Anger is one of the primary emotions, which means that it is a completely normal and expected part of human experience. Anger occurs for a variety of reasons. Its intensity varies greatly as do the kinds of behaviours and expressions that it elicits. At Nightingale, we do not pathologize the differing relationships that people have to anger. We know that for many people a problem of “too much” anger affects their life negatively. But for just as many people we could say that there is an issue of “too little” anger.
For this reason, we talk about “anger regulation” instead of anger “management,” even though sometimes improving our ability to regulate anger might look like “control” or “management.” This is a new, evidence-based approach to dealing with the problems of anger in our everyday life, our relationships, and our work.
Anger is a profoundly useful and productive emotion, but it is also one of the most challenging. Compared to joy or sadness, for example, anger can be scary, because it leads us into aggression, loudness, and sometimes even violence. While some of us might be comfortable allowing tears or laughter to overwhelm us, it is not always appropriate for us to let out the expressions of anger this way. This is why anger management is so important.
New advances in neuroscience allow us to better understand the role and purpose of anger, and therapies which incorporate these scientific insights guide better approaches. No longer are we focused on “anger management”, but “anger mastery.”
Psychologists refer to “dysregulation” when the expected ups-and-downs of everyday life generate wild swings in our interior experience. Alternatively, we can say that we have “well regulated” anger when our response to a situation matches what has happened, and when we have had choice in how we used that anger to respond. Dysregulated anger is often out of proportion (either too much or too little) and compulsive (happening without our “control”).
When thinking of regulation, consider an image of waves or bandwidth. Ideally, we want to have access to the full range of anger expression and the knowledge and mastery to express the right amount of anger when the situation demands it. If you always completely suppress your anger or never feel anger in the first place, you may have “too little” anger. Alternatively, if you find yourself regularly “flying off the handle” or “in a rage”, then you may be experiencing “too-much anger”.
Too-much anger is the most common reason that people seek out “anger management therapy,” and for good reason. Having and expressing too-much anger can have major impacts on our lives:
For many people with too-much anger, therapy is often suggested by people in their lives. The impact of living alongside someone with too-much anger can be very difficult.
One of the challenges is that it appears that “anger management” will simply ask us to add MORE control and discipline to our angry feelings. But although it sometimes doesn’t LOOK that way to bystanders, most people who have experiences of too much anger are already applying lots and lots of invisible discipline, management, and control. A more productive approach is demanded.
On the contrary, very few people with too-little anger arrive in therapy with this problem. This is partially because the problems of too-little anger are less visible. And, in fact, for many people who have too-little anger, this approach to their emotion seems to be a net positive—they avoid conflict and sustain relationships. However, there is almost always a cost.
The downsides of too little anger include:
It often requires the keen eye and ear of a counselling therapist to see some of these “symptoms” and draw a connection to our experiences with anger. But, if you are reading this and see yourself in some of these experiences, you might ask yourself:
It’s worth noting that there does appear to be a gender divide on who feels too-much and who feels too-little anger. Although it’s certainly (certainly!!) not always true, it is more common for men to arrive in therapy with “too much” and women to arrive with “too little.” Much of this has to do with the way that our cultures teach us to understand and deal with our own feelings of anger.
The cultural image of men’s anger is that it is violent, something scary, and something we “have to keep a lid on.” This leads to emotional regulation strategies of “containment:” these types of strategies work really well until they don’t! And then, because so much pressure has built up to create the failure, the lid tends to really pop! This means that men often deny anger until it escalates into an undeniable rage—going from “zero to ten.”
Alternatively, women’s anger is seen not as particularly scary but instead something shameful in connection with identity. Demanding women who stand up for themselves are insulted in our cultural images in so many ways. This can lead to strategies of suppression, not just containment. Suppression can look like a total denial not just of the anger but of the events which might have generated anger. Women often turn anger inwards for their “failure of empathy.” This can lead to cycles of accepting unacceptable behaviours from others.
Anger is a natural and normal and very useful and often productive emotion. But without anger management, it can runaway from us.
Anger enters the picture when we perceive that we have been violated or transgressed against in some way. Sometimes this can be very small: some noise in the background that makes us “annoyed.” Perhaps a little more: a persistent something that makes us feel “irritated.” Or it can be big: consider the feelings of rage that accompany deep injustices.
Anger is a complex emotion that generates inside us the will and capacity to fight back. Where fear asks us to move away from the object of our concern, anger lets us move towards it. Anger can be a facilitator of change, activating us with adrenaline and muscle tone, which gives us the power to act.
So what does a modern, evidence-based approach to “anger management” look like? Anger management asks us for only one thing: to have less anger.
Anger mastery is not about having more or less in the general sense: it’s about having the RIGHT amount of anger depending on what is called for. There is not a “sweet spot” in which to live our whole life. Instead, we need to be responsive to our environment at all times, and when there are transgressions or violations happening, we need anger mastery.
A word of caution: learning to understand and master our anger does not mean letting it spill out randomly; it does not mean letting it run uncontained.
Learning to master our anger means the following:
The benefits of learning to master your anger can make a major impact on our quality of life. Clients who learn to master their anger report:
Learning emotion regulation, including anger mastery, is possible for everyone. If you are experiencing the symptoms of too-much or too-little anger, or if the benefits of anger mastery just feel exciting and interesting to you, give us a call.