By John Andersen
Men get angry; women get upset. A common complaint about men is that they can’t control their anger. And this leads to verbal abuse and in extreme cases physical violence. There is a lot of talk about anger management. And time and again, when I work with couples, the request from the female partner is that her partner needs anger management.
Before we manage anger, we need to understand it.
First, there is generally another emotion behind anger. Anger does not come out of nowhere. At the risk of over-simplification, we experience anger in response to three things : hurt, fear, and shame.
When we get hurt, we may respond with anger, whether it is the physical pain of hurt, or the emotional hurt of social rejection, personal failure or criticism. This is one reason why people who experience chronic pain are often more irritable and can easily get angry. They are constantly experiencing hurt. Fear is another common contributor to anger.
Anger often is a response to fear that mobilizes us to really take action. Anger overcomes that tendency of fear to freeze.
Finally, shame is a major cause of anger. We experience shame when we feel that other people are judging us or viewing us in a negative way, or when we negatively judge ourselves for failing to live up to our own standards and aspirations. Feeling shame is usually associated with feeling a failure, being no good, stupid, rejected, unwanted, or unloved. Shame is experienced with reference to either competence or social acceptance. Shame is a really painful emotion. So people avoid having to experience shame by instead covering it with anger. Shame is hatred and rejection directed in at oneself. Anger, in contrast, is directed outwards against other people. So anger frequently is a defence against shame.
Is the solution to banish anger? Not at all! Anger has a proper function. It’s task is to protect the person. Anger is like a bouncer in a pub. Its job is to ensure the person remains safe. So it will be activated in response to perceived threats to the person. The intensity of the emotion of anger is designed to grab the person’s attention, and kick the person into action. And so anger becomes intense rapidly and the person acts before he or she thinks.
Anger is really good at monitoring situations and looking out for threats. But anger is really dumb when it comes to taking action, particularly in complex social situations. Anger just does not think things through from a social relationship perspective. That is why anger is so well known as a destructive emotion. Anger expressed in action too often creates social havoc.
So how can people handle anger? First, by paying attention to what anger is concerned about. Anger is concerned about threats to our safety. So it is worth listening to. So the first question is, “What is my anger about?” This means, we need to listen to our anger, not suppress it.
Second, once we have identified the message, anger has done its job. The next step is for me to go into problem-solving mode. To stop, think with my head, get in touch with my social “smarts” and work out what is the best way of looking after myself in the situation I am in. What is the socially smart way of addressing anger’s concern? Most of the time, it involves taking a different course of action to that of reflexive anger. This is what anger management is all about.