Anger management is all about identifying and dealing with the source since anger is never what it seems
John is a big guy, physically intimidating. But he’s emotionally intimidating as well. If his girlfriend is running late and he’s kept waiting, he’s pissed off and is quick to angrily reprimand her, call her names. Ditto if she makes a dinner he doesn’t like. He always in charge, it’s his way or the highway.
People might call Sara a bit OCD, somewhat a control freak, her life a stack of rigid routines. The house has to be just so, and if the kids are a bit too messy she gets quickly irritable, which can be often. If she gets bogged down in traffic and running late for an appointment, she gets a hit of road rage, and if her husband asks her at the last minute if it’s okay for his brother to come over for dinner, she’s apt to snap his head off.
Annie is one of those people who is always doing for others. She is mild mannered, always ready to volunteer at church, and even though it kind of bothers her when her husband plays golf 3 weekends in the row, she’s not likely to say anything about it. Periodically though, she blows up big time, seemingly out the blue, usually about something small – the kids leaving all their toys on the floor, her husband coming home late – but it’s explosion city. Then she apologizes and feels guilty for days after.
Anger has several faces. While John, Sara, Annie’s anger have some surface similarities, the underlying sources of their angers are very different. Here’s how it breaks down:
John. You’ve undoubtedly met people like John and it’s a good bet that you didn’t like them. John’s the bully. He was muscling other kids on the playground when he was kid and now he’s doing it to his girlfriend. He believes he is entitled to get what he wants, and has learned how to intimidate those around him with his size and anger into doing exactly that.
Sara. While John’s control is driven by his entitlement, need for power, and ultimately his disregard for others, Sara’s control comes as her way of managing an ever-running anxiety. When everything is going as it should, she’s fine, and so a lot of her effort goes into everything going as it should. But when the unexpected happens – the running late, the possible brother showing up and disrupting her already well-planned-out dinner, she freaks out, all coming out as anger and irritability.
Annie. Annie’s got a problem – she’s a martyr. She learned long ago that being good, avoiding conflict, keeping everyone happy is the best way of getting safely through life. This usually works pretty well, though she is prone to burnout, and periodically to built-up resentment – because she doesn’t get the appreciation that she is hoping for, because others aren’t doing as much as she. That’s what drives the blow-ups, the release of emotional steam. After she feels badly and tightens down the lid once again.
What do you do if you’re like one of these folks or in a relationship with them?
John. John’s girlfriend may have a high tolerance for his bullying because she may have been bullied by parents or siblings when growing up. She has the understandable little-kid thinking that if she indeed does just get it right, there won’t be any anger and mistreatment. Unfortunately, she’ll never get it right because she trying to figure it out with her little-kid emotional brain and because John’s into power not perfection.
The bigger hook though is that John isn’t always a bully. Sometimes he actually seems to treat her well. The problem with this is that this intermittent positive reinforcement keeps his girlfriend off-balance. Just when she imagines John’s turned over a new leaf of sanity and kindness, he flares up. Just when she is ready to walk out, he’s kind and loving.
What to do? In the ideal world she has a clear conversation with John that his bullying has to stop, and because he doesn’t want to lose the relationship, he actually tries to change his ways. This isn’t likely to happen because, he says, he’s only angry because of her and blames her for his anger. She needs to stop buying that story. She probably needs to get out of the relationship in any way she can, then take some time to figure how what she can do to stop hooking up with these bad boys and stop replicating and tolerating these abusive patterns.
And John? He needs to have some epiphany that his life isn’t really working, that others don’t deserve his abuse. Unfortunately the lesson often only comes way too late if at all.
Sara. It’s all too easy for those around Sara to get frustrated by her control, rigidity, and irritability and never see the anxiety. But this is what they need to keep in mind – not that’s she’s going on the warpath, but that she is getting anxious and rattled and needs help in calming down. When she starts yelling at the kids, her husband needs to gently see how he can help rather than yelling at Sara for yelling. If he wants to have his brother over, he needs to give Sara more notice because she doesn’t do sudden transitions well. They need to have a straight-ahead conversation about her anxiety.
And Sara. She needs to acknowledge that she has an anxiety, and like John not simply blame others for messing up her routines and world. She needs to realize that if she wants total control she needs to live alone, but if she wants to live with others she needs give some control up.
If she can do this, then it is a matter of treating the underlying problem. Maybe she needs to check medication for anxiety, needs to start meditating. She needs to mentally note that when she is getting irritable it’s because she is anxious, usually in an irrational way, and work hard to use her rational mind to calm her anxious one. She may want to considertherapy to learn these skills.
Annie. The martyr, overdoing, being nice then blowing up cycle is likely to continue unless Annie learns to not be afraid of possible disapproval of others, to tolerate the anxious,fearful feelings that come with conflict and being assertive, try letting others handle things on their own, rather than feeling drawn into making them feel better. She needs to tell her husband that she doesn’t like his golfing 3 weekends in a row, try not raising her hand when the church wants someone to coordinate the Sunday potluck. And then she’ll need to handle the rush of guilt she is likely to feel for making these changes until she gets her sea-legs in managing this.
Finally she needs to focus more on what she wants than what her critical voice is telling her she should do. Again some therapy to learn these skills and support her in taking acceptable risks probably would be helpful.
Certainly anger management, learning to calm themselves when they start to get angry, is itself important for each of these folks to learn. But the long terms goal for John, Sara, and Annie isn’t just to put a cork in it, but deal with their own individual drivers.
The only mistake they can make is to continue doing what they’re doing.