Court Mandated Anger Management
Anger is a natural and mostly automatic response to pain of one form or another (physical or emotional). Anger can occur when people don’t feel well, feel rejected, feel threatened, or experience some loss. The type of pain does not matter; the important thing is that the pain experienced is unpleasant. Because anger never occurs in isolation but rather is necessarily preceded by pain feelings, it is often characterized as a ‘secondhand’ emotion.
Pain alone is not enough to cause anger. Anger occurs when pain is combined with some anger-triggering thought. Thoughts that can trigger anger include personal assessments, assumptions, evaluations, or interpretations of situations that makes people think that someone else is attempting (consciously or not) to hurt them. In this sense, anger is a social emotion; You always have a target that your anger is directed against (even if that target is yourself). Feelings of pain, combined with anger-triggering thoughts motivate you to take action, face threats and defend yourself by striking out against the target you think is causing you pain.
A Substitute Emotion
Anger can also be a substitute emotion. By this we mean that sometimes people make themselves angry so that they don’t have to feel pain. People change their feelings of pain into anger because it feels better to be angry than it does to be in pain. This changing of pain into anger may be done consciously or unconsciously.
Being angry rather than simply in pain has a number of advantages, primarily among them distraction. People in pain generally think about their pain. However, angry people think about harming those who have caused pain. Part of the transmutation of pain into anger involves an attention shift – from self-focus to other-focus. Anger thus temporarily protects people from having to recognize and deal with their painful real feelings; you get to worry about getting back at the people you’re angry with instead. Making yourself angry can help you to hide the reality that you find a situation frightening or that you feel vulnerable.
In addition to providing a good smoke screen for feelings of vulnerability, becoming angry also creates a feeling of righteousness, power and moral superiority that is not present when someone is merely in pain. When you are angry, you are angry with cause. “The people who have hurt me are wrong – they should be punished” is the common refrain. It is very rare that someone will get angry with someone they do not think has harmed them in some significant fashion.
The definition of whether someone’s anger is a problem often turns on whether or not other people agree with them that their anger, and the actions they take in the name of their anger, is justified. Angry people most always feel that their anger is justified. However, other people don’t always agree. The social judgment of anger creates real consequences for the angry person. An angry person may feel justified in committing an angry, aggressive action, but if a judge or jury of peers do not see it that way, that angry person may still go to jail. If a boss doesn’t agree that anger expressed towards a customer is justified, a job may still be lost. If a spouse doesn’t agree that anger was justified, a marriage may have problems.
Whether justified or unjustified, the seductive feeling of righteousness associated with anger offers a powerful temporary boost to self-esteem. It is more satisfying to feel angry than to acknowledge the painful feelings associated with vulnerability. You can use anger to convert feelings of vulnerability and helplessness into feelings of control and power. Some people develop an unconscious habit of transforming almost all of their vulnerable feelings into anger so they can avoid having to deal with them. The problem becomes that even when anger distracts you from the fact that you feel vulnerable, you still at some level feel vulnerable. Anger cannot make pain disappear – it only distracts you from it. Anger generally does not resolve or address the problems that made you feel fearful or vulnerable in the first place, and it can create new problems, including social and health issues.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
Like other emotions, anger is experienced in our bodies as well as in our minds. In fact, there is a complex series of physiological (body) events that occurs as we become angry.
Emotions more or less begin inside two almond-shaped structures in our brains which are called the amygdala. The amygdala is the part of the brain responsible for identifying threats to our well-being, and for sending out an alarm when threats are identified that results in us taking steps to protect ourselves. The amygdala is so efficient at warning us about threats, that it gets us reacting before the cortex (the part of the brain responsible for thought and judgment) is able to check on the reasonableness of our reaction. In other words, our brains are wired in such a way as to influence us to act before we can properly consider the consequences of our actions. This is not an excuse for behaving badly – people can and do control their aggressive impulses and you can too with some practice. Instead, it means that learning to manage anger properly is a skill that has to be learned, instead of something we are born knowing how to do instinctually.
As you become angry your body’s muscles tense up. Inside your brain, neurotransmitter chemicals known as catecholamines are released causing you to experience a burst of energy lasting up to several minutes. This burst of energy is behind the common angry desire to take immediate protective action. At the same time your heart rate accelerates, your blood pressure rises, and your rate of breathing increases. Your face may flush as increased blood flow enters your limbs and extremities in preparation for physical action. Your attention narrows and becomes locked onto the target of your anger. Soon you can pay attention to nothing else. In quick succession, additional brain neurotransmitters and hormones (among them adrenaline and noradrenaline) are released which trigger a lasting state of arousal. You’re now ready to fight.
Although it is possible for your emotions to rage out of control, the prefrontal cortex of your brain, which is located just behind your forehead, can keep your emotions in proportion. If the amygdala handles emotion, the prefrontal cortex handles judgment. The left prefrontal cortex can switch off your emotions. It serves in an executive role to keep things under control. Getting control over your anger means learning ways to help your prefrontal cortex get the upper hand over your amygdala so that you have control over how you react to anger feelings. Among the many ways to make this happen are relaxation techniques (which reduce your arousal and decrease your amygdala activity) and the use of cognitive control techniques which help you practice using your judgment to override your emotional reactions.
