Susan B. Winston LMFT

Shift Happens


My Best Solution for Treating Anger Management

No, do not put your fist through the wall!

Posted Sep 01, 2012


Once again, let’s give a cheer for Charlie Sheen who made the term “Anger Management” a household phrase. And three cheers for FX for thinking that Charlie represents the appropriate on – TV - therapist to earn an additional 90 episodes of his FX show, “Anger Management.” Charlie’s real rage has brought him continued great wealth and a growing audience. The 2003 movie of the same name, starring Jack Nicholson as the somewhat psychotic therapist, also brought great attention to this thing called “anger management.”

Group Therapy used to be that handy catchall meeting for people with all kinds of issues. Now we are in the age of specialization. In various clinics where I have worked I seem to draw the anger management groups. Do I look angry? Do I give off the vibe that should the angry hoards arriving at the group decide to mutiny that I can hold them off? What I really want to know is, do angry people really want to sit in a room for 90 minutes once or twice a week and will that get them un-angry?

I’m a believer in anger; not the smash-your-hand-through-a-wall type (although I’ve felt that physical rage). I think it is healthier to find an outlet for the anger rather than learn how to “manage it”, which in my professional training meant to teach people to hold it in. In my experience held-in anger eventually mutates into an explosion of rage that can no longer be contained. Take a bunch of little rages and stick them in a box and trust me, they conspire against you and come blasting forth.

So what do the pros recommend? The Mayo clinic offers a 10-step guide to anger management that includes everything from the benign “count to ten (any kid will tell you that never works), punch a pillow (not as satisfying as breaking a window or putting a hole in the wall) and participate in extreme exercise (I guess to exhaust yourself out of the anger. Dr. Diana Shulman, a psychotherapist, speaks of “compliant avoidance.” Sounds nice but obviously, if something gets in your way and it’s making you angry, you can’t avoid it. She also claims that as children, if Mom or Dad screamed, that left us with unresolved rage ( Now all that unresolved rage is compiled into a group sitting around a table string at me.

Back to, am I an angry person deserving of or qualified to lead these groups? I went on-line and took a questionnaire to determine whether or not I had an issue with Anger Management. Did I ever get angry? Did I ever want to hit something? (Something, yes. Someone, no) Did I ever feel rage and keep myself from yelling back at someone? Did I ever have someone say something that made me angry? You get the picture. I think most of us would answer “yes” to most of these. Why? Because there is stuff in life that just makes you angry. The test, which I assumed was going to yield immediate results, sent me to, no joke, the Nickelodeon website where I was greeted with a headline asking for my suggestions for surviving labor (having babies, not hard labor.) Fortunately that somewhat excruciating experience is 22 and 25 years old. Does time heal old memories? NO! My suggestion? Walk right into the front door of that hospital and scream out “epidural now.” But I’m not sure what that has to do with anger management. The other article on the page was about how to make Chunky French Fries. Now that could solve some anger issues.

I digress. So how did to teach this course? Anger needs to be heard and felt and have some kind of resolve. It needs to mean something because clearly it meant enough to anger you. Don’t stuff your high-tension emotions into a box. Write about them. And I do not mean in a private journal. Go public. Take the things that anger you and find your goalpost. Angry that your partner overdrew on the credit card yet again? Write to the card-company and find out why they did not warn you? Then take the scissors and cut the card up. But get your angry words out first.. Angry at your boss? That’s why the world invented email. Thoughtful letters of suggestion go a lot farther than a screaming match with the man in charge. Angry at your teenager? Write an appropriate clever list of expectations of behavior and consequences of non-compliance, post it all over the house, and then let your anger dissipate. You’ve made your case and all you need to do it point to #5 – “Notice from school of incomplete homework “= “notice to kid of a grounded weekend day to complete it. “ NO ANGRY DISCUSSION NECESSARY. My favorites are all the letter to the editor that the group wrote. For example, Angry about news/traffic reporting helicopters flying over your house at 6am every morning? Write to the FAA and every local newspaper. There is something so satisfying at actually getting a complaint published and seeing your name in print. Now you’re a writer and not just an angry person.

The goal is to diffuse the emotional reactivity that leads to screaming and in some case actually physical fighting. You can let your fingers fly around the keyboard, have a voice, make your point, solve a problem or clarify an issue, and vent as creatively as you wish, all with the written word. Computers are tough. They can take the pounding and they don’t bleed or send you a restraining order.

I know there are some very violent people in our society mandated to anger management courses. I know this is a very serious issue for some. I know this could not possibly work for everyone, but it works well for many. It’s an alternative to traditional anger management groups where clients can now share successes and not just the issues that make them angry. The creative discussions about where to target a written complaint and how to word it are therapeutic in a different way.

In closing, I am currently angry that a brand new TV bought for the purpose of watching the political conventions (which always make me angry) is broken and I can’t see the fun and games on the convention floor. My letter to the head of the TV manufacturer yielded an extended warranty and free parts and service. I did find an email address for Clint Eastwood – so that letter of “curiosity” will find a home. And my pre-angry concerns about the next convention have already been addressed through the President’s email, which they swear he reads. So for the moment, everything is posted and I get an angry-free day. Hope you can join me.

PS – The helicopters no longer fly over my house in the morning. Check out the LA times for that letter.