understanding anger

Of the range emotions that people explore in counselling, many feel most afraid and ashamed of anger – their own anger as well as that of others. Anger makes us feel out of control, unlike ourselves. It is an emotion that we believe needs to be ‘managed’; even very young children talk of having ‘anger issues’, as though the anger is separate from the self, beyond control. It is, of course, the expression of anger in some forms, not anger itself, which causes problems. When anger is acted upon with verbal, psychological or physical violence it is abusive and destructive. Such behaviour does need to be managed, but to manage the behaviour, we need to understand, and perhaps rehabilitate, the emotion which fuels it.

Different therapeutic approaches have added to our understanding of angry feelings and behaviour. An approach drawn from cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), for instance, associates anger with an individual’s core belief that life is unfair (what is referred to as a ‘schema of injustice’); so CBT might encourage a client to uncover the contours of such a deeply held belief, to reconsider the evidence and look at life differently. A person-centred counsellor might work with a client to understand their relationship with anger, its meanings and uses for the individual client, which can reveal itself in the way they talk about their anger. Psychoanalysis might focus on the relationship between triggers for anger in the present and experiences in past; this dynamic might even be played out between the therapist and the client and provide helpful material during the therapy. Mindfulness teaches us that angry behaviour stems from an absence of compassion for the self; thus anger towards others is a secondary effect rather than a primary cause of angry behaviour. Instead of managing anger, mindfulness would encourage clients to pay attention to the anger, to notice how it manifests itself in the body and what thoughts and feelings accompany it. According to this approach, mindful attention, rather than management, reduces the intensity of anger.

Whatever particular approach a therapist or counsellor shares with a client who asks for help with anger, a clear distinction would be made between feeling and expressing anger, and between destructive and transformative expressions of anger. Anger can be a force for positive change, whether within the self (anger can be a sign that an individual’s needs are not being met), in a relationship (anger is often a symptom of poor communication) or directed outward to social structures. Most movements against oppression and unjust systems of power have harnessed collective anger to effect change. Not all expressions of anger are treated equally, however ‘just’ their motivation, as the histories of the women’s movement, fights against racial discrimination, homophobia and religious oppression illustrate.

The unconditional space provided for individuals in counselling can reveal not only what is triggering angry behaviour, but what fuels the anger itself; anger is often the symptom of other, unexpressed emotions like sadness, fear, humiliation or hopelessness. To express those feelings requires revealing a vulnerability with which many of us are not comfortable. It may feel safer, or perhaps more familiar, to be angry. Those who grow up in families where anger is expressed abusively, or is present but not expressed at all, may have a particularly anxious relationship with their own feelings of anger, and consequently find themselves expressing it indirectly (through passive aggression) or avoiding confrontation or direct expressions of anger to the extent that they lose touch with their own needs and wants entirely.

Looked at from these various perspectives, anger starts to look more like a ‘decoy’, a stand-in for other emotions which are harder to recognise but which need as much attention. Paying attention to what our anger actually is, then, what its presence tells us about what we need, might reduce our need to control and manage it. The goal of any work with anger should not be to further repress it, but to encourage its appropriate expression and to explore its relationship with other emotions which are often masked by its overbearing presence.

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