If anger has a physiological preparation phase during which our resources are mobilized for a fight, it also has a wind-down phase as well. We start to relax back towards our resting state when the target of our anger is no longer accessible or an immediate threat. It is difficult to relax from an angry state, however. The adrenaline-caused arousal that occurs during anger lasts a very long time (many hours, sometimes days), and lowers our anger threshold, making it easier for us to get angry again later on. Though we do calm down, it takes a very long time for us to return to our resting state. During this slow cool-down period we are more likely to get very angry in response to minor irritations that normally would not bother us.
The same lingering arousal that keeps us primed for more anger also can interfere with our ability to clearly remember details of our angry outburst. Arousal is vital for efficient remembering. As any student knows, it is difficult to learn new material while sleepy. Moderate arousal levels help the brain to learn and enhance memory, concentration, and performance. There is an optimum level of arousal that benefits memory, however, and when arousal exceeds that optimum level, it makes it more difficult for new memories to be formed. High levels of arousal (such as are present when we are angry) significantly decrease your ability to concentrate. This is why it is difficult to remember details of really explosive arguments.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
Anger provides a mixture of motivational benefits, some healthy and some short sighted and self-destructive.
On the positive side, anger creates a sense of power and control in a situation where prior to anger these positive, motivating feelings did not exist. The feelings of control and righteousness that come from anger can motivate you to challenge and change difficult interpersonal and social injustices. If handled correctly, your anger can motivate others to help you win your cause. Anger can provide you with a rest from feelings of vulnerability, and a way of venting tensions and frustrations. It can provide the energy and resolve necessary to defend yourself when you’ve been wronged. If you are a long suffering victim of domestic abuse, for example, and your anger finally reaches the boiling point so that it enables you to leave your abusive relationship, anger has been a truly positive force in your life. If you are a dedicated crusader working to further a truly moral cause (such as Martin Luther King Jr.’s drive for civil rights, or Gandhi’s drive for Indian independence), then anger gives you the strength to carry on, and the will to persevere.
There are negative motivational sides to anger too. Anger can create and then reinforce a false sense of entitlement, an illusory feeling of moral superiority that can be used to justify immoral actions. For instance, anger-motivated aggression can be used to justify terrorism, or to coerce and bully people into doing what you want them to do against their will. Angry people are likely to subscribe to the philosophy that “the end justifies the means” and then use unspeakable means of working towards their goals that defeat their purpose. If you are a terrorist like Timothy McVey (who bombed the Oklahoma City Federal Building in 1995), a bully like television’s Tony Soprano (lead character in the HBO drama “The Sopranos”), or a ‘school shooter’ like Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold (who murdered fellow high school students in Columbine, Colorado in 1999), anger has led you to the dark side.
It is important to recognize that the effect of anger can be either positive or negative. If years of unresolved anger reach the boiling point and motivate you to leave an abusive relationship, your anger has saved you from additional abuse. On the other hand, if you use your anger to frighten others into doing what you want them to without considering their needs, you are allowing your anger to coerce and control others and you are no better than a bully.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
Though anger is a normal human emotion, the way you choose to express your anger may not be normal or acceptable to those around you. If you suspect you have an anger problem, or if people you respect have told you that you do, we invite you to read on so as to learn about how to gain better control over your anger.
Help for anger problems is available through anger management programs which are offered through various sources including your workplace, employee assistance program, and through local counseling clinics. Anger management programs are designed to help you learn to control your anger responses in order to improve your relationships and health prospects. Anger management programs have much to teach that can help you to gain mastery over your problem anger. However, like any therapy or educational program, anger management programs can only benefit you to the extent that you decide to participate in them fully, and take in all they have to offer.
Learning to control your anger will be an ongoing task. You will need to rethink your automatic responses towards people. You will also have to take more responsibility for your thoughts and actions than you may have in the past. All of this will require discipline and a plan. As a means of helping you to gain this discipline and plan, we will next step back and review how normal people approach making large scale life changes. Having this perspective should prove useful in your anger management efforts. Understanding the best way to approach a problem is an important step in eventually overcoming it.
Stages of Change
People tend to go through a predictable set of several stages while working through life-changes. Progress through the stages is largely due to a combination of motivation, technique and dedication. Some people move quickly through the stages, while others move more slowly, perhaps even taking a step or two backward before continuing on to complete their change.
As you consider each of the stages of change below, think about how each stage has played out in your own life as you have made life changes in the past. Imagine how you will work through the challenges of each stage as you approach your anger management goals. While your experience may not mirror the order of the stages listed below, understanding each stage can help you on your way to achieve your goal.
Challenge. Deciding to learn how to control your anger represents a big change in how you will life your life. People aren’t usually motivated to make big life changes like this until something comes along that challenges them to examine their old way of doing things, and motivates them to learn new, better ways of handling those things. Most people decide to make changes in the way they deal with anger only after they experience serious personal, social or occupational consequences for their anger. Challenging consequences might occur when a spouse starts divorce proceedings after a violent fight, or when you have lost your job after a workplace outburst. Some portion of angry people feel personally out of control after an outburst and decide to go for help so as to gain better self-control. Others go for help just to get other people off their back.
