Over the years I have been working with people who have so-called ‘anger management issues’ I have found that are some persuasive myths which are not only wrong, they are actually damaging.
Anger is an emotion pure and simple. It can be powerful to be sure, that’s its job, and it can also involve other emotions that help trigger or maintain it (fear or resentment, for example). Beyond that, there is no reason to treat anger differently from any other unwanted emotion when learning to control it.
A good starting point, I have found, is to blow away some of these myths. They are disempowering false beliefs that prevent us from taking a clear-eyed look at anger, whether it is our own or somebody else’s:
Anger is cathartic, if you let it out it will go away
There is a popular misconception that ‘venting’ anger will release it and help get it under control. Therapists took up on this and over 20 years ago and it was common practice for some forms of therapy to encourage people to express their anger in the belief that it would automatically evaporate.
An extension to this was to provide ʻcushion bashingʼ opportunities for people to get in touch with, and release, their anger. The opposite is true, subsequent research has shown that focusing on anger makes us angrier, in the same way that focusing on any emotion makes us more aware of it, and makes it easier to access.
This is not the same by the way, of discussing anger constructively. Talking it out – either with the person whose behaviour ’caused’ your anger or with a third party in order to understand yourself better – is perfectly valid. Venting anger by recreating it is not.
Expressing anger is bad, it must not be allowed
When parents will not accept anger in their children the price for having a placid child may be that they grow into an unhappy adult. Also, the child will not have the opportunity to learn to manage one of their most potent emotions in later life. In close relationships, it is important that couples have an agreed strategy for handling anger within the relationship, and that we can all know how to keep our angry responses within appropriate limits.
Not expressing anger is bad, if you keep it in you suffer
This may be used by people who want to justify their own anger, or to get others to speak about how angry they must feel (when perhaps they donʼt). Either way, there are no short-term risks associated with withholding our anger. On the contrary, it is the start of effective anger management.
Other people ’cause’ our anger
Often used as an excuse, but not true. We all control our anger in some situations, with a boss or when we are afraid to express it, for example. Other peoples’ behaviour might trigger something in you that leads to an angry response, but nobody eles’makes’ you angry, more than they can make you feel any emotion.
Some people are born angry
Clearly we are all born with the capacity for anger but there is no anger gene that predisposes people to be angry all their lives. There is a link between the emotional state of a mother-to-be during pregnancy and the emotional responses – particularly anxiety – of her child. Beyond that, any propensity for anger is probably psychosocial rather than biological, and learned rather than innate.
People can ʻstore upʼ anger
This is linked to the ʻanger is catharticʼ myth and relies on the belief that people contain an anger reservoir where pressure can build up. Failure to ʻlet off steamʼ at regular intervals could result in an eventual explosion or internal damage to the system (this is a model based on 19th century physics). This fits well with the metaphor of the human being as a machine, an image that we frequently make use of in our daily conversations, but it should not be taken literally. Over a century of research has failed to discover an anger reservoir in the human body.
You can’t control anger
Everybody has the potential to be able to control their emotional reactions. Not completely, but to a degree. What’s more, it has been my experience, when working with people who claim they can’t control their anger, that they could all find examples of times when they kept their anger at bay. In fact, this is one of the cornerstones of my solution-focused anger management approach; discover what a person already knows how to do, and help them learn to do more of it.
Anger is self-justifying and seductive. We have all embarrassed ourselves with the odd angry outburst that happened at the wrong time, in the wrong place, or was directed at the wrong person.
Part of the reason these myths have grown up may be that they are comforting and handy to believe. That doesn’t make them right, any more than our anger makes us right.