I cannot tell you how many people have come into my office, sat down, and begun to tell me about their “anger problem”. Inevitably, I find out that these varied individuals have many things in common. In no particular order, they: recognize when they’re angry, are usually quite adept at expressing their anger, and feel distressed regarding their angry outbursts.
After fully engaging and listening to their history with anger, I then tend to say point-blank, “Great, so you don’t have an anger problem at all. Tell me about your relationship to sadness.” Depending on their particular situation, I might ask them about their relationship with anxiety, guilt, or some other emotion.
I often get a blank stare in response. Everyone is so gung-ho about holding onto their diagnosis of “anger problem” that they feel quite taken aback when asked about other emotions. The Anger Management Myth highlights our tendency to eschew discovering the deeper issues at hand for more topical remedies.
Anger managed is anger misunderstood. We must collectively work to go beyond the management stage and plumb the depths of the emotional pain and discomfort that lie beneath our angry exteriors.
Very often what you’ll find is that you felt (and feel) angry—an understandable response. We can begin to recognize anger as a reaction to being blocked from a goal. What might the goal have been in that particular situation? I can imagine you wanted connection, intimacy, or support from the loved one, rather than meanness.
As you sit with this memory, pay special attention to your heart. With kind attention, you’ll be able to recognize a different sensation there, a different emotion other than anger. Do you feel that sadness?
The vast majority of the anger I hear about in session is of the type described above. When we disconnect ourselves from our true experience, the original emotion—in this case, sadness—gets trapped and then transformed into anger. I very often describe anger as a pie. On top, we have the crunchy obviousness of anger, but underneath lies the gooey, vulnerable center. This gooey center will be made up of whatever emotion or emotions you have decided are too painful, awkward, or uncomfortable for you to feel.
When we don’t access our true emotions and learn to honor them by acknowledging and then releasing them, they transmute into anger—pretty much every time.
The truth behind effective anger management is learning to acknowledge and feel our lesser-known emotional experiences. Can you identify the emotion that you struggle to effectively express? Sadness, guilt, and anxiety usually earn top marks.
When we begin to acknowledge and feel these core emotions, what we’ll find is that our “anger problem” begins to abate. The energy needed to create the anger simply isn’t there. When I work with people seeking anger management solutions, I inevitably find other emotions that often don’t even get to see the light of day. These buried emotions, and their unburying, become the core of our work together.
Don’t get me wrong; I recognize this process can be quite scary and uncomfortable.
Accessing these more troubling emotions can be a daunting task. With patience and kindness, we teach ourselves to honor all of the various emotion parts of ourselves.
The only real problem I’ve found most people possess regarding emotions, and not just anger, is espousing the belief that they shouldn’t exist. In future articles, I will be exploring this topic in greater detail. Other useful perspectives on anger will be explored, as well as specific techniques and strategies used to better understand and express locked emotion.
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