- Awareness. The awareness stage begins as the angry person seeks information about anger management; what anger is, how anger affects health and relationships, and how anger can be controlled.
- Preparation. Awareness is all about information gathering; it involves no commitment. The Preparation stage begins with your decision to actually make a change in the way you will express anger.Beyond commitment to change, preparation involves self-study and planning. It may be useful for you to keep an anger management journal where you keep a record of the things that make you angry, how you react when you are angry, and the consequences of your reactions. Your anger journal will help you identify and become aware of your anger triggers and may help give you some insight into how proportional your angry outbursts are to the various situations that provoke them (more on this later). The more you learn about your personal anger triggers, the better your chances of success in changing how you express anger.
- Action. In the Action stage you start making real changes. You may decide to take a professional anger management course or to purchase workbooks, tapes, or videos. You may also design a personal program for anger management. Any of these approaches might help you to develop greater control over your anger. However, none of them will work if you do not apply yourself to them with dedication and persistence.
- Maintaining Gains. The maintainance stage of change never ends. During this stage, you learn to accept the fact that you are not perfect, that you will make mistakes and act inappropriately, and that you can recover from lapses in your behavior when they do occur. Achieving sustained behavior change is a project. It may take multiple attempts and multiple failures before you will achieve this goal. Each time you do lapse into old behavior, you can use the tools and strategies you have learned along the way to help you pick yourself up and recover.
It is particularly difficult for many people with anger problems to work up the motivation to seriously want to work an anger management program. Because anger has a seductive, self-justifying quality to it, people are not typically drawn to anger management on their own. Many times, people need to suffer serious negative consequences of their anger before they realize that they need help in controlling their outbursts. Even then, motivation for continuing an anger management program can wax and wane. It is fairly common for angry people to stop attending an anger management program before finishing it, or for people to never actually apply or use the techniques they learn in their program. People often need to repeat anger programs a number of times before they truly understand the message and incorporate the training into their own lives.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
- “How do I know when I am angry?”
- “What events/people/places/things make me angry?”
- “How do I react when I’m angry?”
- “How does my angry reaction affect others?”
Answering these questions takes a while. It is likely you can rattle off several things that make you angry. You might even be able to identify several signs that you exhibit when you are angry (e.g., clenched fists, etc.). These quick answers are only the beginning, however; the low hanging fruit. You will want to continually ask yourself these questions for a period of time before you can be satisfied that you are fully knowledgeable about your personal anger.
Recognizing Physiological Signs of Anger
The first step in effective anger management is to learn how to recognize when you are angry. Some angry people see their emotions as a black or white state—they are either raging mad or they are calm. In reality, anger is not black and white, but rather quite gray. Anger occurs on a continuum between rage and calm where most of the time people experience some gradation of anger between these two extremes.
The same people who tend to see anger in terms of extremes sometimes have difficulty recognizing when they are experiencing intermediate anger states. Luckily, most people experience a number of physical, emotional and behavioral cues that they can use to let them know when they are becoming upset.
Some physical signs of anger include:
- clenching your jaws or grinding your teeth
- stomach ache
- increased and rapid heart rate
- sweating, especially your palms
- feeling hot in the neck/face
- shaking or trembling
Emotionally you may feel:
- like you want to get away from the situation
- sad or depressed
- like striking out verbally or physically
Also, you may notice that you are:
- rubbing your head
- cupping your fist with your other hand
- getting sarcastic
- losing your sense of humor
- acting in an abusive or abrasive manner
- craving a drink, a smoke or other substances that relax you
- raising your voice
- beginning to yell, scream, or cry
“I’m afraid if I ever let go and just really feel it, I’ll blow up the whole world!” That comment is often made by persons along the way on the journey to wholeness. We fear the enormity of repressed emotions caged up inside of us for what seems like centuries now. We fear that we could do harm if we were allowed to just let it rip.
In fact, some do. Anger management classes are operating right this moment all over the Western world, classes that teach us how to “walk away,” “count to ten,” and other like techniques meant to keep us from behaving on our rage. But anger, on all of its levels from mild irritation all the way up to rage is more than behavior. Yet behavior is what we fear. In fact I’ve heard adolescent boys struggling with rage say, “I didn’t get mad—I know because I didn’t throw anything or hit anyone.” They were totally equating anger only with behavior.
Irritation, frustration, anger, rage: these are all forms of anger. And they are feelings first. But when a person’s rage becomes behavior even before thought has a chance to plug in, it is usually because of one of two reasons: 1) it’s been repressed for a long time, and when someone drops the proverbial straw, it explodes; 2) it works for manipulative purposes.
Either way it has something to do with maturity. I said at the end of the last blog that I’d talk about maturity, and so I am. Maturity is the result of having faced and overcome obstacles by gathering deeper and deeper aspects of self. In other words, when faced with a challenge we don’t repeat a rote behavior, or do what someone else taught us to do, or just do what we’ve always done. Rather, we dig deeper into ourselves to create something original as a solution to the problem or to overcome the obstacle. In the process we learn something about ourselves and/or about life in general.
