Anger Problems

"Healthy" Anger

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Anger Management Failures:

Ordinary Anger vs. Problem Anger

Anger management works fine for managing ordinary anger, but is not successful when it comes to the self-defeating behaviors of problem anger.


Ordinary anger is a response to frustration and impediments to:


  • Task performance (the screw repeatedly drops out of the picture hanger before you can tighten it)
  • Interest or relaxation (someone is talking while you’re trying to read or a lawn mower wakes you up too early)
  • Enjoyment (someone is reading when you would like to talk).


In contrast, problem anger:

  • Makes you act against your long term best interest (you bang the picture with the screw driver or shout at the talker to shut up and thereby make it harder to concentrate on reading or make someone irritable by interrupting, which lowers the likelihood that you will enjoy your talk)


  • Keeps you from doing what is in your long term best interest (connecting with those you love).


Anger management fails with problem anger because it treats it as an extreme or uncontrolled version of ordinary anger. According to the American Psychological Association, anger management teaches techniques to manage the emotional feelings and physiological arousal of anger. But problem anger is not just a matter of feelings and arousal; it’s set in motion by a sudden drop in self-value. People with anger problems feel inadequate when the screw won’t turn or devalued when spouses interrupt or unlovable when a loved one doesn’t pay attention.


Instead of doing something that will raise self-value (being nice to someone they love, for example, or finding a better screw driver), they blame their lowered self-value on someone else, which makes them want to devalue in return:


“Look at that jerk!”

“I’m tired of telling you this…”

“What kind of person would say that?”

“I don’t have time for you.”


Due to the high contagion of anger and resentment, you don’t have to express them to do damage – we communicate negativity all the time without saying a word. In addition to ruining your health, problem anger inevitably damages social relationships, whether you express it or not, unless you happen to work or live with Mother Theresa.


The Formula for Problem Anger:


Anger (irritability, attitude, etc.)  + Lowered self-value + Blame


Another failing of anger management is that it relies on conscious control of an unconscious motivation. Problem anger is habitual -- habits run on automatic pilot, processed in the brain much faster than conscious awareness. You are never aware of most of your resentment or anger; by the time you know you’re resentful or angry, it’s already in an advanced state. Anger management fails with problem anger for the same reason that diets don’t work. By the time you know you’re hungry, you’re already highly motivated to have a hot fudge sundae and unlikely to think of eating a celery stick instead.


Priming the Pump

In most cases, you’re primed for bouts of problem anger long before an obnoxious event happens. For example, suppose you’re driving down the road at a baseline level of anger, that is, with no attitude of entitlement, resentment, superiority, pettiness, sarcasm, victim identity, or enmity of any kind. Suddenly an obnoxious event occurs, like someone flipping you the finger and shouting something about your mother as they speed by your car. If you’re at baseline to begin with, that might get you about 30% aroused, which is no big deal. Your response will likely get no worse than sarcasm – you might think, “What a jerk.” That kind of anger dissipates in a few minutes and is forgotten about completely within a couple of hours – you’re not likely to remember it ever happened.


But if you get into the car resentful about something at home or at work, you’re already about 30% aroused at the start. So that same obnoxious event hits you at a higher level of arousal and pushes you to a 60 or 70 percent level, which is where you begin to get aggressive – you’ll shout out or want to tailgate that sucker - with a hair-trigger mechanism for escalation, should there be any negative response to your aggression. Add caffeine, nicotine, anxiety, or a startle response to the mix, and the adrenaline can easily go through the roof. This kind of anger will stay with you in various degrees for the whole day, and you’ll get pissed every time you think of the incident.


The Roller Coaster of Problem Anger

The jolt of energy you get at any level of anger works like an amphetamine or “speed.” You get a big spike of energy and confidence, and then you crash. When you get angry, you get depressed, once all the adrenalin washes out of your blood stream. And that’s just the physiological response to the amphetamine effect. If you do something while you’re resentful or angry that you’re ashamed of, your depressive mood will get worse.


Anger Junkies

An addictive trap is sprung when the energy surge of anger is used frequently. You get angry and feel energetic and confident, only to crash with little energy and creeping self-doubt. (Maybe I shouldn’t have grounded by kid till he’s 42?) You get angry again to feel energetic and confident, only to crash yet again into low energy and self-doubt. In no time at all, anger will seem necessary to escape depressed mood, even though it inevitably means more depression. In other words, the brain will look for excuses to get angry and turn you into an anger junkie.


You may be an anger junkie if you use anger:


  • For energy or motivation (can't get going or keep going without some degree of anger). This often takes the form of getting mildly angry to do a job you don’t like to do, like your taxes or raking the leaves. The anger gives you the energy to get through the task, even though you won’t do it as efficiently.
  • For pain-relief (it hurts when you're not angry).


  • For confidence, a stronger sense of self — you only feel cer­tain when angry.


