Beyond Anger Management
Don’t manage the protective emotion; manage the perceived need for protection.
Posted Feb 12, 2020
Everyone gets angry occasionally.
Not all anger is a problem.
You have an anger problem if some subtle form of anger or resentment makes you do something against your long-term best interest, or keeps you from acting in your long-term best interests.
The latter can be quite subtle, like putting a chilly wall between you and someone you love. That won't get you arrested, but it will ruin your life. And you're not choosing to do to it; the low-grade anger is making you do it.
Alas, “Anger Management”
One of the most unfortunate terms in behavioral science is “anger management.” Anger is a protective emotion. What we have to manage is the perceived need for protection and the choice of what to protect.
Natural anger protects loved ones, the self, other people, values, and objects of value. Problem anger protects a fragile ego. People with fragile egos are easily offended. They develop a sense of entitlement, feeling that they somehow have the right to control what other people think, say, and do. If someone disagrees, they feel offended and get angry.
Managing anger does nothing for the guilt, shame, and anxiety that create fragile egos and a sense of entitlement.
A viable anger-regulation technique enhances self-value by reinforcing one's deeper values. It makes anger and entitlement unnecessary as ego-defense.
Too Little, Too Late
Anger management relies on a conscious intention to manage an unconscious emotion. Trouble is, anger occurs about 5,000 times faster than you can say, "I'm angry." That's why Mr. Hyde can't remember what Dr. Jekyll learned in anger management class.
By the time we’re adults, most emotions are conditioned responses. We feel more or less the same way whenever certain things happen in certain physiological and mental states.
Conditioned responses make us act automatically, without thinking about it, like reaching in your pocket for the ringing phone. Once formed, they can be replaced only by forging new ones. It takes practice of something similar to “emotional pushups” to build new emotional habits.
Here is the conditioned response that produces anger:
Temporary drops in energy, confidence, or self-value automatically trigger blame. ("I feel uncomfortable, somebody must be doing something to me.")
Blame creates feelings of powerlessness. ("If my bad feelings are someone else's fault, there's nothing I can do about it.") Anger is a cry of powerlessness. Most problem anger is about things we have no control over.
In the long run, blame erodes self-value, making anger and resentment seem more necessary as a defense. The negative response that anger and resentment inevitably evoke in others make it self-fulfilling prophecy and a downward spiral into anxiety or depression.
When you feel valuable, you don't want to blame. You want to improve, appreciate, connect, or protect.