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Working with Anger in Therapy

Fiona Owen

Counsellor and Psychotherapist
Perth, Western Australia

Often when people come to see me with anger management problems, they ask for strategies to manage their behaviour. I can offer these and they help, however, like a band-aid for a deep wound, they are not enough to heal the wound. What is also required is a deeper level of therapy, to help understand and deal with the behaviour that can occur and overwhelm people.

In order to enable lasting change individuals need to understand their own processes and what might be underlying these. This takes time and necessitates 'experiencing' the process as it occurs in therapy.

Anger is different to other emotions as it is a secondary emotion used to cover up the primary, core emotions, such as sadness, pain, hurt, fear, shame. Understanding the anger process is important in learning to manage anger. In understanding anger there are three significant parts.

  • First, are the environmental situations that provoke anger, that being the annoying or enraging circumstances. For example a person running towards me wielding a knife may create a freeze response in me, then a fight or flight response. Anger is one of the natural responses to a dangerous situation.

  • Next, are the signs and symptoms of anger: the feelings and bodily reactions that I experience in myself and observe in others, so when I am enraged by the audacity of this attacker, my heart will begin to race as my blood is pumped faster with the help of adrenalin. I may, for instance, turn red, clench my fists and shake in response to the perception of a life-threatening encounter.

  • Finally, there is anger-behaviour - what I typically do when I'm angry, such as draw my own weapon (if I have one), shout, measure up the situation and decide on the options.

These three strands provide the basis for our use of the concept of anger from day to day. When someone is angry, all three of these elements may be present. However, I might be furiously angry, yet because I am also very scared, disguise this fact and displace the anger.

Like other emotions (but unlike other feelings and sensations) episodes of anger are related to the environment in two distinct ways, they have an object and a cause. The cause of anger is the environmental circumstance that originally produced it. The object of anger is any thing or person that I take that anger out on. To illustrate this, suppose that when I reach home after the previously described incident, I lose my temper and shout at my partner for no apparent reason. The assailant was the cause of my rage, but my partner is the object. If I had confronted and fought the assailant the object would have coincided with the cause.

Understanding this distinction has great relevance in a therapeutic context. For example, someone will come to see me with anger issues and when I go to greet him/her in the waiting room I sense hostility and anger coming from that person. Now I know that individual cannot be angry with me, as he/she have never met me. The individual is transferring his/her anger onto me; I am not the original cause of the anger. Other things have created the anger, and the person attempts to displace or "dump" anger inappropriately. The work of therapy is to heighten people's awareness of this process and to trace back to the origins of the displaced anger. Usually attending to unfinished business can be therapeutic in itself. Creating appropriate responses at the point of the experience will break the cycle of displaced anger.

Triggers to emotion are often very deeply seated and may even originate from pre-verbal childhood. In psychological terms, "creative adaptations" will be developed for the purpose of self-defence. If the adaptation is successful in it's purpose then this will be reinforced and used again. For example, a child who is repeatedly threatened verbally may learn to "zone out". It is problematic when this functional adaptation is taken out of the environment for which it was created, and into other situations where it is dysfunctional. For example, in the classroom zoning out in response to a teacher attempting to gain contact by raising her voice.

Anger is important when used appropriately and there are times when its use is essential. Learning to direct the appropriate anger response to the causing object at the correct time is a major aim of anger therapy. A person becoming more self-aware can achieve this. The heightening of self-awareness enables people to develop more choices in how they respond to any given stimulus. The process may require considerable work in order to strip away deep-seated, dysfunctional "creative adaptations". The main purpose of Anger Therapy is to enable individuals to learn to be more authentic, to understand and modify their dysfunctional anger responses and to take responsibility for their behaviour.

With a deep physical wound, the dead tissue needs to be cut away and any foreign objects that may have become embedded need to be removed. The wound needs to be fully disinfected and then properly sewn up. After this, care still needs to be taken to ensure the wound does not become infected or break open again. A scar may well be left, however the wound, with care, will heal. Similarly, displaced inappropriate anger is the result of an emotional wounding. Learning to understand and repair the feelings underlying the inappropriate anger response will enable a person to have more choices in emotional responses to any given stimulus.

If you would like more information, or to make an appointment, please contact;

Fiona Owen
M Soc Sc (Counselling), B Sc Psychology, Grad. Dip. Ed.
Perth, Western Australia 0409 995 411

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