  • To ease anxiety, especially in new or uncertain situations. If you get irritable when things depart from the norm or super-critical in new social situations, you are using anger as an anxiety-reducer.


  • To militate out of depressed mood. This can put you on a wicked roller-coaster ride. Pretty soon you’ll have only two feeling-states: one of the many forms of anger, such as grouchiness, irritability, or resentment on the one hand, and depression, lethargy, or weariness on the other.


Effective Treatment

Treatment for problem anger cannot merely reduce the emotional feelings or arousal of anger; it must restore a state of self-value that is more stable than whatever lowered it, which will replace the habit of blaming with a motivation to improve. And it has to do it fast.


To end the roller-coaster ride of problem anger you must build a conditioned response that works unconsciously, as fast as the anger, which is 5,000 times faster than you can say, “I feel angry.” Our technique, HEALS, conditions core value (that which instantly raises self-value) to occur automatically with the first physiological signs of anger. With practice -- 12 times a day for six weeks -- clients automatically convert resentment and anger into focused interest or compassion. The best way to learn HEALS is in a boot camp type of environment.  

Listen to a recording from Dr. Stosny: Why your anger management course didn't work

Anger Problems



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Anger Problems

Numbing, Avoiding Pain

Anger provides a way to temporarily numb or avoid pain, which is why, when you bang your thumb hanging a picture, you don't pray. When anger does its job, we're typically unaware of painful or vulnerable feelings.

Most problem anger - that which makes you act against your best interest - is about abrupt ego pain or threat of ego pain. Something happens that makes you feel devalued, disregarded, put down, disrespected, or unfairly/inappropriately treated. In other words, most anger is about temporary loss of personal value. When we feel a sudden loss of value, we feel vulnerable and less energetic.

Anger mobilizes the organism with instant energy, pain-relief, and confidence, preparing you to protect vulnerability by exerting power over someone else, either in your head or in their face. You'll think, "What a jerk, or what a cold, inconsiderate person," or you'll actually say it, usually with sarcasm.

The problem is that anger substitutes power for value. Anger will never make you feel more valuable, though it will temporarily make you feel more powerful, provided the person you are angry at submits and does what you want. This is unlikely, because he/she will feel devalued by your anger and want you to submit in retaliation. If you violate your own values when you are angry, which we often do, you will need to stay angry - usually in the form of resentment - to ward off the guilt. When the anger goes, self-doubt returns.

Personality characteristics most likely to cause anger problems:

  • Large egos: They have a sense of entitlement (but the world will not meet their entitlement needs, once they're over five and not cute anymore).
  • Superiority complex: Their self-value rises on the backs of others, which requires continual arousal to sustain.
  • Externally regulated self-value - it has to come from others. (Genuine personal value is regulated by what you do - namely being true to your deeper values - not by what other people do.)
  • Anxiety levels that make them want to control their environment (but the environment offers a lot of resistance to control).
  • Low tolerance for ambiguity (but we live in an ambiguous world).

Forget "Justified," Think, "Useful" and "Authentic"

It's never a question of whether your anger is "justified" or "appropriate." The important question is this: "Does my anger or resentment lead me to act according to my deeper values, i.e., is it the real me, or a reaction to someone else?" (If you react to a jerk like a jerk, what does that make you?)

The second and third important questions are: "Is my anger or resentment working to get me what I want? Are they making me the person I most want to be?"

Anger and resentment are more likely to make you self-righteous than right. When angry or resentful, we can end up wrong even when right:

  • It is nearly impossible to understand other people's perspectives when angry or resentful; we never have a complete view of a negotiation.
  • Anger and resentment make you oversimplify and see only one negative aspect of something. Even if you're right in your appraisal of that negative aspect, you're oversimplifying when resentful or angry.
  • Anger and resentment amplify and magnify only the negative aspect of something, which blows it out of proportion and takes it out of context.
  • The person you're angry at will not see that you're right as long as he/she feels devalued by your anger or resentment.

It's easier to see these effects of anger and resentment when someone is angry at you and that person is right, you made a mistake. Your reaction is:

  • "There's more to it, she's oversimplifying."
  • "He's making too much of it."
  • "She just can't see my perspective."

You feel reduced to that one mistake, as if all the good things you've ever done don't count.


Anger Quotes

Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one who gets burned. – Buddha.

For every minute you remain angry, you give up sixty seconds of peace of mind. – Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Anger, if not restrained, is frequently more hurtful to us than the injury that provokes it. – Seneca.

If you find yourself in a hole, stop digging. – Will Rogers.

Speak when you are angry and you will make the best speech you will ever regret. – Ambrose Bierce.

How much more grievous are the consequences of anger than the causes of it. – Marcus Aurelius.

Two things a man should never be angry at: what he can help, and what he cannot help. – Thomas Fuller.

