherapy point of view, there is little point in attempting to broaden a client’s perspective, help them gain insight, or express
repressed or frozen grief and hurt when they are in a highly charged state. However this is not to say that these may not be relevant
approaches to helping a client overcome negative patterns of thinking, feeling and behaving. Our perceptions, beliefs, behaviour and
communicative abilities owe their genesis to childhood and without the cultivation of a sophisticated self awareness we can remain
unconscious and oblivious to our deficits. Any client or counsellor who has engaged in any in depth psychotherapy, process-type work or
even in meaningful cognitive therapy will recognise that it is shockingly easy to accept illogical assumptions and hold onto cognitive
distortions. It may not always be necessary to take a family of origin perspective on current problems in terms of changing client behaviour,
but it can be very useful in identifying what level of treatment is required.
Carl Webster 2007