What has come to be called “uncontrollable rage” comes about as a result of not having developed maturity. We can see this clearly in the example of frustration. When some little thing goes wrong, say a key won’t work in a lock, we generally get frustrated. We feel blocked. What we do at this point is going to make a difference as to whether or not we take a step forward in our psychological growth. Of course, we may have to fail a few times before we can figure out how our frustration can be a catalyst for creativity. But ultimately if we can learn to feel the frustration, hold the tension between the feeling and the act, and then push on just a little further, we find that we can create a solution or even something wholly new out of that frustrating moment.
When we continuously fail to step forward in this way, we do not grow emotionally, and thus we do not mature. And so it is that some will learn that rage works to manipulate or scare someone else into overcoming the frustration for them. Or, they learn that unloading their rage just makes them temporarily feel better—in a similar fashion to the way that using substances can make us forget our challenges in a haze of feeling better—so that we no longer feel motivated to solve the problem or become creative in response to a life challenge.
What most people don’t know is that we have a choice. Feeling our feelings and using them for a springboard for creativity is an option that is always available to us, but one which we can decide not to take. And the more frequently we choose to forgo that option, the less likely we are to mature through the process.
This means that the batterer is most likely to be an immature person whose rages are comparable to a toddler or adolescent temper tantrum. And the notion that batterers are just “out of control” is unfounded. The concept of being “out of control” is based in the notion of external locus of control—or the idea that if the external world cannot stop me, then I’m just beyond control. And it belies the fact that we always have a choice.
In fact, when we talk to people who are willing to really be honest about rage, what we learn is that before they behaved out of it, they were aware of other options for expression besides harming someone or breaking something.
On the other hand, rage as a simple feeling can be quite useful for informing us of where we need to place our boundaries, where someone else stops and we begin and vice versa. Holding the tension between the rageful feelings, for example about a previous abuse or betrayal, can inform us of how much we actually do care about our own well-being so that we can solidly declare “never again!” And the rage has just the right amount of energy to allow us to keep our promises to ourselves.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
We all know “Road Rage.” As portrayed in the media, it is a potentially deadly, destructive roadway phenomenon. In fact, around the world, violent acts of road rage kill hundreds and injure thousands of people each year, and they cause millions of dollars of damage. These acts include ramming one’s car into another car; getting out of one’s car and assaulting another driver with fists, baseball bats, and tire irons; or attempting murder with weapons such as firearms and knives. However shocking and damaging these acts of violence are, they are extremely rare compared to the millions of safe, uneventful journeys taken each day around the globe.
For many of us, when we think about road rage, we conjure up mental images of other drivers’ anger-fueled expressions and behaviors—like “flipping the bird,” cutting someone off, tail-gating, shaking a fist, honking, and yelling obscenities. Witnessing these offensive displays stirs up intense feelings of shock, disbelief, and anger. When they happen to us, we can feel threatened, vulnerable, and furious.
For a significant number of drivers, it doesn’t take obvious, provocative, aggressive gestures and behaviors by others to set us off. In fact, many drivers report being frustrated, angered, and even enraged merely by what they perceive as incorrect, problematic driving by others. These acts might seem discourteous (e.g. not letting us merge, driving too slow, taking a parking space we wanted, etc.) or dangerous (e.g. speeding, running a red light, weaving, tail-gating, etc.). These and other driving behaviors may trigger feelings of frustration, injustice, or being threatened. Each of these feelings is a common trigger for anger, rage, and aggression.
Yet, these descriptions of road rage are incomplete. They focus on external factors that upset us emotionally yet allow us to maintain a victim stance. Feeling like a victim not only leaves us feeling powerless over our reaction and distress to others’ behavior; it ignores our role in on-road interactions that may anger other drivers. Are you shocked? Ironically, most of us are guilty at one time or another of committing some driving behavior that—often without our self-awareness—causes anger or even rage in other drivers. In my recent study on road rage, located at http://www.Marin-Psychotherapy.com, participants were surprised to discover they were not simply victims of road rage, but they at times were instigators of road rage. This insight can be helpful in recognizing that we are all responsible for driving safely and with consideration of—and compassion for–other drivers at all times.
What can we do to minimize driving in ways to anger other drivers? What can we do to bring down the volume of anger and rage inside of us while driving? Answers to both questions over-lap. The cycle of road rage isn’t simply one driver angering another. The roadway is a sort of moving community, and we are only one of many who are on our way somewhere to do something that is important to us. Just as we don’t all rush en mass into the local coffee shop and shout out our drink orders without any semblance of order, societal rules, and common courtesy, we truly can all get along and get to our destinations in an orderly, safe, and peaceful manner. Here are some helpful ideas:
Top Ten Ways to Avoid Road Rage (yours and the other guy/gal’s):
10. Think socially rather than selfishly, and try to imagine the other driver’s perspective (e.g., “I bet he’s late for work like I was yesterday. I’ll let him pass.”)
