By Cecilia Capuzzi Simon, published on July 1, 2005 - last reviewed on November 20, 2015
At the age of 3, Steven Stosny was rushed to a hospital emergency room with a roof shingle lodged in his skull. In a burst of angry rage, his father had thrown it at Stosny after the toddler poked a stick into wall plaster that was still damp. Along with a permanent hole in his head ("Do you want to feel it?" he asks), Stosny was left with a vivid experience of the deadly potential of uncontrolled anger. Today, the 55-year-old Stosny—a Ph.D. and clinical psychologist practicing in the Washington, D.C. area—has become a multimedia guru of anger. He has turned his intimate understanding of the emotion and its roots into an unconventional treatment method that's gaining both widespread popular attention and the notice of other psychologists. Most anger management programs are based on cognitive-behavioral therapy and the premise that our rational thoughts shape our emotional responses. If you can think before you explode and use relaxation techniques to calm your physiological response, the theory goes, you can control your anger and its potentially messy aftermath.
But research has shown that conventional anger management doesn't work very well. Domestic violence treatment is even less effective. These programs can help the highly motivated—but most people with problem anger don't think they have a problem and don't seek out treatment. Besides, merely controlling the impulse to lash out doesn't get to the root of long-term resentments. At the heart of problem anger, believes Stosny, are severe feelings of shame and guilt as well as a lack of empathy for self and others—or at least an inability to recognize and express it. Rather than merely teaching tactics to control anger, Stosny asks his clients to look at their emotional core and make a truly revolutionary shift: trade bullying for compassion. Instead of confronting angry people with their failures, he provides a way for them to adhere to their own internal values and meet their own best standards. Once that person recognizes his or her own best qualities, it becomes easier to substitute kindness and compassion for violence and hostility. "If you show people a way to change," says Stosny, "they do."
Anger is not a popular subject of study. It's not fun to be around, and angry people are difficult to treat. Inevitably, studying anger also involves taking on the conundrum of domestic abuse, a sensitive subject dominated by what Raymond DiGiuseppe, a professor of psychology at St. John's University in New York City, calls a "politically correct view" focused on sexual inequality.
There is no consensus on anger's roots or definition, and academics debate whether persistent anger, which usually accompanies depression or anxiety, is an emotional disorder in its own right. Nor is there agreement on how to help people deal with anger. Many consider "anger management" an empty buzzword. "I hate the term," says DiGiuseppe. "It implies that we can keep anger under wraps. It doesn't imply therapy or treatment for a problem."
As a culture, we're ambivalent about anger. On one hand, there is a hip righteousness associated with flipping the bird at a driver who cuts you off; or, if you are a professional athlete, barreling into the stands to pummel the fan who has thrown a paper cup at your head. At the same time, we wring our hands in fear that anger is corroding civil society. But a moderate amount of anger, expressed under the right circumstances, plays an important role in healthy psychology. It saves us from predators, literal and figurative. Anger can motivate us to take on unpleasant tasks, like confronting a bully; it can maneuver others into attending to our needs. Besides, feeling anger doesn't always mean acting on it. Only 10 percent of anger is followed by aggression, points out Howard Kassinove, a psychology professor at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York. "For a lot of us it's 'anger in,'" he says. "It's usually not shown."
Nonetheless, anger's provocations can be overwhelming and pervasive. More typical than physical aggression is the coworker seething with disappointment and resentment. Even everyday hassles like commuting or struggling with an automated phone system can cause anger that manifests as stress, hostility, depression or physical illness. Stosny's lesson is that once the root of anger is identified, a person can learn to be less responsive to these petty frustrations—and gain control over what seems to be an uncontrollable reaction.
"Most people with real anger problems think that something outside of them controls what they think and feel," Stosny explains in an interview at A.M.E. Reid Temple in Prince George's County, Maryland, where he is preparing to teach a class. "They see themselves as just reacting to their environment. I want them to learn that there's something in them that regulates their emotions, regardless of what other people do."
This night is the third meeting of Stosny's 14-week workshop. It's a larger group than normal—his appearances on The Oprah Winfrey Show have brought many new clients. Stosny began his workshops in 1990 treating Maryland maximum security inmates, and since then, referrals from the criminal justice system have made up the bulk of his practice. Tonight's participants saunter into the fluorescent-lit basement classroom. About 25 of those present, mostly African-American men, have been ordered by a judge to attend, many on domestic violence charges. Few talk. There is little eye contact.
