Anger Management Techniques: Why They Fail
Anger management techniques aren't as common sense as they seem.
Posted October 12, 2009
At least a couple of times a year, I get asked by members of the press why anger management techniques don't work. (Actually, they can work on a temporary basis, if you remember to do them when you're angry. I'll get to why you're not likely to remember them in a bit.) The more important point is that anger does not need to be managed; rather, the sense of vulnerability that causes must be reduced.
Anger occurs in humans and animals when they perceive vulnerability and threat.The more vulnerable you feel, the more threat you will perceive. The 19th Century superstition about anger was that it somehow accumulates, "festers" like an infection, and turns into demons that make you do terrible things. What actually happens is that anger is self-reinforcing; the more anger you experience, the more vulnerable you feel without it, until, pretty soon you have a low-grade anger, usually in the form of resentment, virtually all the time. Any anger you experience on top of that high baseline level will escalate faster and rise higher than if you were starting at baseline. Anger management techniques can help with the escalation, if you remember to do them, but are of little help with chronic resentment.
In day-to-day living, most people experience resentment and anger as a result of ego threat - you feel a certain loss of self-value, because the world isn't responding to you the way you want. Naturally, the greater the sense of entitlement, i.e., the more you think you should get your way, the more resentment you will experience. Most anger problems - where anger makes you act against your best interests or keeps you from acting in your best interests - are really problems of entitlement and ego, which increase the sense of vulnerability when the world does not respond favorably to your entitlement wishes.
Blame vs. Motivation
Anger carries an attribution of blame. In fact, a useful formula for most anger is:
Take away blame and you just have the vulnerable emotion; add blame and you get anger. Blame often distorts reality, which accounts for the paranoid features of problem anger. More importantly, it hijacks the motivational system by making vulnerable emotions seem like unfair punishments inflicted by other people. Vulnerable emotions are not punishments; they are motivations to heal, improve, or be true to your deepest values. The next time you are angry or resentful, forget about blame and justifying the feeling and focus instead on healing, improving, or being true to your deepest values. You will notice that the resentment and anger immediately dissipate.
Of course, it's nearly as hard to do that when you're angry as it is to remember anger management techniques. The culprit is one of the most powerful of neurological principles: habituation.
Forget Techniques, Think Reconditioning
The habituated perception of ego vulnerability and the subsequent anger response occur roughly 5,000 times faster than you can say, "I'm angry." By the time you know that you're angry, you're already motivated to devalue someone, at least in your head. In aroused emotional states you are not likely to recall what you learned in calm, learning states, which is why Mr. Hyde won't remember what Dr. Jekyll learned in anger management class or psychotherapy.
The best way to overcome the emotional states dilemma is to condition cues from one state with cues from the other, so that the occurrence of state-A (anger) activates state-B (value creation, through interest, appreciation, or compassion).
Our method of emotional reconditioning, called HEALS, focuses on the physiological signs of arousal - tension around the eyes, jaw, neck, shoulders, arms, hands, and chest.There are two reasons for this. First, physical changes occur much more rapidly than conscious awareness of anger, making it possible for the associated response to occur automatically, without conscious effort. Second, by not focusing on content - what specifically makes you angry - you will generalize the conditioned response to include a wide range of triggers and avoid the trap of desensitizing just a few.
Each practice session of HEALS is about two minutes in length. It begins by recalling a past incident that provoked anger or resentment, with focus on the physical sensations. Next, identify the deeper vulnerability - feeling devalued (or, if it's someone you love, inadequate, or unlovable).Then abruptly conjure images that make you feel more valuable, such as rescuing a child from danger, symbols of love and spirituality, appreciation of nature and creative works, a sense of community, and small compassionate acts. The value images facilitate a behavioral shift from devaluing the object of your anger to a deeper, more humane understanding of the person who stimulated your anger.
After about six weeks of twelve repetitions per day, the association of anger arousal with value creation is habituated. The baseline resentment level is lowered. Because you feel less vulnerable, the frequency and intensity of anger are diminished.
Of course, HEALS is not the only way to recondition the anger response and make it less necessary in your daily life. But it includes the necessary elements of emotional reconditioning, most of which are conspicuously absent in anger management techniques.