9. Play it safe and smart (e.g., move to a different lane; pull over and calm down)
8. Don’t be a vigilante (e.g., let the highway patrol, not me, punish dangerous drivers)
7. Practice acceptance (e.g., “Let it go” or FIDO–“Forget it; Drive on”)
6. Use humor (e.g., Tell yourself, “She must be rushing to the hair salon. She needs it!”);
5. Exercise altruism (e.g., purposely allow others to merge and pass.);
4. Reduce your stress and anger triggers (e.g., practice mindful breathing; listen to relaxing music instead of aggravating talk radio; put down the phone; etc.).
3. Enjoy the ride (e.g., focus on the scenery; enjoy the company of your passengers, etc.)
2. Leave 10 minutes early, so you won’t be rushed and stressed.
1. Take public transportation or ride a bike!
There are three steps to anger management:
- Understand the pay-offs and the triggers;
- Learn to calm yourself down in crisis situations;
- Learn strategies to prevent anger arising in future.
1. Understanding the pay-offs and the triggers
Undoubtedly you will get some short-term benefits from your anger. Most of these can be gained more effectively by other means such as assertion. However, in the short-term you may have to experience some discomfort as you lose some of the immediate gains of anger such as-
- I feel so much better afterwards.
- It makes people listen.
- I feel more like myself when I am angry .
- If I didn’t get angry about things I’d just cry all the time.
- When I show my anger then people know where they stand and that’s good.
- Anger stops me being afraid.
- If I don’t show my anger then people will think I am a wimp.
Probably even as you read this you will begin to see that some of these things can be achieved by other more healthy means.
Now decide what particular situations trigger your anger so that you can practice staying calm when they next arise.
2. Calming yourself down in crisis situations
The appropriate response depends on the situation – e.g. whether you get angry when alone or when in dispute with another.
- Describe the room to yourself around you in purely neutral terms.
- Look at things, not people.
- Think of things you have to do today.
- Count to 10 (it does work!).
- Repeat what the other person has said and ask for time to consider.
- Leave if you think you might otherwise lose your temper or be violent.
Change brain rhythms
- Play music to yourself and listen closely; if you don’t have access to music, listen to it inside your head.
- Take exercise of some form.
- Alter your breathing, holding each breath for 5 seconds.
- Tense and relax muscles; tensing each in turn, holding for 5 seconds then releasing.
- Massage yourself particularly on your stomach and chest.
- Change postures and roll shoulders.
- Imagine a relaxing scene.
- Imagine laughing at yourself and the situation later.
- Imagine neutral scenes, especially ones with people in them.
3. Learning Strategies to prevent Anger arising in the Future
- Decide whether your anger is healthy or unhealthy (see above).
- Avoid stimulants such as alcohol or other drugs if you are working on a long term solution.
- Read about the subject.
- Ask others who get less angry than you how they do it and try their ideas.
- Develop a generally more relaxed lifestyle and try to manage stress better.
- Challenge your angry thoughts.
- Beware of disguised anger such as in sarcasm or cruel jokes.
- Learn to assert yourself, maybe even go on an Assertion Skills course.
- Consider the past origins of your anger.
- Share your concern with a Counsellor.
- Seek out specific Therapy for Anger with referral to a Clinical Psychologist or Psychotherapist who targets this trouble.
When you get angry do your loved ones seem to fear you? You may have an anger problem and you could benefit from an anger management class.
Anger management is designed to help you work through your anger so that you can control yourself when you have feelings of violence.
Everybody gets angry and it is healthy to let your anger out in a constructive way, such as communicating your anger in a calm manner or walking it off.
Anger management can teach you techniques for calming yourself down and getting things under control before your anger gets out of hand.
Anger management can save you from a myriad of problems associated with out of control anger. Issues with anger control can lead to problems on the job or problems at home.
Domestic violence and child abuse are often the result of uncontrolled anger. When you have anger management problems you may find yourself enraged in social situations or when driving, which can lead to fights and road rage. Anger management problems can lead to prison or death.
Often the only way to learn how to control your anger is by taking an anger management class. You will learn how to sit down and communicate your anger calmly with the ones you love.
You will learn how to walk away from an angry situation until you are calm enough to talk. You will delve into the root of your anger because knowing where it stems from can be helpful in controlling it.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
Over the past 30 years, I’ve spent nearly 25,000 hours counseling angry men, and until about two years ago, my enthusiasm was beginning to wane. If you’ve worked with angry male clients, you can understand why. These men are generally highly reluctant clients, who are often in your office only because they’ve gotten “the ultimatum” from their wives or girlfriends or bosses or sometimes court judges: “Get therapy for your anger or get out / you’re fired / you’ll go to jail.” Many, considered by everyone who knows them to have an “anger problem,” arrive in your office convinced that they don’t have an anger problem: the real problem is their stupid coworkers, annoying girlfriends, demanding spouses, spoiled kids, or unfair probation officers. However, they arrive at your office with a shotgun at their backs, so to speak, and know they have no choice. They hate the entire situation because it makes them feel powerless.