Stosny, dressed in pressed slacks, a blue collared shirt and black sweater, is a slight man with a low-key presence and a vestigial New Jersey accent. Initially, it is hard to imagine that this unimposing white guy, who appears not to have suffered an angry day in his life, could have much to offer this group.
Tonight's lesson: HEALS, Stosny's acronym for the five steps in a process that replaces feelings of anger with feelings of compassion. It will be learned through repetition—what Stosny calls "emotional conditioning"—to be practiced at least 12 times a day for the next 12 weeks.
His method has been shaped by John Bowlby's attachment theories and the teachings of Silvan Tomkins, who believed that all emotion is expressed physiologically. In his book Treating Attachment Abuse, Stosny explains that "a natural and healthy function" of shame or guilt is to help us maintain our attachment to loved ones: parent, lover, child. If we are threatened with loss of that relationship, guilt and shame motivate us to reestablish the bond, often through angry behavior. The problem is that anger is a turnoff, pushing the attachment figure further away, and making us angrier still.
"I've worked with more than 4,500 court-ordered DV offenders and child abusers, and I never met one who didn't feel like a powerless victim," he says— "No matter how victimizing they are, they see themselves retaliating against an unfair relationship or an unfair world." In this way, we learn from early relationships to blame our unpleasant feelings on others. So as adults, when we feel shamed or disregarded in situations that have nothing to do with loved ones—say, in the hierarchical workplace or in rush-hour traffic—our reaction is to get angry, targeting the person who made us feel that way. At the same time, we get a neurochemical rush from anger that relieves anxiety and provides a physiological boost. The nasty cycle turns many into what Stosny calls "anger junkies."
Anger experts agree that breaking this cycle requires more than an intellectual understanding, which is why cognitive therapy alone doesn't work for many angry people. Those who want to change their angry reactions have to be willing to unlearn deeply ingrained behavior. As Howard Kassinove points out, most angry people have been practicing being angry for years. Breaking such patterns in a 14-week workshop is a formidable challenge.
Stosny didn't plan to study anger. Until age 35, he was a playwright of middling success and taught creative writing at the University of Maryland. Then his father died. His mother had left his father when Stosny was only 11, and the death plunged Stosny into deep depression. He struggled with resentment and at times felt suicidal. Eventually, he emerged from his depression with a desire to write a self-help book. Graduate school in psychology was the next step.
Through a fluke, Stosny wound up taking over an ill colleague's grant to develop a domestic-violence program. He was shocked to find little in the domestic-violence literature on aggression. Instead, he found mostly an antimale sexist litany. One of the two main methods for treating domestic violence, the Duluth model, is built on the feminist idea that domestic abuse stems from men's desire to control women. In Stosny's experience, that explanation of spousal abuse didn't add up. His instincts were right: Research on the Duluth model and on cognitive-behavioral domestic violence programs, the two main forms of treatment for domestic violence, shows that they are mostly ineffective and can even increase emotional abuse.
He sought out his mother for a reality check. His father's behavior was not a show of power, his mother said. "He felt powerless all the time," she told him. His problem, she believed, was an inability to experience compassion. Stosny went back to the psychological literature, theorizing that tapping into clients' capacity for empathy could provide an antidote to anger and aggression. "If you can replace the aggressive impulse with a compassionate one," he says, "you can begin to undo entrenched, violent behavior."
Dressed up with a little pop-psychology packaging, that's the basic idea behind HEALS. If it all sounds a bit New Agey, former clients swear by the process, claiming these steps enabled them to identify personal hurts fueling their anger and to develop a quick and automatic response to defuse anger's triggers. Some carry cards around with the HEALS steps outlined to remind them of its potential, or to hand out to others who have problem anger.
Don Freeman sought out Stosny after pouring boiling water on his partner during a domestic squabble. Some of Stosny's advice sounds "trite," he says, but it worked for him. "Dr. Stosny tells you to stop being a victim and blaming others for your feelings," Freeman says. "The idea of putting yourself in someone else's shoes—that's pretty basic. But staying conscious of that stuff helped me."
Judy Curl, a Baltimore-area therapist who works with troubled teens, took Stosny's workshop to understand her own anger, but she uses what she learned with her clients. One 15-year-old boy was in her office constantly for drugs, violence and aggressive language. No one could get through to him, and she was out of ideas. "I had just been to Stosny's class, and I said, 'You come across as really big and tough and angry. But under that anger, I think you're really hurt. I think there's a lot of pain in your family.'" The boy started to cry.
"That was the beginning of getting through to him," she says. "It was the only approach that worked."
