by Ben Bruce.
I have a lot of patients coming in to see me with anger problems. This has led me by necessity to come up with integral and effective ways to deal with anger and aggression problems. People are often seeking to understand why they are so angry and they often feel powerless to stop themselves from getting overwhelmed and lashing out. Becoming aggressive is the behavioural side of the emotion of anger, which can be taken out on the self or others, be they strangers or the people closest to you. Whether we call it frustration, irritation, annoyance or being 'peeved' it's all the same sliding scale of the anger emotion. Most often, other people do not deserve to be the brunt of an anger problem. The anger has been 'displaced' and projected on to others due to the person with the anger problem suppressing his feelings until the proverbial 'straw breaks the camel's back' and there is no further room to suppress any more - so the entire suppression/ core hurt body is spewed out on to other people, places or things nearby. The person has lost control of themselves, because they were attempting to be overly in control of themselves heretofore, for too long. Clearly, an anger problem definitively occurs when the behavioural reaction (aggression) to the experience of anger is overwhelming, excessive, violent and abusive. There is definitively an anger problem when the anger is chronic and frequently flares up and when it is channeled into abuse of the self or others, property or animals. If a person can't control what they do when they are angry this is a dangerous problem. (I have been informed by the works of other psychologists, like Steven Stosny Ph.D - which I have extended and personalized, and hopefully made more effective).
So how do we deal with it? Let's roll up our sleeves then and begin with the necessary evil - understanding:
First and foremost if a person wants to overcome an anger problem he must take full responsibility for everything he does, everything he thinks and says, and everything he feels. Whilst there may be external triggers (like people laughing at you) or mitigating factors (like depression or alcohol abuse that primes a person up for being aggressive) - categorically NO ONE ELSE IS EVER RESPONSIBLE FOR ANYTHING YOU WILLFULLY DO. Even if you didn't willfully do something, like for example you knocked someone over because you were in a rage and did not see him, you are still responsible for getting into that rage and becoming dangerous to others. You are still responsible for drinking the excessive quantities of alcohol or drugs if that is the case. If you can't handle alcohol or drugs and tend to become aggressive or violent or abusive, then you are choosing to be aggressive, violent and abusive whenever you use drugs or alcohol. You are choosing to take the risk of being harmful.
Now - this can be an annoying point for people with anger problems. In deed it can make them angry! The proposition of blame is so alluring that it is difficult to give it up. Blaming others makes us feel all warm and justified. It makes us feel good about ourselves, as if we are helping the other person by pointing out how wrong they are. It makes us feel 'off the hook' innocent and scott free. It protects us from considering how wrong we are and how wrong our action have been. It protects us from seeing how corrupt and down right cowardly we are. The river of 'denial' is not just in Egypt. Denial is a self protection mechanism, as self introspection that shows up all our weakness and foibles, how we've hurt others and how irresponsible and scary we are to ourselves (especially if we think we aren't in control of ourselves) is easily avoided by blaming other people, places, things, times or events for what we do.
So, denial, blame and minimisation of the severity of one's actions needs to be given up if a person wants to overcome the anger problem. How you are and what you do is no body else's fault but your own. Okay - if someone has abused you in the past, you have been traumatized or your main role model was an angry person then you have difficult mitigating factors to be considered. This will make your job of taking responsibility and giving up blame even harder than the average angry punter - but you still need to do it. Denial, blame and minimisation is like an addiction and you will go through withdrawals when you come off it. It is made easier when we start to experience acknowledgement and validation of the primary hurt feelings behind the anger - whether or not we get it from others. That is, we need to learn to acknowledge and validate our own feelings first in a kind of 'inner friendship'. Start to understand that you are worthy of compassion and love REGARDLESS OF WHETHER YOU GET IT FROM OTHERS.
