Most approaches to anger management are fatally flawed through seeing anger as bad and something to be controlled and avoided. People with ‘anger management issues’ may be referred on to psychobabble specialists like Dr Buddy Rydell as played in the film Anger Management who treat anger as a mental health disorder rather than as a potentially healthy response to poor behaviour on the part of others.
The study of emotional intelligence suggests a different view.
Anger is good:
- It brings issues out into the open
- It gets you taken seriously
- It corrects poor behaviour
- It initiates change in others
- It fights injustice (think Martin Luther King)
- It protects you from manipulators
- It urges you to leave abusive relationships
- It forces you to define yourself and what you want
- It helps you towards self-respect
- It maintains boundaries between you and others
Rage is bad….
Rage has little to do with genuine emotion and is something to be avoided. Rage is destructive, childish and emotionally stupid. The emotion of anger, on the other hand, is something you should learn to channel and express for the ultimate benefit of you and people you are in relationship with. This is the first in a series or articles that shows you how.
First, let’s make some distinctions:
Anger is one of the five or six basic emotions produced by the brain in response to changes in the environment. The others are fear, sadness, disgust, joy and surprise (there is some disagreement over items in the list). Anger comes up when the limbic system assesses that you are under threat from someone else who may be taking advantage of you, belittling you, taking you for granted, insulting you or bullying you. The intelligence of the body – or ‘Bodymind‘ – is alerting you to take action to assert your right to respectful treatment and to call for a change in the other person’s behaviour towards you. Contrary to myth the emotion of anger does not call for confrontation or aggression on your part (more on this later).
Rage is emotion distorted by resentment, control and timidity in which pent-up anger and frustration erupts into an out-of-control state in which the person seems hijacked or possessed by the Furies. Rage is ventilated through screaming, shouting, destruction and violence. In some cases – such as road rage the individual will put lives at risk in order to ‘get even’ with other drivers.
Rage is based on two sources:
Repression. Emotions are ignored or denied because the person has been taught that anger is bad, scary, selfish or something to be avoided. Typically, the habit of repression is learnt in childhood from parents and teachers who shy away from conflict and believe that emotions are irrational. Mild, timid, and ultra-reasonable people, they respond to bad behaviour by ignoring it or by engaging perpetrators in rational discussion through which (it is hoped) they understand the error of their ways and sin no more.
While this is a nice model in some ways it doesn’t teach emotional intelligence and it doesn’t teach children what to do with anger when it is produced in Bodymind.
When anger is created it does not disappear when ignored but is stored in the body, awaiting resolution. However, because the person does not know how to resolve conflicts, or because they see anger as ‘bad’ then resolution is never achieved. The unresolved anger simmers away, just below the level of consciousness, fuelling resentment, irritability or passive-aggressive behaviour such as sulking, non-cooperation and veiled contempt. As rage stacks up a pressure-cooker effect is created and the person eventually ventilates over relatively trivial incidents that have little to do with what really is upsetting her. I once worked with a client who went into an epic 45-minute tantrum over a poorly-cooked steak in which he swore at his wife, smashed up furniture and made so much noise that a neighbour called the police. The real cause? He believed that she no longer cared for him and was secretly planning to leave the relationship – worries that he kept to himself. In some cases rage erupts in dependent relationships because the person is too scared to talk about what is really upsetting them – believing that if they did they would be ridiculed or rejected.
Character traits. For some people rage is a habit. Disagreeable, irritable, impatient and bad-tempered they let off steam on a daily basis whenever events – or other people – do not meet with their expectations, demands and wishes. From delayed trains, slow service and traffic jams to careless drivers, lazy employees and anyone who happens to disagree with them they react in fury.
The origin of these traits is complex. Sometimes the origin lies in childhood: the person may have grown up with parents who were always in a fret and rage comes to seem natural. Others were bullied or intimidated at school or elsewhere and grow up with an underlying sense of powerlessness that fuels resentment, frustration and – later – rage. Such people may grow up with a high need to prove themselves in some way and for control over events and other people which erupts in rage when it is thwarted. Related to this need for control is a perfectionistic, driven, high-achieving attitude which insists on success at all costs – and reacts with impatience should that not be forthcoming. These traits are often seen in what are called ‘Type A’ personalities.
In the next two articles in this series I will be writing firstly about emotionally intelligent ways to express anger and then on ways to eliminate rage.