Among those who have devoted academic careers to the study of anger, there is skepticism, surprise and some envy at the popular notice Stosny is getting—including the appearances on Oprah and an endorsement by Dr. Phil, who highlighted Stosny's forthcoming book, Stop Walking on Eggshells. They are baffled, as well, by the growth of his practice (1,000 trained workshop teachers under his CompassionPower brand in 35 states and 15 countries).
Some are simply offended by his commercial success. Others criticize his method as a quick fix. No one takes issue with his basic idea. "What he says is quite sensible—compassion is good," says Raymond Novaco, a professor of psychology at the University of California at Irvine who coined the term "anger management" and is renowned in the field. And some commend Stosny for trying to find a new fix for anger—especially since he works with a difficult population that is not psychologically minded, and one that few psychologists want to treat.
The main problem is the lack of evidence. His work has never been stringently analyzed by an outsider, and researchers would like to see structured experiments and peer-reviewed articles that could scientifically establish whether the treatment is effective. "I don't give a lot of credence to [Stosny's technique]," says Novaco. "I've never seen his research published."
Stosny says he would oblige—if he could get the funding to do an independent study. He says he has been criticized in the past for carrying out studies on his own, and had funding pulled after being picketed by feminists who objected to his treatment model.
In 1995 Stosny conducted one-year follow-up research on 285 abusers who had undergone court-mandated treatments, comparing his graduates with those treated with a protocol derived from the power-centered model. After a year, 86 percent of his clients had not engaged in any violent episodes of pushing, grabbing or shoving, compared with 41 percent in the agency programs. Maryland's Department of Motor Vehicles also sampled 312 Stosny clients, comparing their driving records against a random sample of Maryland drivers. Two-thirds of Stosny's clients had aggressive driving records before taking his workshop. A year after treatment, 7 percent of the same group had traffic violations—three times better than those in the standard driver-improvement classes.
Julia Babcock, a professor of psychology at the University of Houston, says the time is right for a serious evaluation of Stosny's model. Babcock, who conducted a comprehensive meta-analysis documenting the weaknesses of domestic violence treatment, thinks Stosny's emphasis on emotions, alliance building and empathy is promising. But, she cautions, the jury's still out. "He needs a well-designed experiment to answer that," she says.
It is impossible to disarm every trigger for anger in today's world, Stosny tells his class. People must instead learn to recognize the early signs of their own angry response—including physical reactions like muscle tension and increased heart rate—and moderate their reaction.
A young man dressed in baggy pants and a do-rag calls out. He has spent the last two classes looking bored, snickering with his girlfriend and another young man at his table. "This is an anger-management class, right? Well, I'm angry," he says.
"Come up and practice," Stosny says.
The young man shuffles, hands in pocket, to the front of the class and stands face to face with Stosny.
"What happened?" asks Stosny.
"My girlfriend made me angry."
"Okay," says Stosny. "Imagine the word heals flashing right over her face." Stosny flicks his fingers in front of the young man's face. "Heals, heals, heals," he says. "Can you see it?" he asks.
"Yeah," says the young man, laughing slightly.
Stosny works him through the steps of the acronym.
"Experience your deepest core hurt," Stosny tells the young man. "If it is trouble with family or a loved one, always go to feeling unlovable."
The young man nods.
"Say out loud—you may not want to do this in the men's room—'I feel unlovable.'"
"I feel unlovable," says the young man, smirking and throwing a glance back to his girlfriend.
He continues, mantralike: "Access your core value. What's the most important thing about your life? Think of the people you love. Your spiritual connection. The compassionate things you've done. See the other person as a human and not a demon."
He pauses, giving the young man a moment to absorb the experience. "Love yourself."
Others in the room are riveted. Can this man be converted?
"Which do you prefer," Stosny asks him. "Being angry or compassionate?"
The young man averts his eyes from Stosny, glancing toward the door. "Sometimes I prefer feeling angry," he says, an edge still in his voice.
"Which way do you like yourself?" says Stosny.
The young man pauses to think, then looks at Stosny. "Compassionate," he says in a resigned tone.
The class claps. Stosny hugs him.
The young man, visibly relieved to be out of the spotlight—or perhaps feeling in some ways forgiven—smiles and walks back to the table and his girlfriend.
If Stosny's workshops do nothing else, they are meant to teach clients that they can regulate their own anger, and recognize the potential in healing the pain at its core. It's not only a way for angry people to regain their equilibrium—it's the way we all learn to connect. "We survived as a species because of compassion," he tells his class, "not because of aggression."