Dealing With Anger

Expressing Anger through Art 5

(Image from check it out.

I remember volunteering as a counselor at a middle school some years ago. It was a public school that had gone to uniforms at the request of the parents because kids were getting jacked for nice clothes by other kids. There were cops in the halls. One kid I worked with came to school every day, but frequently didn’t go to class. When I asked him why, if he didn’t want to go to class, he came to school, he replied that if he was on the streets in his neighborhood (the Bayview, for people who know San Francisco) he’d probably get shot. He didn’t want to go to school, but he didn’t want to get shot. I couldn’t fault that logic. We had a lot of angry boys. If they had been more articulate, they would have been able to voice the anger– at getting second-rate education, at being born into discrimination, and a host of other reasons for anger. When we did an anger management with them, one of the boys flatly– but not angrily– stated “You can’t manage anger.” At the time, I had no ready answer for him.

Well, since then, I’ve thought of the classic answer, gained in part from taking anger management group facilitator training–  you can’t manage anger. You manage your behavior.

We all experience negative emotions. It’s not that you have them that makes life better or worse– it’s what you do with them. The claim that the trainer made in the anger management facilitator training was that anger is never a primary emotion. It’s always a secondary emotion. We go to anger when the primary emotion– typically fear or sadness– is unbearable. We don’t want to feel the vulnerability of sadness or of fear.  Since I originally heard that, I’ve been on the lookout (whenever I remembered to) for exceptions. I haven’t found one yet.

Another claim about anger that I like is that it is a sign of unmet needs. While I can’t remember the name of the anger management trainer, I can remember the source for this claim: Lisa Najavits, in the Seeking Safety PTSD/addiction treatment manual. In case you’re interested:

The two claims, obviously, are not in competition. I may feel very angry about economic injustice, a social issue. There’s a case where I & millions of others may have fear of our basic needs or the needs of our children not being met. I may be very angry that a partner cheated on me– my relationship is threatened, I feel betrayed. Both fear and sorrow are involved. As for a case of pure sorrow– I may be very angry that a loved one has died.  With this, there’s nothing I can do about the loss other than grieve.

What to do with the anger is the nub of the issue, isn’t it? Some sorrows can only be dealt with by grief. Others may be dealt with by a combination of grief and action– many of the people involved in suicide prevention are either survivors of suicidal depression & attempts or have lost loved ones. Sorrow and fear can be dealt with by grief and action. Do a search for anger images and you’ll see how often people deal with anger by making art. No surprise.

Fear, when you face it, can be a lot more complex. Some fears are irrational– that’s why there are a million things named (________)-phobia. We know they’re irrational, yet we have them. Fear of flying is the classic. Your chances of dying in a plane crash are statistically the same as dying from an asteroid striking the Earth. But it’s a very popular fear, whereas death by asteroid isn’t even on the radar– despite NASA having a program to search for Earth-threatening asteroids. ( )

So before we go off on a tangent about fear, let’s wrap up on anger– next time you’re angry, slow down for a minute and ask yourself three questions:

1) Am I afraid, and if so, what am I afraid of?

2) Am I sad, and if so, what am I sad about?

3) What is my unmet need, and what can I do about it?


About jamesmatter

Marriage and Family Therapist (MFT) in private practice in San Francisco. I work with adults, adolescents, and couples, with focus on substance use and abuse and co-occurring disorders (having both a mental illness and an addiction).
This entry was posted in Anger, behavioral health, choices, happiness, mental health, Sadness, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

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