…is not necessarily bad. The two best things I try to remember about anger come from the Seeking Safety book and from a training I attended some years ago on facilitating anger management groups (which tend to be mostly mandated clients with criminal justice involvement).

The first idea, from Seeking Safety, is the idea that anger is a sign of unmet needs. That makes complete sense to me. If there is something I need, and I’m not getting it, I can get angry.

DSCN1620The second idea, from anger management, is that anger is not a primary emotion. It is, in this view, a secondary emotion, a front for either underlying sorrow or fear. In fact, the trainer who taught the course went so far as to say that anger is never the primary emotion, and that it always is a front for sorrow or fear. Such a categorical statement piqued my interest, and especially my sense of contrariness. Is there never an exception? This was many years ago, and I’m still looking for an exception.

Here’s the basic idea about why we get angry: fear and sorrow are vulnerable emotions. Anger, and especially rage, represent a strong, even an invulnerable feeling. The ultimate version is when someone goes berserk or runs amok– two words, one from the Vikings and one from Malaysia, that represent what some translators have called “battle fury,” the extreme fight-or-flight reaction where strength greatly increases, sensitivity to pain may be greatly diminished or absent, and rational thought is on hold.  When a person gets addicted to being high on their own fight/flight chemistry, this person is the classic “rageaholic.”

From some perspectives, we can see the up side of anger– if I’m truly in a life threatening situation, going berserk has survival value. We have heard the stories of the mom who lifts up a car when a jack slips, pinning her teenage son, and pulls him to safety, or the wounded soldier who runs fifty yards to safety after losing a foot. There are various true examples of how this extreme physical reaction can be life-saving. What the stories don’t include is that the mom has a bad back forever after & the wounded soldier is still in very bad shape. But lives have been saved.

But most of us are not in life or death situations when we get angry. So what’s the up side then? Well, feeling strong, feeling less vulnerable. If you hurt me and I get angry with you– even fly into a rage– now I feel strong, not vulnerable. So which do I want to feel? Strong and invulnerable, or hurt and vulnerable? It’s understandable, seen in this light, how one might choose the strong, angry feeling over the vulnerable, sad or fearful feeling.

The problem with choosing the invulnerable anger response is that when it borders on or becomes rage, rational thought is typically shut down. Perhaps I can’t stop to think that my spouse obviously didn’t mean to get in a car wreck– I just focus on the fact that the car got wrecked and my spouse was driving. I may not even stop to think if it was the other driver’s fault, or if I do my rage might be dangerously directed to that person. The anger management people suggest that when the fight-or-flight chemicals dump into my system, it will take at least half an hour for them to wash out.

Here’s where I double back, to the Seeking Safety idea that my anger is the sign of an unmet need. If I’m angry about the damage to my car, it may be due to my sudden fear that my loved one might have been injured or killed, or worries about money, or any number of perfectly valid fears. But none of those needs can be addressed with a baseball bat or shouting. If need be, I take half an hour to calm down before talking to anyone– especially the person I’m upset with. It’s always interesting to me that some people have intuitively figured out that they need to take a walk, or sit in a quiet room, or otherwise calm down before continuing to deal with an upsetting situation. It’s equally interesting (puzzling, I’ll admit) that people can get coaching on this, including the physiological reason for why it’s necessary, and still not give it a try.

The other thing about anger is that anger is a form of energy. We can think of emotions as our motivators– the driving forces of our lives. So it’s good to have energy, but it needs to be usefully directed. The rational mind is the part that channels the energy. Practically speaking, it’s better to self-monitor and respond to unmet needs (anger) when they are still manageable. This is the part where the client-therapist dialogue, or an inner dialogue with oneself, begins. How do you stay aware of your own needs, your sorrows, your fears, your anger? How do you monitor yourself? What ways do you have to meet your needs? If you feel you have an anger problem, you need to be able to answer those questions in order to successfully cope with anger and without negative outcomes. Anger management is an entire industry, but enough for now.


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).
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