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Is The Concept Of Anger Management Flawed?

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Is The Concept Of Anger Management Flawed?

Oversimplifying the multifaceted emotion of anger and dismissing anger management only leads to confusion.

As someone with a clinical specialty in anger control for some 25 years, I feel compelled to take exception to several points made in a recent post by fellow blogger, Stanton E. Samenow. Entitled “”Anger Management’: A Flawed Concept,” the author makes several contentions that, though not exactly erroneous, are overly reductive or simplistic. To me, they seem to cry out for qualification, so let me address each one in turn:

  • Samenow claims:”The very concept of ‘anger management‘ is flawed” [because it] make[s] anger acceptable and legitimate. The message is that it is alright to be angry; one just must learn to manage it better.” Moreover, at the end of his post he argues that programs dealing with problematic anger should have the objective of “eliminating” anger, not just “managing” it.

My response here is twofold. First, I don’t see how using the term “anger management” (or, for that matter, “anger control”) implicitly legitimizes or sanctions anger. If the term implies anything, I think it’s that anger is a well-nigh universal response to frustration, and that it’s essential we all learn to gain greater control over it. I really can’t see how the phrase, as commonly employed, suggests that the emotion is somehow “unobjectionable”. In many instances, it’s virtually inevitable (at least momentarily). But that’s hardly the same thing as declaring it somehow inherently acceptable.

Secondly, the notion of actually eliminating anger strikes me as an unrealistic, if not impossible, goal. I myself have suggested to clients that if they could ever eradicate the emotion entirely, they’d probably turn into white light and disappear (!). Much of our anger is instinctive, hard-wired. It’s a reaction to a perceived threat or violation (whether actual or imagined). When we believe we can successfully stand up to this provoking force, our anger fortifies us (as in providing us with an adrenaline rush). Otherwise, we’re likely to slink away in fear.

  • Samenow asserts categorically that “anger is a destructive emotion”–that it “alienates others” and “results in emotional, physical, and financial injury.”

Somehow, it’s hard for me to believe that, deep down, the author thinks that all anger is bad. But that is what he unequivocally states here. Ironically, part of me is tempted to shout, “Here, here!” for I’m no great fan of anger myself. I, too, believe that–overall–it’s one of our most destructive emotions. Yet I just don’t think that the case against anger can be put forth this simply, without offering the slightest qualification.

There are numerous occasions when the anger resounding within us is a warning signal that what someone is asking or demanding of us is unreasonable, that they’re not respecting our basic needs, rights or limits. Without experiencing such initial anger as a vital cue that another is attempting to exploit, take advantage of, or transgress our boundaries, we’re likely to fall victim to them (e.g., work endless overtime for free, not resist unwanted sexual advances, etc.). Additionally, there are times when mindfullly executed, in control anger–or what I call “strategic anger” (to distinguish it from its more reactive counterpart)–enables us to communicate negative sentiments more forcefully, and so optimizes the chance that we’ll be heard. For example, with kids whose rambunctious impulses have for the moment gotten the better of them, parents may need to raise their voice in angry (but controlled) protest simply to get their child’s attention!.

  • Lastly, Samenow contends that “the basis of anger is fear . . . fear of the loss of control, fear that something might not turn out as you anticipated.”
Doubtless, the emotion underlying anger might well be fear, but it could also be a frustration or disappointment that isn’t fear-related at all. So, for example, if you get stuck behind a driver going, say, 30 miles below the speed limit and you’re in a protracted no-passing zone, you might–pretty much as a knee jerk response–find yourself getting hot under the collar. But is this fear-based? I doubt it. There are also a wide variety of situations in which the emotion underlying anger is some kind of hurt (e.g., suddenly getting livid with anger toward a lover who’s just rejected you because it lessens a pain that–at least in the moment–is more than you can bear). Additionally, the emotions of guilt and shame can also lie beneath the “surface” emotion of anger.

Hopefully, my above qualifications will assist readers in developing a more “balanced” perspective toward an emotion that–in my experience at least–is anything but simple.

[Leon F. Sletzer]

Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D., holds doctorates in both English and Psychology. Formerly an English professor at Queens College (CUNY) and Cleveland State University, he now lives in Del Mar, California, where he has maintained a general private practice since 1986. With clinical specialties in anger, trauma resolution (EMDR), couples conflict, compulsive/addictive behaviors, and depression, he has also taught some 200 adult education workshops on these subjects. In addition, he has served as consultant to both corporations and publishers. The author of The Vision of Melville and Conrad, he has also written numerous articles in the fields of literature and psychology. He is probably best known for his professional guide book Paradoxical Strategies in Psychotherapy, which describes a wide array of seemingly illogical therapeutic interventions. These powerful techniques can help therapists effectively resolve difficult individual and marital/family problems when more straightforward methods have proved unsuccessful. An active blogger for Psychology Today, as of 1/1/15 his more than 250 posts--on a broad variety of psychological topics--have received over 8 million views.

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