Updated 03 January 2023
In this blog, I use my experience of helping people with anger management in trauma therapy and relationship counselling, to clear up some important misunderstandings about how to manage your anger. My hunch is that you may have been doing the opposite of what you are meant to be doing!
Firstly, anger in relationships is inevitable, because arguments and conflicts are inevitable. In a relationship* there are two minds involved so seeing things differently is unavoidable. People can get angry when there is a disagreement, because they may feel they are not being heard, they are being dismissed, or criticised.
A lot of people tend to think they have an anger problem. Or at least people around them do. If you were drawn to the title of this blog, it is likely you are in either category.
We often see the problem as feeling too much anger, too often, or for the wrong reasons. So we think that we need to control our anger.
In this blog, I will suggest an alternative view, based on Intensive Short-Term Dynamic Psychotherapy (ISTDP) a revolutionary form of psychotherapy that I offer privately in Kensington, London.
I will suggest that rather than control our anger we need to stop suppressing it.
Towards a better definition
Anger management is not a helpful idea, in my opinion. A better one would be anger experiencing. Our anger is a healthy emotion and we do not need to control it. We need to feel it deeply and fully. A problem arises when our we suppress our anger and this triggers anxiety. We will usually then ignore and neglect this anxiety until it leads to an explosion in the form of swearing, shouting, or physical violence.
The reasons for for suppressing anger are probably related to our childhood experiences, as well as broader social messages around us.
Feeling our anger deeply and fully (without undue anxiety) makes us strong. If we use anger in our service, we can be more assertive and put boundaries in place. It doesn’t matter if our anger is “justified”. If we feel angry, we feel angry, and we need to feel our anger deeply and fully.
(It can, however be exhausting if we feel it much of the time. If we belong to a marginalised or oppressed group, we will be angry a lot more of the time than people with privileged group memberships. This can also lead to us being seen as “angry people”.)
In my clinical practice I pay careful, moment to moment attention to my clients’ physiological experience. I believe it is anxiety or anger mixed with anxiety which are the problem.
Some of us rarely feel anger, much less express it. When anger is triggered we feel anxiety instead. We may attract an anxiety disorder diagnosis.
In relationship counselling I may see one partner raging against the other, trembling and shaking with anxiety whereas the other partner defends against their anger by shutting down. Each pushes the other further away.
In individual therapy I may enquire into a client’s feelings towards their partner. They may start showing symptoms of anxiety or defend by rationalising or intellectualising.
Some of us use anger as a way of not feeling grief. Rather than experience sadness (often originating from attachment ruptures in childhood), we get angry. This is because there is so much pain inside that the prospect of feeling it triggers anxiety. Here anger is a defence against anxiety rather than a cause for it.
For some of us with a trauma history, being angry is a way of being alive, as opposed to going into a floppy, frozen state of anxiety.
Yet, shouting or yelling is not expressing anger. Using physical violence is not expressing anger. It is discharging the anxiety from suppressed anger, more like evacuating it. If we feel too much anxiety about the anger, we cannot feel it deeply and fully.
An invitation to reflect
Take a moment to reflect on your beliefs about anger. Do you consider it a negative emotion? Do you allow yourself to be angry in yourself? Do you allow yourself to be angry in the presence of another person? Do you allow yourself to show that you are angry? Do you allow yourself to express anger towards the other person?
Do you think that feeling angry is a sign of weakness? A cause for rejection?
In such cases, we are likely to either become anxious or defend against the anger in situations that may trigger it.
Do you wonder: “If I get angry I will hurt the other person/the relationship?”
Experiencing anger and expressing anger are two separate things. For many of us this is not clear.
Expressing anger clearly and precisely can deepen relationships, not damage them.
However, some of us become anxious about our anger and discharge it. Then it can hurt others. This should be taken seriously and therapy is often needed to feel safer with our anger.
In ISTDP we can allow ourselves to bracket the defence and hold off on the anxiety. This allows anger to emerge. With trauma survivors this is done in very small manageable steps. We can then listen to what the anger is trying to tell us. The fended off anger often has its origins back in childhood. Unrequited love. Neglect. Abuse.
The anger needs to be felt for the story to be remembered.
* This article is about relationships between two people. Polyamorous relationships are best thought of as a system.
** If you feel you may need some help with your anxiety about anger get in touch by emailing me at firstname.lastname@example.org. 07805945233 if you’re old fashioned.
*** Photography by @usmanyousaf