When Anger Management Requires Going Deeper
Comprehensive anger management entails letting go of anger regarding past wounds
Posted January 29, 2018
Google “Tips for Anger Management” and you’ll quickly find a list of several recommendations such as: breathe deeply, count to 10 (or 100), do exercise, write about your feelings, take a timeout, understand the other, create art, learn assertiveness skills, or visit an anger room.
All of these strategies can help—to some extent.They are useful for some of us under certain circumstances. However, few of them really help to explore the meaning of their anger and the important message it can provide.
For this reason, those individuals who have more serious and chronic issues with anger require greater exploration and understanding of factors that leave them prone to anger arousal. For them, comprehensive anger management needs to go deeper than simply focusing on the throes of immediate arousal in their daily lives. Specifically, they may need to explore and let go of their anger related to the suffering they endured regarding past wounds—whether such pain is anchored in the recent or distant past. This task is both complex and immensely challenging.
The cost of not addressing anger regarding past wounds
Severe wounds, whether emotional or physical in nature, whether formally considered abuse or not, lead to a lowered threshold for feeling threatened. Subsequently, those with this lowered threshold often perceive a threat when none really exists. Consequently, they may be quick to make a faulty judgment about the true negative potential of the threat.
For such individuals, the failure to address these significant wounds lead to the avoidance of emotional intimacy, a sense of paralysis in seeking happiness, hesitancy in striving toward achieving one’s goals and even an overall withdrawal from a more present emotional investment in life. Depression may also play an important role for such individuals, as a contributing cause or as a result of difficulty letting go of anger.
Holding on to past anger may insulate us against feeling vulnerable, but doing so invariably makes us less available for real happiness and greater security in the present. Some of my clients who have held onto anger are able to identify a specific event that triggered this reaction. And they recall making a conscious decision, following a particularly meaningful wound, to cease emotionally investing in their future relationships. Others recognize, through the knowledge gained by self-reflection and hindsight, that they gradually made this decision over a period of time and not in a very conscious manner.
The cost for this decision is a life of feeling emotionally isolated yet longing for connection. It is a pattern that invariably leads to an increased potential for anger, as well as anxiety and depression. Holding on to past anger leads to a life in limbo, a sense of paralysis caused by the desire for more life that is counterweighted by the fear of embracing it.
Holding on to anger regarding the severe wounds of our past makes perfect sense to the emotional brain. The hurt and suffering caused by these wounds may leave us hyper-vigilant to avoid such pain in the future. This defensive reaction is rooted in our evolution, entailing a core drive to protect ourselves from future suffering. And just as thinking can influence our emotions, the rawness of emotional suffering regarding deep wounds can support all types of cognitive distortions such as overgeneralization, catastrophize, and emotional reasoning.
Research in brain science has increasingly supported the idea that trauma impairs brain development and functioning. For example, some studies suggest that individuals with early trauma have an amygdala (the part of the brain actively involved in the fight-flight-freeze response) that is reduced in size compared with those who haven’t experienced trauma. Other studies suggest that reduced reactivity is more a function of a weakened ability in the rational brain (that part of the brain responsible for reasoning, problem-solving and decision making) to override the emotional brain.
This tendency is explored in the work of Rick Hanson, the neuropsychologist who emphasizes, “Our brains are Teflon for positivity and Velcro for negativity” (Hanson, 2013). His findings highlight that all of us may have this tendency. However, it is much more powerfully embedded for those who have suffered severe wounds.
Letting go of anger is a process that takes commitment, patience, and time. It requires so much more than an initial intention to do so, even though repeatedly stating this intention is essential for greater success.
The following are key components in the process of letting go:
1. Mourning and grieving regarding the suffering endured as part of a severe wound.
This requires recognizing that we are powerless to change what has already happened, but can change how these past events influence our current lives.
Much of anger arises from our comparing “what is or what was” with “what we would like it to be, or to have been.” As such, mourning involves grieving, letting go of that expectation, the hope or wish for something different to have occurred. And while we may not alter the past, we have potential to do so in the moment and in the future.
2. Learning specific skills to support the desire to let go of anger.
This may entail learning how to be self-soothing when experiencing the visceral tension of hurt or anger fueled by past wounds. It calls for developing increased resilience to deal with uncomfortable feelings and the tension they yield within our body. In this manner, we can learn to recognize and sit with them, rather than act on them.
Self-compassion supports all of the tasks of letting go of anger. Evoking the most compassionate inner dialog directs us to consider what is in our best interest. It fosters the sense that we are not alone in our suffering, even when we may feel most isolated. Self-compassion calls for a conscious choice to savor the caring offered by others and to more intentionally care for ourselves.
Self-compassion helps us to feel more connected with others and allows us to recognize our faults and weaknesses—the foundation for truly accepting the faults and weaknesses in others. Self-compassion helps boost the resilience we need to once again commit to engagement in our lives. It fosters the resilience that allows us to recognize our pain and to grieve, even as we choose hope and renewal—that ultimately makes room for once again embracing the joy of life.
The shift to evoking self-compassion can be a milestone in addressing the pain and anger of the past. Self-compassion moves us to direct our attention, not on what was, but on what can be.
Self-compassion can be a difficult challenge when the wounds of the past have left us feeling shame. As such, letting go of anger entails recognizing and dealing with our shame rather than suppressing it.
4. Becoming open to the good.
This involves being mindful to recognize, on a daily basis, the good in our world, in others and in ourselves. Past wounds often blind us to the good in others and in ourselves. It’s important to remember that our lowered threshold for seeing threat forces us to look through filters that leave us prone to distrust, criticism and guarding against savoring the good.
Forgiveness is an act of self-compassion and an essential part of healthy anger. It’s something we do to ease our suffering. Forgiveness has more to do with letting go of toxic anger than condoning the actions of others. When we assertively choose to forgive, we cultivate our ongoing tendency to forgive. Forgiving involves fully accepting when nothing can be done to undo what’s already happened.
In many cases, letting go of anger related to past wounds involves learning to forgive ourselves. This calls for mindful awareness that all too often we may beat ourselves with hindsight regarding insights we never had. It requires making peace with our former selves, recognizing that our vision for potential ways of feeling, thinking and behaving changes with time.
In cultivating forgiveness, it’s essential that we embrace the Buddhist concept of “wise remorse”. Unlike obsessional and toxic remorse, wise remorse involves using the past to inform us how we can be more constructive and healthy in the present. It entails open reflection rather than paralyzing devaluation and shaming.
Whether you seek psychotherapy, the support of friends, or self-help programs, it’s important to remember that letting go involves learning skills that may not come naturally. Regardless of how you choose to engage in the process of letting go of anger regarding severe wounds, it’s important to remember that meaningful change can occur. It takes time, commitment and practice, but engaging in the process is a formula for a more fulfilling and richer life.
R. Hanson, (2013). Hardwiring Happiness, New York: Harmony.