I just finished reading a post on tips for anger management. What started as a short quip response to the article sent me down a rabbit hole of old frustrations and emotions, and the more I unpacked those feelings the more angry I became with the entire treatment of adults with “Anger Management” issues. This left me with an article on what a negligent and disgusting farce behavioral technique therapies for anger management are, and a short novela about my personal experiences in response to the blogpost. If you read the whole thing, this should explain the odd juxtaposition.
And although I am not a psychologist, I am absolutely positive that my perspective has merit, and anyone who has “Anger Issues”, or a loved one with “Anger Issues” should seriously listen up.
For starters, let me give you the top 10 tips for Anger Management from the Mayo Clinic:
- Think before you speak.
- Once you’re calm, express your anger.
- Get some exercise.
- Take a timeout.
- Identify possible solutions.
- Stick with “I” statements.
- Don’t hold a grudge.
- Use humor to release tension.
- Practice Relaxation Skills.
- Know when to seek help.
At first glance, these seem like great ideas. Any idealist would agree… and that’s the first problem. What Anger Management is conspicuously missing is a pragmatic, hard-deterministic foundation that seeks to understand the behavior and capabilities of the individual first—as well as seeking to find patterns among similar individuals for further understanding— before suggesting behavioral modifications. Unfortunately this does not happen, and without this recognition, the idealists “tips” actually backfire, and cause the individuals who have anger issues and their loved ones more harm.
To be blunt: I consider the above “tips”(presumably written by psychologists,) a form of gross negligence. Here’s why:
- These techniques have an abysmally low success rate among “Anger Management” groups.
- They fail to account for what’s known about the hard-wiring of a large number of individuals with anger issues.
- The list itself serves to reinforce an “anger stigma” which causes further neglect, abuse, shame, and mistreatment.
Now you have my conclusions, let me state my case.
1) First, if behavioral techniques as a means for anger management doesn’t even have a 10% success rate, then due diligence and care on the part of the psychologist should at the very least be to a) suggest other treatment options and therapies, b) discontinue the suggestion to implement behavioral techniques and “Anger Management Tips” c) offer as much information as possible, but most of all, d) go back to the drawing board to search for more effective alternatives.
The tips that are provided would be adequate for an individual with a healthy temperament, who has an avoidant or passive personality, or whose instinctive reaction is “flight.” However, individuals who would respond well to these behavioral modification therapies don’t fit the description of the typical “Anger Management” caricature. That is because the person who struggles with these issues is the exact opposite hard-wiring—and their instinctive reaction is “fight,” which is an important piece to this puzzle.
2) While some genetic predispositions to anger issues exists, the number of adults with anger management issues is highly correlated with having endured abuse and neglect as adolescents. This is important in understanding anger issues as a condition, as well as developing future treatments, because there are developmental differences that occur in the hard-wiring and hormonal systems in adolescents who had a repeated activation of the fight-or-flight response.
That means that children who were neglected, abused, and mistreated are yet again being neglected, abused, and mistreated— this time by psychologists who, instead of treating the root problem, are offering feeble, ineffective, “behavioral techniques.” In other words, the goal of these particular anger management tips and tricks are to supplant and override hard-wiring. This is akin to conversion therapy for homosexuals. And while there is no valid scientific evidence that sexual orientation can be changed, there is no valid scientific evidence that behavioral techniques like, “Think before you speak” or “Don’t hold a grudge” can improve anger issues, either.
3. It is clear that relying on behavioral techniques as a means to override “flight-or-fight” hard-wiring and hormonal responses isn’t working, and perhaps it’s even a bit comical framed in that manner. In fact, at the top of Mayo Clinic’s list, it literally says, “Keeping your temper in check can be challenging. Use simple anger management tips — from taking a timeout to using “I” statements — to stay in control.” I chuckle, but behind those words lies a far more insidious, and dangerous element, and it’s why I make the most damning claim of all: The list itself serves to reinforce what I’ll call the “anger stigma” which causes further neglect, abuse, shame, and mistreatment.
If you look closely, you’ll find that the list isn’t giving you ways to keep from doing permanent damage with your anger, it’s actually giving you ideas on how to escape and suppress anger. However, any psychologist worth their salt should know that suppressions of anger is just as problematic for the mental and physical health and well-being of the individual as having explosive outbursts of anger. Instead of allowing the anger, but trying to treat it in such a manner that is manageable, this list is furthering the stigma that anger is an unhealthy emotion.
Look closely at the words from the Mayo Clinic: “Use simple anger management tips…. to stay in control.” First, the “tips” don’t work and there is no valid evidence to support Mayo Clinic’s claims that they are effective for treatment for anger management. Second, it’s not that simple… if it were, it would work. And, thirdly, what happens psychologically to individuals who are struggling, and using these “simple tips”, and failing horribly?
Here’s a sequential scenario that occurs with frequency, and those who struggle with childhood-trauma-induced fight activation-related anger issues can most likely relate:
- Individual With Anger Issues (IWAI) has alienated friends and loved ones.
- (IWAI) is frustrated with their own lack of self-control, because it has hurt a loved one or themselves.
- (IWAI) promises themselves and loved ones to follow the “Simple” tips to an angry-free, happy life.
- The results are short-lived. An outburst occurred. All parties are frustrated.
- The IWAI sees themselves as a failure.
- Loved ones of the (IWAI) feel like the failure is reflective of a character flaw / feel that they aren’t enough for the (IWAI) to stop having angry outbursts and take the failure personally / use the failure as an excuse to inflict other forms of emotional abuse on the (IWAI), such as shaming and labeling, especially if (IWAI) is female.