No wonder they feel powerless: they’re being coerced to lay down their anger, the only weapon they’ve ever had against feelings of powerlessness. They often trace their reliance upon anger to a childhood history of danger, trauma, shaming, and pain. Anger is the emotion they can trust, the one that might keep danger at bay. As they grew up, they continued to use anger to make people they regard as dangerous back away. By the time you see them, they regard just about every person in their lives as “dangerous,” including loved ones. These men have become habitually angry. I liken their condition to the default option on a computer: their anger goes on automatically unless they consciously turn it off.
Of course, it isn’t easy to turn off the default option when the way to do so is hidden deep within the machine’s (our brain’s) control panel. Furthermore, men for whom anger is a default emotional response to life’s vicissitudes are often relatively untrained in experiencing and communicating other emotions. For example, one of my clients “went off”–screaming and threatening bodily harm against his father’s doctors–when his father died, to the point the police had to be summoned, because he couldn’t handle his grief. Anger was the only emotion he could call upon in time of need. Not surprisingly, when these men come to therapy, whether as individuals or in couples or groups, they’re frequently defensive, argumentative, passive-aggressive, protective of their right to be angry, and doubtful about my competence to understand or help them in any way.
It’d be misleading to say that my most difficult clients are unmotivated. More accurately, they’re antimotivated, committed to undermining any behavioral programs or specific anger management tactics I offer. Meaningful change takes many repetitions: “Practice, practice, practice” is a hallmark of anger-management training. For example, taking the time to put a problem into perspective (“On a 1-10 point scale, Joe, how important is it for your teenage daughter to get home every night by 8 p.m.?”) works well, but only if the client is motivated enough to practice putting things into proper perspective perhaps as often as several times a day. It stands to reason that trying to argue such men out of their commitment to anger is pointless. I long ago realized I couldn’t beat them in face-to-face combat; they’re better at in-your-face challenges and making contemptuous remarks than I’ll ever be. I needed a tool that allowed me to sidestep their oppositionality and create a therapeutic alliance.
At a deeper level, chronically angry people have become lifelong victims of what’s sometimes called negative neuroplasticity. They’ve unintentionally trained their brains so well, through countless repetitions of undesired behavior (at least, undesired by the rest of the world), that they’re primed to think, feel, and say things that increase their own anger. For example, Joe may well think that if his daughter gets home after 8 p.m. it means she’s probably having sex with some male punk. That kind of thought pattern is automatic.
So now we have two major concerns. First, some of my clients enter treatment antimotivated. Second, their brains have been programmed to react automatically with anger and hostility to a wide variety of situations. What kind of therapeutic intervention can address these issues?
Focusing on the Brain to Increase Motivation
About six years ago, I stumbled across the answer when I attended a session about the brain at the Networker Symposium in Washington, D.C. The controversial brain researcher Daniel Amen was just beginning his lecture when he mentioned in passing that he’d been browsing through the books on anger in the sales area. “None of them said anything about the brain,” he noted somewhat dismissively. Now many of those anger books he was trashing were my books, so at first I was defensive. But by the end of the talk, I realized he was right, at least about the books I’d authored. I hadn’t mentioned anything about brain processes for a simple reason: I didn’t know anything about them. That led me to immerse myself in the subject of the brain, and as I did so, my enthusiasm for working with angry clients increased exponentially.
How can learning about the brain–particularly the angry brain and how it got that way–possibly influence clients who have a hard time taking in therapy or sticking with anger-management techniques? Aren’t concepts drawn from brain research simply too abstruse, too abstract, and apparently unrelated to daily life to make much difference to them? In fact, what I’ve found is just the reverse: these men are fascinated by information about how anger develops in the brain and why it’s so hard to control, and they consider it far more relevant to their lives than many standard therapy concepts. Getting to understand a bit of what happens “inside their heads” when they get angry resonates deeply with them. In one way, they can cling to their defensiveness and denial systems, since they certainly can’t be accused of deliberately messing up their minds. Sidestepping their defensiveness and emphasizing their opportunity to do something right that will retrain their brains gives them a positive direction and a possible source for well-earned personal pride. Furthermore, hearing me explain how, by regular, committed behavioral practice of various anger-management techniques, they can literally change their own brain circuits, stimulates both hope that they can change and desire to begin. For the first time in their lives, they feel they might be capable of literally using their own brains tochange their brains. It is a real revelation to many angry men.
My own enthusiasm for brain science and my belief in angry men’s inherent capacity to reorganize their own neural circuitry are probably another key to revving up their motivation to try. My “brain talk” to them isn’t just a lecture about applied neurophysiology, but in truth a kind of triggering mechanism arousing their own curiosity and interest. Clearly, my enthusiasm evokes–in their brains–a mirroring enthusiasm for this process. It may well be that my sheer enthusiasm for this endeavor, my joy and excitement about the brain, triggers left-hemisphere mirror neuronal activity that bypasses right-hemisphere negativity and cynicism.
Devron Johnson is a 40-year-old male who’s been divorced for 10 years, partly because of his anger problems. An intelligent but not highly educated man, he works as a heating and cooling technician. He has two adolescent sons, with whom he barely converses and seldom visits. He’s now in a new relationship with Sheila, a 36-year-old mother of three younger children who live with them. Although Devron has never been physically violent with the children, he often frightens them with his angry outbursts.
