Anger Managemen

Anger Managemen

Just Another Addiction

For Some, Anger Doesn’t Mask the Problem, It IS the Problem
By James A. Baker

We have all known the feeling, haven’t we? At first it is a twinge of anxiety or irritation, a slight quickening of the pulse accompanied by shallower breathing. Our thoughts start to race; we lose our ability to concentrate objectively on what another may be sharing with us, as our thoughts grow more intrusive and defensive. Finally, this all builds to a critical mass and erupts in words – sometimes accompanied by actions – that are at least a little bit irrational and more than a little bit destructive. And it can go from 0 to 60 in what seems like a matter of seconds.

This snapshot of anger being born can happen anywhere, anytime, to anyone. We tell ourselves, our family and friends, our clients and patients that anger is normal. We explain that anger is neutral, and it is what you DO when you are angry that creates either a helpful or an unhelpful outcome. This explanation seems perfectly logical and reasonable when you print it in a magazine or discuss it in a group. We rely on these insights and explanations to help establish a strategic basis for channeling the energy of anger toward positive outcomes.
However, even those of us who appear to have a healthy understanding of the dynamics of anger can still be caught off guard by unforeseen or apparently threatening circumstances, and be quickly sucked up into the anger tornado. It doesn’t feel good when it is taking place and it can feel even worse when we subsequently have to face the music and make amends for things we said and did. Now, multiply those confusing, shameful feelings by a thousand times, and you have some insight into the painful world of a chronic rageaholic.

Anger can really make a mess of things, but it can also be sending an important message. Like the proverbial oil pressure light on the dashboard of your car, anger is one of those tip-of-the-iceberg markers that screams out (literally!) that there may be something even more problematic and hurtful that needs to be addressed and healed. So, when anger – usually the aggressive, out of control variety – becomes a chronic intrusion into a life or a relationship, someone eventually asks for help. More often than not, the first person to ask for help will be one who has been a target once too often of those angry outbursts. Less often, the angry perpetrator will come to seek help, though perhaps not until threatened with some kind of consequences by a spouse or a judge. It is at that point that the search for answers and insight begins. I am now convinced that this search produces about the same results as a good, old-fashioned snipe hunt.

We try talk therapy, insight therapy, inner child work – even “scream” therapy --and all manner of other cognitive or intuitive based interventions, in the attempt to unlock and understand the inner root causes that resonate destructively with any manner of otherwise unremarkable external triggers. The search progresses, week after week, month after month. Sometimes there are breakthroughs, only to be followed by breakdowns. For certain people, therapy may be comforting but not always productive. Something always seems to arise at just the wrong time to create a volatile situation and send everything back to square one, and no amount of talking or reading or listening to tapes or pharmacological interventions seems to make a decisive difference. We end up collecting a lot of data, but at the end of the day we still have a person who can’t seem to avoid a head-on collision with anger even though he or she sees it coming (and who, by now, probably even has a pretty good grasp regarding why it is about to happen!).

I think it is time to fully embrace the idea that sometimes anger isn’t a symptom of the problem; it IS the problem. Certainly, there may be a root cause buried in a remote, traumatic event or an abusive social history that laid the groundwork for the current destructive anger cycle. But in the same way that some people embrace drugs or alcohol or eating or sex to get a temporary reduction in their level of emotional pain, others simply wrap themselves in an impermeable cloak of anger that protects them and gives them a short-lived sense of power over all threats, real and imagined. Once this pernicious relationship with anger has been hardwired into the addictive mechanisms of the brain, getting an anger addict to talk about not getting angry anymore works about as well as getting an alcoholic to talk about not drinking anymore.

Stop to consider some of the predictable cyclic markers that chronic aggressive anger can share with other addictive behaviors:

  • Self stimulation –A rageaholic can’t just “pop and stop.” Giving vent to angry feelings often creates an anger cascade that escalates into an anger binge.
  • Compulsion – Somewhere in the back of the mind, the anger addict knows he or she ought to stop, but the drive to keep raging overwhelms everything else.
  • Obsession – Even when rageaholics appear calm and composed, they may harbor resentments that replay and constantly reinforce feelings of victimization that can only be suppressed for so long.
  • Denial – Same old song and dance: “My anger isn’t the problem, the person who offended me is the real problem.”
  • Withdrawal and craving –Raging is an absolute rush, both chemically and emotionally. Anger addicts “need” rage on so many levels to maintain the illusion of control in their lives. Even when they promise themselves and others that they will never do it again, it is only a matter of time before they find the pressure building toward another blow-up.
  • Unpredictable behavior – A rageaholic may think he or she can express anger up to a point and settle things sanely, and maybe they will, once or twice. But, just like one drink is rarely only one drink, there is generally no such thing as a little anger for an anger addict.
  • Guilt and shame – After the rage wears off and all that is left is traumatized family members, bruises and broken dishes, the anger addict experiences painful remorse and shame, and will sometimes go to extremes to make amends. Of course, this includes promises to change; promises that are impossible to keep.

So what is the answer? I tell our anger management clients to forget about the root cause and focus on changing the behavior. Just like an alcoholic has to stop drinking as a first step toward maintaining sobriety, a rageaholic must STOP all angry behaviors as a first step toward achieving a saner, more rational life. An approach such as that detailed in my book, The Anger Busting Workbook, provides an excellent platform for helping anger addicts recognize and cease those behaviors that are unwittingly fueling the next anger eruption. Once addicts have tools and rules for stopping the behavior, any number of standard recovery models can help reinforce healthier and more satisfying patterns for expressing anger and rebuilding their lives.

By James A. Baker