In a nutshell, the more we blame others, the more disempowered we make ourselves. So if a person wants to argue the point I will point this out to them - 'Okay - so it's everyone else's fault - they have all the power and they 'made you do it' and if they hadn't have done such and such then you wouldn't have become abusive, etc. So it seems that you are merely a marionette puppet doll on strings - and a puppet of your own making. All someone must do is pull your strings and they can make you react however they wish - because you have just given them all of your power by making that statement and having that attitude'. What if you cut those strings and took responsibility for your self, for everything you do, say, think and feel? Whilst it might be scary it is empowering.
Don't you want more power? Don't you want to be a powerful and independent man or woman?
Of course you do.
So firstly in dealing with an anger problem a person must recognize his triggers, both internal and external events that tend to rouse his fury. When these come up in life he can be mindful that it is his responsibility to respond appropriately, and this may mean removing himself from the situation, taking deep yogic type breaths, focusing on something else, counting to ten, doing exercise, etc. Calming the self down and not acting out of the emotion by going into aggression or abuse is the first step that follows responsibility. This alternative relaxation or exercise response is a crutch in the mean time until we start to get to the bottom of the underlying feelings behind the anger. Albeit a very useful, necessary and important crutch. We can take responsibility for our triggers, and then unmask the psychological stuff behind the anger (hurt and shame, mentioned later in this piece) and we can then work on desensitizing ourselves to that underlying stuff - but we need to acknowledge that no matter how advanced we are in this process we may still suffer a relapse and so we need to be careful. The crutch of behavioural anger management is always there if we need it. We can also practice skills in assertive communication, conflict resolution and solution focused skills to prevent problems from building up and triggering an overspill of our anger. This is a form of preventative medicine and common sense. So don't get drunk, don't associate with people who will disregard and disrespect you, don't do dealings with shonky people who will rip you off, and take care of problems when they first arise to prevent them compounding and worsening into disasters. Make a firm commitment not to allow your anger to control you again, and not to hurt others in any way, shape or form again. All of this will prevent the anger and stress from building up where we are more likely to become overwhelmed when the 'emotional suppression volcano' is full and has nowhere else to go but a full-scale Krackatoa eruption, or when that straw finally beaks the proverbial back.
So once we take responsibility for ourselves and everything we do, we may then want to go beyond the somewhat 'sitting duck' status of traditional cognitive behavioural anger management. Okay - so we know our triggers and we are more assertive and organised and we understand that we are responsible and that blame disempowers us, and we even practice relaxation and stress management skills. What then if we really want to overcome an anger problem and get to the bottom of things? What then comes up is a different kind of feeling. When we give up denial and blame and start to take responsibility for ourselves we experience: shame. No one likes to feel ashamed of themselves because it feels bad. This emotion has a very physical feeling, as if your guts are being twisted, chewed up and spat out all at once. It's no wonder that we avoid such a feeling, and this avoidance of course fuels the journey up the river of denial, blame and further disempowerment ad nauseum.
Coming to grips with this shame in the sense of 'you've got to feel it to heal it' can be like a rebirthing experience. It is powerful. It is like being initiated into secret knowledge. Shame is an emotion which is necessary to feel. It will be your greatest ally against anger if you ALLOW YOURSELF TO FEEL IT. Conversely if you don't allow yourself to feel it, if you avoid it, shame will then become your greatest enemy on the road to overcoming anger problems. So at this crossroads - you get to choose. What will it be and which way will you go?
We need to understand the nature of the 'suppressed hurt - shame - anger - emotional identity complex' and then release parts of it, heal other parts of it, and reverse still other parts of it..
When you look deeper into this shame mystery we can see that the emotion is extremely important. In deed it is what makes us most human. It is the emotion that psychopaths do not have, or at least they are not in touch with it. It gives us a conscience of regard for self and others. It keeps us on the straight and narrow in life and prevents us from hurting other people. It makes us do the right thing, or otherwise we will have to endure more shame and more of that awful gut churning feeling. Doing the right thing in keeping the conscience as your compass in life is not the same as shame avoidance in the sense of denial, anger and blame. Being conscionable is about having respect for shame and for life and ethics. Rather than being avoided, the shame is managed and kept in check with a full awareness of what it is. If I understand and respect fire, I no longer get burned by it, but I still use it as a necessity to keep warm by.