It’s an insidious little list, isn’t it? People who struggle in earnest are facing this every day, and it’s mere “simple” existence prevents people who really want to get better from getting better and it enrages me. It represents willful negligence, intellectual laziness, and it’s an embarrassment to the entire establishment of psychology as a scientific discipline. It’s continued existence serves to reinforce the “anger stigma” which causes further neglect, abuse, shame, and mistreatment.
And on the flip side, Mayo Clinic, what tips and tricks would you give to the adults who also suffered neglect and abuse as children, whose hard-wiring and hormones didn’t manifest in ‘fight’, but in ‘flight?’ Will you tell them that the next time they are emotionally and physically abused, or mistreated to use simple behavioral techniques to stay in control as well? Keep me posted. I bet those tips are ace.
Next, this is novela that I wrote on my phone after reading a post on anger that offered tips for anger management. It served as the impetus for the above article:
The key to labeling emotional responses or making suggestions to reduce them should stem from concluding whether or not they are empowering and productive. Each person, each social dynamic, and each situation will differ in this regard. For me, anger is a far more productive emotion than the hurt it is translated from. If hurt, it’s a good thing (for me) that it morphs into anger. Feeling hurt, perseverating and feeling sad, leads me to inaction and feelings of helplessness. And, if persistent, the feeling can snowball and I can become self-destructive. This does not work for me. For some, anger is a crippling emotion. For me, anger— red-hot anger— does not let me feel disempowered. So the belief that anger is an unproductive emotion for all is erroneous.
Some feel that “letting it all out” and crying is helpful. The exact opposite is true in my case. “Letting it out” and crying only helps if it offers actual relief, and is productive. I personally don’t find it to be productive, and it’s often swiftly followed by anger. Anger is what gets me through tough times, and as I find a place of deeper understanding the anger fades into peace.
Anger can offer a deterrent in a social setting and is self-protective. However, anger must be checked, so as not to cause others undue hurt. But that requires time, skills, processing, a modicum of self-awareness, and a strong desire to maintain a relationship and find better ways to maintain emotional control. Once better control is achieved, anger and outbursts will depend on the dynamic, and goals for the relationship. Some bridges are worth burning, some situations warrant unchecked, red-hot flares of self-protection and unfettered, raw, anger. Sometimes, it makes sense for long-term goals to “let it out”. Why? Because it can offer a sense of relief, and it’s worth it. We lash out because it can actually make us feel better. Therefore, goals and dynamic absolutely matter.
However, with unchecked, unaware, unprocessed, and mostly unwarranted anger—I can see why people would categorize anger as a bad thing… but it’s too nuanced to make blanket statements like that. For some, love is a driving force, and it’s syrupy-sweet in its presentation. Anger can also be syrupy-sweet, but the presentation is not as pretty. Take the mom of the pups for instance. The snarls are syrupy-sweet, but you have to unpack it and peel down the layers to see it because it isn’t outwardly apparent. She snarls because mom loves the pups. Without love, she may be complacent or even unaffected when a threat is near.
So let’s ask, who is the more loving? The snarling dog, of course.
“Quick-tempered”, and “Angry people” you mention often operate in a similar manner, but with a broken flight-or-flight system. This ‘break’ often happens in adolescence, and appears to be linked with growing up in a high-stress environment. The fact that the brain develops this pathway way may be evolutionarily advantageous, but of course it’s a harrowing situation in a regular, more peaceful environment if maladapted and not well managed.
In effect, you may not be just dealing with a character flaw that’s easily mitigated by practicing mindfulness, or breathing techniques, but actual brain physiology and hard-wiring controlling immediate, reflexive responses. Awareness, often times in cases like this, comes retrospectively. And painfully.
In fact, they may be highly-protective and are constantly feeling like they, or someone they love, requires brute force and aggressive protection because of a primal, instinctive, protective hard-wiring forged during childhood. And, outrageous angry bursts and behavior may seem unwarranted, but the ability to distinguish real threats may have been lost by the individual. This is akin to lifelong PTSD.
There’s a reason these kids have a disproportionately high rate of stress-related disease compared to the rest of the population as adults. Willful mindfulness may be helpful for some individuals— but for these individuals, this is a whole other animal. Perhaps the key to managing anger issues for these individuals starts with people recognizing warning signs in adolescence. There’s likely a history. Unfortunately in so many cases, these children are often stigmatized, labeled, and shamed which ultimately backfires.
Those who stigmatize, label, and shame, fail to dutifully consider the history, and environment of the child. As a result, this type of negligence may reinforce the need for self-protective measures, because the labels, stigma, and shaming hurt them. Often, the self-protection shows up in the form of raw anger and rage. This isn’t rocket science, it’s evolution. That’s the self-preserving gene at work.
Btw, anger from being marginalized, stigmatized, unheard, misunderstood, and labeled as a child into my adulthood without ever having the luxury of another adult with the intellectual capacity and emotional acuity to endeavor to look deeper into my psyche was what led me in pursuit of understanding myself, my environment, and my behavior from a more logical, historical framework.
Anger, with a goal, has led me to function far better than anyone ever expected of me. And it’s led me to learn more about myself and my environment than anyone else I know. And although in some ways I resent suggestions for anger management that are made absent having the entire range of the human condition because they are reminiscent of the lack of awareness that I, and others similar to me, were labeled from… I respect where it comes from. A good place.
It took me a long time to get to that place.