Reducing Anger Through Cognitive Change

An alternative to anger management.

Posted Jan 12, 2021

The predominant thinking among mental health professionals is that anger is normal, and it is healthy to express it appropriately. They maintain that anger should be “managed” or “channeled” so that the outcome is constructive. This is a flawed theory that can legitimize, justify and even increase anger. It is a particularly perilous approach with criminals who are chronically angry at a world that does not meet their unrealistic expectations or support their inflated self-image.

There is nothing constructive about anger. Because it is “natural” does not mean that it is beneficial. It erodes empathy, alienates others and destroys relationships. An angry person is not thinking logically. He is focused on himself and is unlikely to make responsible decisions.

In criminals, anger is often driven by fear, usually the fear of not being in control. Criminals approach life as though it should be a one-way street. Any challenge to their sense of power threatens their self-esteem.

The benefits of living without anger are numerous. Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, well-known for his scholarship and interpretations of Jewish law, died at the age of 102. According to his obituary in The Washington Post (7/19/12), the Rabbi attributed his longevity to Torah study but also to never getting angry. Passages in contemporary literature refer to people being at their best when they are not angry. In For Whom the Bell Tolls, Ernest Hemingway wrote that when “killing anger was all gone,” Robert Jordan’s mind was “quiet, empty, calm, and sharp.” When he was angry, it was “like not being able to breathe in a storm.” In A Painted House, John Grisham wrote, “Gran was a step ahead but then she had the advantage of thinking without being angry.”

In working clinically with people who have features of a criminal personality, it is essential to take the position that, although anger may result in a short-term gain, it is poison. It can destroy everything in the future and, in the past, has resulted in intentional and unintentional injury to others, among them people who care about the criminal such as his mother, partner, or spouse.

To get angry is a choice. That choice is not between serving as a doormat for others to walk on or having others experience his wrath. Through cognitive therapy, a person can learn to function without anger. When a person takes responsibility for his actions, others cannot “make” him angry. A criminal may begin taking responsibility as he confronts the price he keeps paying for his omnipresent anger.

Let’s take a look at how this works. Luther’s marriage to Marie ended after intense arguments during which he became violent. After a physical fight, Marie took the baby and left. Because Luther threatened suicide, she felt that she could not trust him with their infant son and therefore allowed him to spend brief periods with him in a public place but only if she or her parents were present. 

One day, Luther asked Marie if he could have visitation with their baby in his parents’ heated car because it was so cold outside. Marie objected vociferously and said she feared he would kidnap the child, even though his parents were present. Applying what he was learning in treatment, Luther said nothing, and his wife relented. When Luther discussed with me how angry he was even though he did not express it at the time, I asked what he had expected, given his past behavior.

Luther stopped short in his denunciation of his wife and acknowledged that, given his unstable and violent conduct, he could understand her reaction. His residual anger vanished as we discussed that, during interactions with Marie, he needed to be reasonable in his expectations. Bursting forth with anger would have confirmed her perception that he was as volatile and untrustworthy as ever. A larger question was whether he would continue living with the premise that others must agree with him and accede to his wishes. What price had he paid for this already? And what might he expect if he kept demanding that others do what he wants?

For a criminal, there is no “appropriate” expression of anger. Even if that anger is of low intensity, it persists. Simmering anger, when triggered by even a small setback or disappointment, is likely to boil over.

As a person becomes aware of thinking errors that fuel anger, he can change the way he thinks, implement corrective concepts and, as a result, have less anger to contend with. If he gives up his sense of entitlement, does not expect others to affirm his view of himself as superior, and abandons attempts to control others, he will experience far less anger. This approach of working toward the elimination of anger by identifying and correcting thinking errors is more effective and safer than suppressing, channeling, or otherwise “managing” anger.