Anger Management Failures

Ordinary Anger vs. Problem Anger

Posted May 27, 2015

Anger management works fine for managing ordinary anger, but it's not so successful when it comes to the self-defeating behaviors of problem anger.

Ordinary anger arises from impediments to:

  • Task performance (The screw repeatedly drops out of the picture hanger before you can tighten it.)
  • Interest or relaxation (Someone is talking while you’re trying to read or a lawn mower wakes you up too early.)
  • Enjoyment (Someone is reading when you would like to talk.)
  • Status maintenance (You feel insulted.)
  • Territorial integrity (Someone takes something from you or violates a boundary.)
  • Protection (of valued others or valued objects).

In contrast, problem anger makes you act against your long term best interest or keeps you from acting in your long term best interest.

Examples of the former: You bang the picture with the screw driver or shout at the talker to shut up and thereby make it harder to concentrate on reading, or you make someone irritable by interrupting, which lowers the likelihood that you will enjoy your talk or, when insulted you insult back, i.e., react to a jerk like a jerk, or you devalue the people you most value.

Example of the latter: You don't try to connect with people you love.

Why Anger Management Fails with Problem Anger

Anger management neglects the more subtle influences of problem anger and sometimes even encourages them, assuming that it's better to disconnect from loved ones than to shout at them. Putting a chilly wall between you and the people you love won't get you arrested but will likely ruin your life.  

Anger management treats less subtle problem anger as extreme or uncontrolled versions of ordinary anger. According to the American Psychological Association, anger management teaches techniques to manage the emotional feelings and physiological arousal of anger. But problem anger is not just a matter of feelings and arousal; it's part of a highly conditioned defensive system, activated by a sudden drop in self-value. People with anger problems feel inadequate when the screw won’t turn or devalued when spouses interrupt or unlovable when loved ones don’t pay attention.

Instead of doing something that will raise self-value (being nice to someone they love, for example, or finding a better screw driver), they blame their lowered self-value on someone else, which makes them want to devalue in return:

“Look at that jerk!”

“I’m tired of telling you this…”

“What kind of person would say that?”

“I don’t have time for you.”

Due to the high contagion of anger and resentment, you don’t have to verbalize negative attributions to do damage – we communicate negativity all the time without saying a word. In addition to ruining your health, problem anger inevitably damages social relationships, whether you express it or not, unless you happen to work or live with Mother Theresa.

The Formula for Problem Anger:

Anger (frustration, irritability, attitude, etc.)  + Lowered self-value + Blame

Another failing of anger management is that it relies on conscious control of an unconscious motivation. Problem anger is habitual -- habits run on automatic pilot, processed in the brain much faster than conscious awareness. You are never aware of most of your resentment or anger; by the time you know you’re resentful or angry, it’s already in an advanced state. Anger management fails with problem anger for the same reason that diets don’t work. By the time you know you’re hungry, you’re already highly motivated to have a hot fudge sundae and unlikely to think of eating a celery stick instead.

Priming the Pump

In most cases, you’re primed for bouts of problem anger long before an obnoxious event happens. For example, suppose you’re driving down the road at a baseline level of anger, that is, with no attitude of entitlement, resentment, superiority, pettiness, sarcasm, victim identity, or enmity of any kind. Suddenly an obnoxious event occurs, like someone flipping you the finger and shouting something about your mother as they speed by you. If you’re at baseline to begin with, that might get you about 30% aroused, which is no big deal. Your response will likely get no worse than sarcasm – you might think, “What a jerk.” That kind of anger dissipates in a few minutes and is forgotten about completely within a couple of hours – you’re not likely to remember it ever happened.

But if you get into the car resentful about something at home or at work, you’re already about 30% aroused at the start. So that same obnoxious event hits you at a higher level of arousal and pushes you to a 60 or 70 percent level, which is where you begin to get aggressive (you’ll shout out, with an impulse to tailgate that sucker), with a hair-trigger mechanism for escalation, should there be any negative response to your aggression. Add caffeine, nicotine, anxiety, or a startle response to the mix, and the adrenaline can easily go through the roof. This kind of anger will stay with you in various degrees for the whole day (or longer), and you’ll get pissed every time you think of the incident. Anger management aimed at conscious levels of anger are often too little too late.

The Roller Coaster of Problem Anger

The jolt of energy you get at any level of anger works like an amphetamine or “speed.” You get a big spike of energy and confidence, and then you crash. After you get angry, you get depressed, once all the adrenalin washes out of your blood stream. And that’s just the physiological response to the amphetamine effect. If you do something while you’re resentful or angry that you’re ashamed of, your depressive mood will get worse.

Anger Junkies

An addictive trap is sprung when the energy surge of anger is used frequently. You get angry and feel energetic and confident, only to crash with little energy and creeping self-doubt. (Maybe I shouldn’t have grounded by kid till he’s 42?) You get angry again to feel energetic and confident, only to crash yet again into low energy and self-doubt. In no time at all, anger will seem necessary to escape depressed mood, even though it inevitably means more depression. In other words, the brain will look for excuses to get angry and turn you into an anger junkie.

You may be an anger junkie if you use anger:

  • For energy or motivation (can't get going or keep going without some degree of anger). This often takes the form of getting mildly angry to do a job you don’t like to do, like your taxes or raking the leaves. The anger gives you the energy to get through the task, even though you won’t do it as efficiently.
  • For pain-relief - it hurts when you're not angry.
  • For confidence, a stronger sense of self — you only feel cer­tain when angry.
  • To ease anxiety, especially in new or uncertain situations. If you get irritable when things depart from the norm or super-critical in new social situations, you are using anger as an anxiety-reducer.
  • To militate out of depressed mood. This can put you on a wicked roller-coaster ride. Pretty soon you’ll have only two feeling-states: one of the many forms of anger, such as grouchiness, irritability, or resentment on the one hand, and depression, lethargy, or weariness on the other.

Effective Treatment

Treatment for problem anger cannot merely reduce the emotional feelings or arousal of anger; it must restore a state of self-value that is more stable than whatever lowered it, which will replace the habit of blaming with a motivation to improve. And it has to do it fast.