So therapeutically speaking what I need to do with this understanding then is assist the person to feel the shame in order to become introspective and 'intro-tactile', where they can feel their suppressed emotions one bit at a time. Systematic desensitization to underlying feelings behind anger and aggression is typically the responsible and most effective way to go about the healing journey. We don't overload too much, too fast. It is through feeling this shame and hurt matrix behind the anger that a person not only begins to know their deeper self (the beginning of the Great Work in life), but also starts to remove the suppressed or even repressed hurt-shame emotional energy that lies beneath the expressive anger and aggression. Put short - we need to feel it to heal it, and in order to feel it we must first be aware of what 'it' is and how it works. This form of therapeutic primary emotional exposure starts to empower the person with resilience. It works like a vaccine, where if I have been exposed to a pathogen before, I am ready to survive it better next time. So when a person is exposed to the hurt-shame-anger emotional matrix and its triggers in real life, what we call in vivo exposure or the 'real deal', they have some preparedness due to the therapeutic exposure and they are more able to sit with their hurt and shame when it is triggered by external triggers and events, or even internal triggers like memories, thought patterns and dreams. This 'sitting with' the underlying emotions occurs with self compassion and responsibility so a person feels good about the strength they are showing in so doing. When the person does not lash out and they can sit with the emotion until it passes they are developing skills in emotion regulation. This is the absolute bastion of emotional recovery from anger and violence problems. If you can sit with an emotion and self-regulate the feelings of hurt and shame with self compassion and responsibility until it naturally passes, you have conquered the anger demon. This does not mean you will never feel angry again, as I am sure sometimes anger is useful, necessary and justified, however you won't lose control and be 'possessed' by the anger to your detriment. The experience of anger has become infrequent and occasional, appropriate to the given trigger, manageable and not overwhelming and is clearly separated from any reckless violence or abuse (which is never really justified at all).
Now in order to be able to survive this journey of self discovery the growth pangs need to be endured and the way to enable this is to cultivate self compassion. So I would help the person firstly connect to a sense of positive regard for themselves. This self compassion is easier to muster when a person thinks of himself as a child, going through many of the trials and tribulations that were instrumental in establishing the hurts and pains that he then had to suppress later on. This suppression and ignorance of the pain of the self is really a form of self abandonment. So this self-encounter, also referred to as an 'inner child embrace' is about coming home to the self and providing self nurture, love and compassion for the self. This is absolutely necessary in order to overcome a deep anger problem.
The deeper emotions themselves, behind the presenting anger provides the guidance needed to get to this inner sanctum. Behind anger lies hurt, and behind hurt lies great childhood vulnerability. So we help the person connect to this childhood vulnerability in a guided conversation, perhaps involving some meditative/hypnotic visualisation and encourage the person to purposefully cultivate and channel a 'sense' of compassion and love to this inner vulnerable self.
This starts to create a resilient backbone to the whole unmasking of the anger. Rather than being simply left naked and abandoned with the painful shame and hurt emotions, the person is left with shame and hurt alongside its necessary healing counterpart, love and self compassion.
In a nutshell we identify that behind the anger and shame is a vulnerability due to feeling specific hurt feelings. All of these hurt feelings will disaffect you but there are specific autobiographical hurts; sensitive hurts due to unresolved issues from the past. The major core hurts are, feeling:
- unloved or unlovable.
Associated hurt feelings also include feeling rejected, betrayed, disregarded, disrespected, let down, not good enough, helpless, etc. By reduction however, they all boil down to the big 3 above. It is important whether by introspection or in therapy to identify what your particular sensitive hurt(s) is. When this is identified it can be worked on and the whole hurt-shame-anger-aggression matrix can start to be unravelled and undermined. Think about all the times you have ran away or punished yourself (and others) when you are hurt. This is often about feeling overwhelmed and powerless to do anything, where in actual fact it is the emotional avoidance up to this point that has actually made you this way - you haven't got any experience in recognizing, sitting with and dealing with the pain and hurt, so you'd run away or get angry instead. Getting angry actually gives you the illusion of power over the situation: so the emotional avoidance perpetuates an illusion of power when you get angry, but the avoidance actually makes you more and more incompetent, and more of a sitting duck when the emotion comes up again, and the angry response is often inappropriate and unhelpful anyways. So this cycle fuels itself.