This man grew up in a tough part of Detroit, where survival was the name of the game. His parents separated and reconnected several times during his childhood. The family atmosphere was markedly hostile–full of negativity, accusations, and occasional violence. Devron said he hated his father because he was never there for him, not even when he became a star athlete on his high school’s baseball team.
Devron sought therapy because Sheila had threatened to end their relationship unless he became much nicer to her kids. He added that he was also in trouble at work because “I gave the finger to my boss once too often.”
Here’s how Devron described his anger: “Man, I had a bad attitude in school. I beat people up if they looked at me wrong. But I gave that up. I don’t hit nobody anymore. But Sheila says I still have a bad attitude. She says I look for problems with her kids. Then I blow because I have a really short fuse. And I have a hard time letting go of my anger, too. Once I get pissed at someone, they stay my enemy forever.” Still, Devron does want to change. He loves Sheila and even grudgingly admits he likes her children. He doesn’t want to lose them. However, he doubts whether I, or anybody else, can help him. A few years ago, he attended an anger-management program for about 10 weeks, but says, “I didn’t get nothing useful from it.”
Like many angry clients, Devron came to counseling under duress–the “get help, or get out” final call. This isn’t a formula for success, since such clients often arrive for counseling thinking that they’ll more or less passively go through the motions to get the wife/boss/law off their backs, and then they’ll be free to revert to previous behavior. By contrast, Devron was directly skeptical and dismissive–derisive, in fact. Instead of pretending to buy the package, he openly challenged me to prove I had something new to offer. It’s uncomfortable to be sneered at by your client, but I’ve learned to recognize an open challenge as a positive indicator for success. Devron’s disdain was a sign of energy that might be used in counseling, if I could develop an alliance with him.
“Actually, Devron, I do have something to offer you that you probably haven’t run into before,” I told him, “I can help you change your brain.” I proceeded to explain with the enthusiasm and energy I usually feel when talking about the brain that he was actually capable of making fundamental, long-term changes in the way he thinks. “Devron, all it takes is commitment and persistence. I know you’re capable of both of those things because you’ve told me how much you love Sheila and the kids–that’s commitment–and how you’ve stuck it out with them when it would have been easier to walk away–that’s persistence.” I emphasized to him that he’d developed lifelong habits of anger that had become deeply rooted in his brain. But I assured him that he and he alone could make changes in those habits if he so desired. However, I cautioned him that real brain change doesn’t come easy. I said he’d need to make a strong commitment to practice new behavior for at least several months, so he could build, improve, and expand new circuitry inside his brain while reducing the power of his negative brain circuits. I briefly mentioned such concepts as neuroplasticity and myleinization, but only as a tactical move, to assure him that I did, in fact, know what I was talking about. I told him I didn’t just believe this brain stuff might work, I was absolutely convinced because I’ve seen many other angry people change their brains in just this way, and because I myself had changed my brain to become much more optimistic and generous.
As I spoke, I watched Devron’s “show me” expression change to hope and wonder. “You mean I can really change the way I think?” he asked. It turned out that Devron’s oppositionality obscured a deep sense of pessimism and hopelessness. He’d believed that change was impossible, in effect dooming him to a lifelong anger career. But now, maybe because of my own sense of conviction, he began to see possibilities. We talked a little more before the hour ended, and I asked him to think about how much he wanted to change his brain and in which ways. I also asked him what positive goals he wanted to pursue–for example, what other emotions he might be willing to experience if his brain wasn’t dominated by anger. A positive goal is important with all clients, of course, but especially with angry clients, who often mistakenly set only the negative goal of being less angry. I explained to Devron that only setting a negative goal like quitting being angry was like deciding that a car that currently could only go in reverse would be just fine if you could get it to stay in neutral. The idea is to move forward in life, to get that car moving ahead. Of course this same idea applies to only quitting drinking (instead of leading a sober lifestyle) or stopping being critical (instead of giving praise).
Finally, I cautioned Devron again that real brain change doesn’t come easy. I told him he’d need to make a strong commitment to practice new behavior for at least several months so he could build, improve, and expand new circuitry inside his brain while reducing the power of his negative brain circuits. I then sent him home with two pages of examples of possible brain change plans he could implement. One example was converting criticism and pessimism to praise and optimism. Another was to convert resentment into forgiveness. A third was to look for the good in people (and himself) instead of the bad.
When Devron returned a week later, he said he’d thought a lot about changing his brain and his life. He’d discussed it with Sheila, who’d told him she’d stick around for a while if she saw him really working to change his behavior. Now he was eager to make a six-month commitment to brain change. I then gave him some handouts I’ve created to help him name his brain-change plan. A person with a good brain plan has given it a name that means something at an emotional level, includes specific initial behaviors to maximize the opportunity for immediate success, and at least speculates about longer-term improvements and additions, and how achieving these changes might affect him or her. I also gave Devron the chapter on neuroplastic change from my book to reinforce the idea that changing his brain was realistic, if and only if he’d make a strong commitment to it.
