The Problem With Anger
‘The killer at the Orlando nightclub, Omar Mateen was an angry man. As a boy, he was disruptive, abusive and rude in school. He was frequently bullied for being overweight and awkward. He was suspended from three different high schools for fighting. It seems that as he grew older he channeled his anger inward, still often irate, but in a more detached way. He reached his career goal of becoming a corrections officer, only to get fired 6 months later. He abused his first wife, divorced and remarried soon after, but continued to seek relationships with other women on dating websites. It’s easy to see that he never felt a sense of belonging in any significant way. Also, the need to express his anger never went away. He professed to embrace the Islamic State, but it appears that it may have been his final desperate grasp for belonging to something, and an outlet for his rage. Wanting to finally get even, he took out his all consuming rage on a nightclub full of innocent victims.
When we look at this history, we know we have seen it time and again in mass shootings and other violent attacks: the disgruntled employee, the bullied student. Anger is a normal human emotion, but it takes understanding, effort and practice to manage. If we deny, demonize, or dismiss anger, it can become toxic, turning into rage, resentment and bitterness. When we acknowledge it, and find ways to constructively express it, anger can become empowering and positive. Think of political leaders, Martin Luther King and Ghandi, or Olympic athletes, Usain Bolt and Michael Johnson. Anger is a signal that something is wrong and needs to be resolved. In order to channel anger productively, it needs to be talked about, accepted and understood. Ghandi said, “How I find it possible to control anger would be a useless question, for it is a habit that everyone must cultivate and must succeed in forming by constant practice.”
We don’t respond to anger well in our society. Uncontrolled anger has become our number one mental health issue. When we see it in young children, we typically respond to it with punishment, rejection or our own anger. We might isolate, exclude or shame the child who expresses anger. We give our children time-outs in their room alone, we suspend high school kids, and as recently reported, even toddlers, isolating them from teachers and friends. Children don’t understand where their anger comes from. It takes practice to identify the underlying emotions. Anger masks our true thoughts, feelings and beliefs. Imagine if Omar Mateen had someone help him when he was younger, and ask him what he needed, and understood that he might be feeling left out, unaccepted or misunderstood. If we had shown him how to manage and constructively express himself? Anger management techniques can be taught to children, adolescents and adults. Why do we wait until it’s too late to teach these skills?
Anger is part of a biological reaction to danger. It is a primitive response, which helped our ancestors survive. But, in today’s complex world, we fight invisible tigers, and need to find a socially acceptable outlet. Anger management skills are techniques that can and should be taught to children, adolescents, parents and adults. The skills training involves three basic steps. Following are the ABC’s:
A. Aware: Be aware of the signs that you are becoming angry. This involves becoming more mindful of triggers that arouse feelings of anger, and the physical response in your body. Think of this as your “early warning system”.
B. Back Off: Stop, wait to talk about how you feel, without blaming, shaming or criticism. You need time to calm down. This involves taking charge of your perceptions and recognizing the feelings behind the anger. We call these the primary emotions, which are more vulnerable feelings, like hurt, embarrassment, hopelessness, shame or powerlessness, to name just a few. These are feelings all humans have, but they are much harder to reveal than anger.
C. Consider the choices and consequences. What are your options now for communication and problem solving? It helps to focus on the problem, not blaming people. Keep it factual and impersonal, and take responsibility for your own part if the equation.
Anger Management classes are available for parents, and adults. We need to do a better job of identifying those who are troubled and can’t express themselves productively. Imago therapy teaches couples to accept conflict as a signal that change is trying to happen, and how to approach it in a way that is safe and productive. Therapy for anger should be accepted and readily available. As adults, we owe it to ourselves to learn these basic skills in order to become a more compassionate, less violent nation.
Tory Joseph, M.Ed., LGPC
Imago Relationship Therapist
PEP Certified Parent Educator
Parent Encouragement Program, Kensington, MD www.PEPparent .org
The Basics of Anger, Gary D. McKay, Ph.D, 1997.