Major Challenges to Cultivating Healthy Anger
How to overcome blocks to letting go of destructive anger
Posted February 18, 2017
For several decades I have provided clinical services to individuals seeking to overcome destructive anger. Many have sought my help on their own– following an episode of anger arousal that culminated in anxiety, guilt or shame sufficient to initiate change. Others have come to me pressured by the demands of a significant other, an employer or a court mandate.
Those who are self-referred have come to recognize and acknowledge the impact of destructive anger–on their relationships, a job or career, their health or the overall quality of their life.They are sincerely searching for strategies to reduce their vulnerability and reactivity to anger.
Many of these individuals report past efforts that they’ve made, only to be followed by failed attempts to manage their anger. While they may be strongly motivated to change, many are stymied by competing motivations that might undermine their efforts to do so.
This was the case with Brett, a thirty-two-year-old, who sought my services following a series of arguments with his girlfriend, Jennifer. They had been dating for almost two years. Although they had few conflicts early in their relationship, tensions had increased in the past year, soon after Jennifer moved in with Brett. Their conflicts centered on how much time they desired to spend together, their friendships with others and day-to-day chores required for maintaining their home.Their discussions soon escalated to arguments when Brett raised his voice and began cursing.
Brett reported that his anger was responsible for the end of two past relationships. And while he had previously thought of going for counseling to address his anger, he kept telling himself that he could control it.
Brett appeared sincere in his efforts to change. He was initially open to reflect on his history and factors that may have contributed to his tendency toward anger. After only a few sessions, he reported doing much better. When specifically asked what had helped him, Brett said, “I’m not sure. I just think I’m recognizing how tense my body is sooner than I used to. I just tell myself to stop.”
I suggested this was a good start and that it would be to his advantage to more frequently practice strategies that we had discussed, including the completion of an anger log for each episode of anger arousal. This was followed by his stated intentions to do so. However, he returned to the next session, sheepishly reporting that he just did not follow through on his intention. I told Brett that it is common to have mixed feelings about engaging in these activities.
I then suggested he become more aware of what might interfere with such practice. Specifically, I encouraged him to identify his inner dialogue that either supported or undermined his practice. This wasn’t easy for him at first. It took several sessions, but he soon recognized how ashamed he was of his anger. As an adolescent, he had vowed that he would not be angry like his father. And, in spite of this promise, he found himself exhibiting the same behavior.
Engaging in activities to cultivate healthy anger often leads to the arousal of thoughts and feelings that may inhibit such progress. In Brett’s case, the process of more fully exploring his anger led to the arousal of shame regarding it.
I reminded Brett that holding on to anger serves a purpose. In effect, such anger can become “emotional armor”, a form of protection and distraction from consciously enduring the perceived threat as well as inner pain concomitant with such anger. It is then understandable that while he may desire change, he might confront thoughts and feelings that reflect some underlying suffering.
The commitment to cultivate healthy anger calls for recognizing and overcoming those challenges that undermine it. Below are some of those major challenges.
1. The expectation that it should be easy: Our society emphasizes a quick fix when making change. We seek a sound bite, one or two answers to a habit built on years of practice. However, changing the habit of anger–how our thoughts, feeling and physical sensations interact– takes time, patience and commitment.
2. Anger regarding the work it requires to change: All too often, those with anger issues are angry regarding the effort it takes to change. They may even resent that others do not have the same difficulties or have not experienced the wounds that have contributed to their anger.
3. The fact that anger works in the short term: Anger can be effective as a distraction to inner pain and threatening feelings. It can also be used to gain control by provoking fear and anxiety in others. Ultimately, however, those subjected to such anger often withdraw–leaving those who are quick to anger even more isolated.
4. Discomfort with reflection: Solitude and reflection are essential for understanding ourselves and becoming more mindful to how we contribute to our own anger. Unfortunately, many people are extremely uncomfortable with both. Our culture’s push to be social, discomfort with our feelings and thoughts, and feeling self-indulgent are a just few factors that contribute to this discomfort.
5. Thinking you should change your anger habits is not the same as feeling you should change your habits: Feelings can be powerful and difficult to resist. Years of practice in avoiding feelings or looking at the roots of our anger may compete with knowing that it is in one’s best interest to effect change. So, while our rational brain seeks change, our emotional brain might fight it.
6. Familiarity with who you believe you are: Many of us believe that we are “who we are” and that we can’t or should not change. After all, we have managed anger in a particular way for so many years.
The reality is, who we are is fluid and very much dependent on a variety of habits we have developed over the years. As such, just as we learned our familiar approach, we can cultivate new and more constructive ways if we commit ourselves to do so.
7. Tension often accompanies learning new skills: This makes perfect sense. When trying out any new skill, whether learning an instrument or new ways of coping with anger, we will invariably experience self-doubt, some feelings of inadequacy, impatience and awkwardness. Conquering new skills calls for strengthening frustration tolerance. Such moments call for self-compassion and realizing that mistakes are part of life. At such moments, we need to be mindful to unrealistic expectations that it should be easy or that learning such skills should not require practice.
8. The physical rush of anger can be rewarding: Anger involves an increase in the levels of cortisol, a hormone that helps us respond to stress. This may momentarily offer us a positive physical rush that erases any self-doubt and makes us feel alive and energized. Unfortunately, this rush can inhibit our capacity for sound judgment. Being mindful of this rush rather than reacting to it is an essential component of healthy anger. It calls for focusing on what is in our best interest in the long-term.
9. Remaining anger helps us avoid responsibility: I’ve worked with hundreds of individuals who have held on to anger toward parents, siblings, employers, partners, exes and others they believed to be responsible for their suffering. They’ve often held on to such resentment long after those people were out of their lives.
In a way, holding on reflects a certain degree of dependency. By contrast, letting go of anger involves mourning and grieving the loss of what could have been. It involves recognizing that it’s ultimately up to each of us to define the structure and meaning of our lives and to take the steps to live it.
10. Other activities may be more rewarding in the short term: Many activities are far more immediately gratifying than the self-reflection it takes to cultivate healthy anger. We often seek fun, short-term diversions, rather than engage in activities that can potentially lead to deeper and more lasting gratification. The commitment to cultivate healthy anger requires viewing the big picture and the long-term benefits of healthy anger.
11. A mental disorder: Having a mental disorder can greatly undermine the motivation and commitment for change with regard to anger. A disorder in mood, thought or personality, require treatment prior to or while cultivating new habits with regard to anger. These may call for medication and/or psychotherapy.
Strategies for overcoming these challenges include the following:
1. Write a list of reasons for cultivating healthy: why it’s important; what you hope to achieve; and how your life might be different.
2. Identify three of the challenges that may have the strongest impact on your practicing healthy anger.
3. Try to be aware of falling victim to those three challenges and identify what can help you move past them.
4. Enter a time for practice in your daily calendar so that doing so becomes a part of your daily routine.
5. Seek out others–family, friends or professionals–who can support you in your goals.
6. Savor moments of progress. Notice slight changes, as a way of reminding you that change is incremental.
7. Engage in both formal and informal meditation to gain further awareness of specific challenges to your progress.
Recognizing and acknowledging mixed motivations is important when attempting to change lasting habits. It's especially essential when trying to change those habits in our thoughts, feelings and physical reactions associated with the arousal of anger.