Devron returned the next week in a quandary. He told me that he and Sheila had had a big disagreement about what his brain-change plan should include. She wanted him to be nicer to her children. Devron told me that he wanted to be nicer to them, but that his first concern was quitting thinking so pessimistically about the world. “If I can’t quit thinking that everyone is out to screw me over, I don’t think my changes will last,” he said. I thought Devron had hit upon a clear understanding of how he needed to change at an existential level. Brain-change plans aren’t simple behavioral alterations: they really change your brain, and in doing so, ultimately affect your connections with yourself, those you love, and the universe. So I affirmed Devron’s insight. However, I did point out that his goal and Sheila’s weren’t contradictory. Being nicer to the kids could well become one way that he altered his mindset of hostility and suspiciousness. After all, deeply held beliefs don’t change completely on their own. Devron needed to try out new behavior and receive positive rewards for doing so in order to give his brain the opportunity to be transformed.
I’d like to offer a side comment here. We often expect our angry clients to act as if they were living in a safe world, a world in which people are pleasant, trustworthy, loving, and consistent. This false belief on our part sets clients up to fail. Devron’s siblings, for instance, regularly engaged in felonious behaviors, such as drug dealing and robbery, and expected him to join them as he often had in the past. He told me during therapy that he’d begun declining these invitations. When I asked him if he’d practiced being assertive with them, he laughed. “I guess if telling my brother to go to hell when he attacked me for not going along with some scam he was into, then yes, I was very assertive.” The result of his new “good” behavior was that his family ostracized him for several months. Fortunately though, Sheila and her children were dependably in his corner, so that Devron could practice new, prosocial behavior around them without being criticized or ridiculed.
Devron named his plan “Learning to Trust.” I was tempted to add “and take in love,” but Devron would have labeled that phrase unmanly. When I asked him how he planned to begin this plan, he suggested he could go to his father to see if he could learn to trust the man he most distrusted in the world. Needless to say, this was a palpably rotten idea: in all likelihood, his father would once again have demonstrated his complete untrustworthiness, potentially undermining everything Devron was trying to do. I talked him out of it with some difficulty by pointing out that he was betting his whole stake on one roll of the dice. “Besides, it’s a bad bet,” I said. “You’d be better off investing in a smaller stake, like letting yourself trust Sheila more.” That reminded him of his real priorities.
He decided to open up emotionally a little more to both his family and a few trusted coworkers. For example, he told some of his history to two of his coworkers, the ones he felt most comfortable with, and they responded positively with their own self-disclosures. Then he took a bigger chance by admitting to Sheila that he had cheated on his first wife. Much to his shock, she told him she’d known about it for a long time–his ex-wife had thoughtfully given Sheila that information when she’d begun dating Devron–but she’d chosen not to mention it and trust that he’d be faithful to her.
Shiela’s disclosure and assertion of trust brought him to tears. At that very moment, his brain-change plan spontaneously expanded to include being trustworthy to others. Since Devron had a long history of lying by omission (“Oh, I must have forgotten to tell you that”) this expansion was quite significant. It had proved harder for him than the initial goal because he’d had to retrain himself not to leave out some of the truth “so nobody could pin me down.” He kept expanding from his core commitment to develop trust. He realized along the way that he’d been mean to Sheila’s children because he didn’t want to get close to them and then lose them. But Sheila came through by rewarding his obvious changes with reassurance that she’d stay with him.
I regularly review a client’s brain-change plan with him or her, rather than just assume it’s working fine. It’s important to challenge clients quickly if they’re letting their plan drift.
The final addition to Devron’s plan was learning how to be more empathetic. Devron acknowledged that empathy was strange territory for him: “Frankly, I never gave a damn what anybody else felt.” But now that he felt safer, he could do what safe people do: care about and take a real interest in others. Like many angry people, he has some difficulty being empathic. Empathy partly depends on automatic attunement processes usually learned in infancy through parent–infant synchronic movement. He experienced few such experiences as a child. We talked together about this deficit, a deficit he was determined to challenge. He immediately made a real effort to put himself in the shoes of others. It’s just that he had trouble first taking off his own shoes. For instance, he told his 12-year-old daughter, Amy, who was being teased by classmates, that he knew exactly how she felt, even though he’d been the bully, not the victim, when he’d been in school. But here again, the principles of neuroplasticity apply. Devron realized he’d misunderstood the situation when his daughter got mad at his reply. He then consciously took the time to listen better. Gradually, this behavior was becoming faster, smoother, and more automatic.
Devron’s plan, then, began with developing some basic trust in the world, which led to being trustworthy himself, which morphed into increased empathy and actually caring about others. He quit working with me after approximately nine months. Our last session included Sheila, who affirmed that Devron had become much less angry, more caring, and far more present in their lives. She’d previously doubted his changes would endure, “But he’s only becoming nicer,” she admitted. “I don’t doubt him any longer.” Devron added that he now felt deep inside his soul that he could trust Sheila. He felt safe in a relationship for the first time in his life. “So now I have no reason to be mad all the time.” Of course, he and Sheila still argue from time to time, as do almost all couples. But Devron controls his initial burst of anger far better than before, calms down quicker, and lets go of his anger sooner.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( 1 so far )
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