As always, self awareness is the key to genuine power. We can practice a meditative method as both an anger prophylactic / preventative and also as a tool for acute crisis times where anger is about to erupt. As a prophylactic, several times per day you need to make yourself become a little angry by thinking of a trigger event. Say to yourself 'I am angry'. Then take a deep breath and allow yourself to feel the underlying core hurt beneath the anger that you have already identified: e.g. 'I am feeling powerless - and this is the real emotion behind the anger which I am responsible to heal'. As always the appropriate response to hurt is not punishment or running away - rather, it is soothing, nurturing and healing. As an emotional vaccine allow yourself to feel the underlying emotion for 5 seconds - feel what it's like to be completely powerless. Then take another deep breath and allow that emotion to dissipate quickly. Just as you have let it come up you can also let it go again. So let it go. Feel a sense of self compassion for yourself, say 'I have compassion for my hurt and pain - this too is passing. It will get easier in time'. Connect to your inner strength by saying: 'deep within me I know the reverse is true - i.e. I am powerful (or lovable or adequate and good enough) in truth, even though at times I may feel powerless - I am powerful'. Afterall, feelings are not facts in reality. They are a temporary perspective of how things feel at the time. They are important to recognize as they are so compelling, and it is important to take care of them and learn to regulate them. It is also important to realize that emotions are not the be all and end all; they are a momentary perspective and dare I say it - sometimes irrational. For example, I might feel helpless, but when I start to really think about it, there may be all kinds of things I can do to help myself; even things I am already doing that help. So we feel the feeling (the core hurt) and then we connect to the underlying truth of who we really are and this puts it all in perspective.
This exercise is deepened even further if, when you allow yourself to feel the underlying hurt emotion beneath the anger you then think of the time(s) that all of this hurt was set up, when you first suffered it. Go back to that time when you were probably a child and you were feeling (e.g.) inadequate, unloved or powerless. Imagine that scene and what was going on, when you are tempted to get angry to escape the scene and the feeling, rather, go into self compassion. Be assertive toward the other people or problems that were involved (e.g. imagine yourself telling off a bully or perpetrator) and then turn back toward your younger self and show him love and compassion. Imagine rescuing him - and taking him away from the danger and any abuse that might be going on, holding him and reassuring him that he is loved and that he will be okay. Allow yourself to give him any advice you may need to give him. Tell him that he is fundamentally a good person - and that he is okay; that whatever has happened that was done by others is not his fault. Then come back to the present moment. Take a few breaths and feel that lingering self compassion. Be kind and honest with yourself, and let this be reflected in your day to day actions, self talk and how you talk about yourself to others. Don't put yourself down anymore, don't pretend to be anything other than who you are: honour your authentic self by acting in accordance with your authentic, real, inner values.
You can practice this emotional healing exercise every day. You can also practice it when you are being challenged by a trigger event and by anger in real life. When you practice time out, and take yourself away from a trigger scenario so as not to be abusive you can practice this meditation. It can take as little as 3 minutes. After a while it starts to become automatic and you will experience a deep and profound transcendence of the underlying anger problem. It will, largely, start to go away and you will become a man or woman of authenticity, courage and peace.
How much should you do it? The answer is more aptly found from the question - how much do you need it and how much do you want to get out of it? So learn to self adjust your practice in this way based on your level of need - the more the better. Rather than letting anger overwhelm you, you have begun a great journey of self discovery and healing, where the anger symptom led you to its cause. You will still experience a 'normal' level of anger when it is necessary, but you will no longer get overwhelmed and do the wrong thing.