Understanding Anger

The Nature of AngerHaving “Anger Management problem” is a catch phrase used to describe a person who suffers from chronic angry outbursts.  These angry outbursts may take the form of screaming and yelling to breaking and throwing items to outright physical violence against another.  People who bear the brunt of the person’s anger often feel helpless and find themselves constantly on the guard.  They spend a lot of energy and effort to either prevent the person from exploding or pacifying/appeasing the person.  Often, the person who has the “anger management” problem externalizes the cause of the behavior by blaming others, e.g., the children are too noisy, my wife never listens to me, he always or never ___________  [fill in your or your partner’s excuse here].

“Anger” is a common and natural human emotion.  It is as natural as being happy, being sad or being in love.  Anger becomes a problem when anger is chronic and is expressed in a way that result in emotional or physical harm to the person or others.  Without intervention, one incident of physical, emotional or psychological abuse can lead to further physical, emotional or psychological abuse in the future.  In extreme cases, “anger” can lead to suicide and/or homicide.

What is anger?  Anger is a secondary emotional response mechanism that a person unconsciously uses to hide or mask a range of underlying negative feelings — the primary emotional response.  These underlying negative feelings are triggered by events that threaten the person’s sense of self and security, e.g., sense of betrayal, fear of abandonment, and feeling of impotence or inadequacy.  For the majority of people, to face and admit to these negative feelings would put too much focus on the person’s internal automatic response mechanism and, thus, require the person to take some responsibility for the way the person thinks and feels.  Much too complicated.  It is by far much easier for the individual to blame others or, more accurately, to change others to fit one’s sense of “right” than to accept others and change one’s self.  Thus, the functionality of anger in interpersonal relationships.

Unchecked, anger can paralyze a person, everyone associated with the person, and the person’s relationship(s).  Depression is one common byproduct of of chronic expression of uncontrollable anger.  In interpersonal relationship where expression of anger is an issue, one party almost always has the upperhand while another takes on the role of the passive victim.  Sooner or later and depending upon the chronicity of abuse, the passive victim will eventually feel powerless, hopeless and helpless.

Bystanders are just as affected.  Children who witness physical, emotional or psychological abuse in the home feel just as helpless and powerless as passive victims even when the children themselves are not recipients to the abuse.  Drug and alcohol abuse, gang involvement and teen pregnancy are not uncommon in this population where the intent of the child is to escape the unstable home environment.  In the children’s future families, the children as adults take the lessons learned from their family of origin and behave accordingly.  Some become the abusers while others play the role of the passive victim.

The perpetrator fares no better.  Having gained control over others through destructive expression of anger, many perpetrators believe that to maintain control over others the perpetrator must continually be on the guard at a cost to the perpetrator’s own happiness.

Thus, a person’s inability to understand his own feelings and control the expression of his anger affects everyone associated with him.  Inability to control one’s anger affects everyone it touches and, oftentimes, even generations after the person has passed away.  But, the situation is not hopeless.  If the person, either the victim or the perpetrator, is willing to take the necessary steps to change, there are mental health professionals that have the skills to guide the process along.

The Role of Marriage and Family Therapist in Anger Management

As psychotherapists, Marriage and Family Therapists are especially equipped to deal with anger management issues in individual counseling, family sessions, or group therapy settings.

The psychotherapist works with the client to explore the benefit and consequences of the client’s behavior to the client and the client’s relationships.  The psychotherapist then helps the client understand the client’s interpretation of events and the client’s automatic response mechanism to them.  Lastly, the psychotherapist works with the client to formulate alternative response mechanism that are more positive for the client and the client’s relationships.

It is not uncommon for a Marriage and Family Therapist to explore with the client the influence of the client’s family of origin’s interpersonal relational patterns on the client’s current style of interaction with others.  The goal is not to put blame on the family of origin, but to help the client realize that much of our behavior is learned and, therefore, can be unlearned and replaced with more positive response mechanism.  Through this exploration, the Marriage and Family Therapist and the client works to break the cycle of abuse through the realization that the client has control over the client’s behavior.

Depending upon the extent of abuse and stage of the client’s progress, the Marriage and Family Therapist may include the client’s current family in some of the sessions to gauge the client’s progress and for the family to provide support to the client.

Franco E. Santos, MA

Franco E. Santos is an adjunct professor of psychology and undergraduate advisor at Mount Saint Mary’s University in West Los Angeles.

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