There was never an angry man that thought his anger unjust. – St. Francis De Sales.

If you are patient in one moment of anger, you will escape a hundred days of sorrow. –Chinese Proverb.

If a small thing has the power to make you angry, does that not indicate something about your size? – Sydney J. Harris

He who angers you conquers you. -- Elizabeth Kenny

Anger is one letter short of danger. – Eleanor Roosevelt

If you kick a stone in anger, you'll hurt your own foot. – Korean Proverb

Resentment is like taking poison and waiting for the other person to die. – Malachy McCourt

Resentment is stabbing yourself to get at the person behind you. – Unknown

Resentment is setting yourself on fire so the smoke will annoy someone. – Unknown

Anger dwells only in the bosom of fools. – Albert Einstein

Anger is short-lived madness. – Horace

Anger blows out the lamp of the mind. – Robert G. Ingersoll

Anger is a killing thing:  it kills the man who angers, for each rage leaves him less than he had been before - it takes something from him. – Louis L'Armour

To carry a grudge is like being stung to death by one bee. – William H. Walton





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Anger Management Failure and "Healthy" Anger

In their attempts to describe anger, many authors, therapists, and anger management instructors use words that make anger problems worse. Pseudo descriptions of anger like, "appropriate, normal," or "healthy," tell us nothing about what happens during anger arousal or what causes it. They are normative terms with no meaning apart from the values, ideologies, and biases of those who use them. "Appropriate anger" only means that the person using the word probably would get angry at the same thing under the same circumstances and that everyone should be like him or her.

Anger is certainly natural. It is part of the innate fight/flight/freeze response we share with all mammals. Anger in all animals carries a powerful motivation to prevail, dominate, or retaliate in protection of juvenile offspring, self, territory, and, in the case of more cooperative social animals, pack mates. (To check this hierarchy for yourself, think of when you will get the angriest, if your neighbor, yard, you, or your children are threatened.) It takes a dual perception of vulnerability and threat to activate the emotion of anger. Like all animals, we respond to lesser threats with greater anger when we are tired, hungry, sick, physically injured, or emotionally wounded.

Despite the universality of anger, modern humans are the only animals that have anger problems and the only social animals who consistently use anger against juvenile offspring, self, territory, and pack mates. That's because we have recycled the primary function of anger from the protection of life, loved ones, and fellow tribesmen to protection of the ego. Today, something like a verbal insult seems to make us feel vulnerable and require the protection of anger, even against loved ones.

The Healthy Way to Experience Anger

When members of the press naively ask about "healthy anger," I enjoy giving the following description of what occurs during anger arousal: 

"I am angry (or resentful, impatient, irritable, shut down, cranky, etc.), which means that I am presently in an impaired mental state that reduces my ability to grasp ambiguity and see any nuance of a situation. The adrenalin rush I'm experiencing makes me magnify and oversimplify that which has stimulated my anger, while it degrades my judgment and renders me incapable of seeing other perspectives or seeing other people at all, apart from my emotional reaction to them.  

"I am probably more self-righteous than right. I am doubtless engaged in a petty ego defense that will make it more likely that I'll violate my deepest values than protect them and that I'll act against my long-term best interests.

"I am less able to control my impulses and tolerate frustration. My fine motor skills are temporarily deteriorated.

"I should not try to drive, negotiate, analyze an issue, or do anything important, until I have regulated this temporary state that has prepared me to fight when I really need to learn more, be more compassionate, or solve a problem." 

Of course, we're unlikely to experience anger in this truly healthy way, without a great deal of practice. The point here is that the use of normative terms to describe anger obscures and distorts what happens in the experience of anger and thereby compounds problem anger - a recurring form of the emotion that makes us act against our long term best interests.

Don't Justify, Improve

What are mere conceptual problems for authors, therapists, and anger management instructors who try to distinguish "justified "  or "appropriate" from "unjustified" or "inappropriate" anger turn into disaster for people who use these pseudo-descriptions as a guide for ordinary living. It makes them attempt to justify, rather than improve.

Of course you have a right to be angry and to experience any kind of anger. (You have a right to shoot yourself in the foot, for that matter.) The more important question is this:


 "Is my anger helping me be the person, parent, intimate partner, friend, or coworker I most want to be?"   

This question invokes your deepest values, which, optimally, form the foundation of your ego, as well as its ultimate strength. If your behavior remains consistent with your deepest values, your sense of internal value increases, reducing the need for the ego inflation that requires anger as a defense. With increased internal value, you become less dependent on getting value from others. With reduced dependency on others, you are able to see them as separate people, who, like you, are often blindly and sadly protecting their own inflated egos; in other words, you become more compassionate. You perceive less internal vulnerability and less external threat, which makes you less likely to stimulate reactive anger in others. In short, you make anger less necessary in your life. You begin to see anger as not at all a bad thing but an important signal to get back to your core value.



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