Anger is a very useful emotion that has served us well over time – that’s why we call it Anger Management instead of Anger Cure. We are connected to basic emotions very deeply, and even if we could get rid of anger, it would likely be to our detriment.
And some of us struggle with too much anger or expressing anger appropriately. The costs can be tremendous to health, relationships, and inanimate objects that we care about. I have worked with many clients over the past several years, and they have given fairly consistent feedback on some of the basic ideas that helped them gain better control of their anger.
Being able to separate the emotion from the action seems to aid control a lot. We tend to think of anger as a “bad” emotion, but why? It becomes bad based on the actions that we take when we are angry. If we hit, yell, slam, stomp on the gas, or say something we can’t take back when we are angry, we start to associate those behaviors with anger; the other side of the coin is that we build an expectation of doing something angry when we are feeling angry. In this way, we give ourselves permission to act ineffectively, and we defer responsibility for those actions (“you know how I get when I’m angry”). If we untangle the necessity for angry action from the feeling, we can go a long way toward reducing the negative impact of the emotion.
There is a concept in addictions counseling called “urge surfing,” where one watches the urge as it builds up and then, after some time, subsides. I call the same thing for anger “surge surfing.” We can experience and become more in tune with the cues for our anger by watching what happens to us as we get angry: “my face is getting warm, my heart is pounding, I see violent images;” to “my breathing is slowing, my fists are unclenching, I’m aware of the room again.” It is usually helpful to get separation from partners, kids, and pets when learning this piece. The benefit of learning this is that we see the process more as an observer rather than being “down in it,” training a part of the brain to regulate another part of the brain involved in the neurochemistry of anger.
I have often heard clients describe being carried away by their anger or feeling like someone had taken over their body. Some of us think we are angry because we are some combination of ethnicities, or because our parent(s) are that way. These are myths, for the most part. You have a choice to behave as you do when you are angry. Being able to maintain responsibility for anger as it increases does many good things: we will tend to take action before we become angrier, and we will tend to take less destructive options, such as taking a time out or expressing our emotions verbally.