|Posted on April 27, 2012 at 10:05 AM|
[Please note: Any case studies/people which may be mentioned in this blog are composites (unless otherwise indicated) of personal and professional experience over 25 years of people-helping in a number of different capacities and circumstances. Resemblance to any specific individual, living or dead, is purely coincidental and totally unintentional.]
"Anger is a wind which blows out the lamp of the mind." ~Robert Green Ingersoll
Anger is a funny thing. Not as in 'ha ha' funny, but rather as in 'strange.' People find it difficult to tell friends or loved ones about things which cause feelings of anger, but will explode with towering rage at the barrista at Starbucks because the coffee isn't hot enough. Or vice versa. The executive who was just given the "Boss of the Year" award, takes out his anger on his wife and children who cower when they hear him coming. Or what about the adolescent who is popular with her peer group and socially in demand, but at home, her parents and siblings are afraid to provoke her in case she gets angry.
As human beings, our emotions are a package deal. All sorts of research has demonstrated that emotional intelligence (EI) is essentially the capacity to accept the emotion one is feeling in the moment without losing the ability to stay present and think rationally. Daniel Goleman is recognized as the frontrunner in the field of EI and he's got some great information here, and an Emotional Intelligence test here.
This is what makes anger so strange. People excuse or rationalize a loss of temper in one situation as justifiable under the circumstances, but control or manage their anger in another circumstance. It seems that when we believe the "bite back" of the situation is minimal, we will allow ourselves free rein to express our anger. So it's not that the executive above never gets angry at work, it's that he responds to that emotion in ways which are proactive and effective, because the consequence of doing anything else is too high.
After three years of marriage, Melli sought help to understand what was happening in her marriage. Her husband had exploded the evening before over what she thought was a straightforward question, "When is your vacation this year?" In response, he had suddenly thrown his dinner plate against the wall, swept everything on the sideboard onto the floor, called her several foul names and stomped out the door. Melli cleaned up the mess, and sadly threw away several figurines which had been her grandmother's, broken beyond repair. Later, after returning to their home, Loretto tried to explain to Melli that he did not like her questions. He was sorry, but when he had information she needed, he would tell her. With that, he kissed her and went to bed.
Melli relayed a part of the event to a co-worker who immediately suggested that she talk to a psychologist because "Loretto isn't normal." Melli made an appointment and asked the psychologist why Loretto was behaving like this.
As children, we learn how to manage our anger through the modeling we see in our families, and the responses to our own expressions of anger. In some families, anger is seen as a legitimate emotion, and the WAY the anger is expressed is shaped and molded in order to be non-destructive and productive. In other families, anger is forbidden. It is simply not acceptable to be seen to be angry, and so the expression of a very real emotion morphs into something else. It does not go away, it becomes something 'acceptable' in the family. This is likely how behaviours such as 'The Silent Treatment,' passive-aggressiveness, and the 'Jekyll & Hyde Syndrome' are learned.
The psychologist explored the 'pattern' of Loretto's anger with Melli, who came to realize that the painful explosions she experienced with her husband were actually quite predictable. Furthermore, with some additional discussion, Melli came to understand that she had been excusing his behaviour, rationalizing and justifying his outbursts in ways that she herself could accept in order to avoid having to confront Loretto about the behaviour. Melli completed an 'anger map' for herself, and also completed an experiential map for Loretto. One of the most painful things Melli had to accept was that her husband's anger was calculated. In all of his explosions, he had never once broken anything but her belongings - never anything of his own. He seemed out-of-control to Melli, and she had excused him on this basis, but his actions demonstrated otherwise.
Melli completed six sessions of anger management therapy - not because she had angry outbursts, but because Melli swallowed her anger, and rather reluctantly admitted that her outlet was passive-aggressive behaviour. Anger management techniques helped her to learn how to express her anger appropriately, and to speak up proactively for a better outcome. After completing her sessions, Melli decided that she would speak with Loretto about anger managment. He was very angry that Melli had spoken to "someone outside" about their problems, but when Melli persisted, Loretto agreed to see the psychologist.
Anger managment therapy is short-term, solution focused help intended to provide the understanding and the tools necessary to handle any strong emotion appropriately. People who have angry outbursts often have difficulty handling any strong emotion, and the strategies for anger management work well for emotional self-regulation, not just for anger.
Loretto completed six sessions with the psychologist, at first reluctantly attending, but after several incidents with a successful outcome from using the new strategies, he became a more enthusiastic participant in the process. Not surprisingly, Melli and Loretto then felt it would be helpful to attend several sessions together as the changes each had made personally were impacting their marriage and they wanted the changes to be positive.
Under the age of three, children have an uncontrollable whole body reaction to strong emotion - this is observable. When they are excited, they wiggle, they can't sit still, and everything about their behaviour says "EXCITED!" It's the same for anger. The temper tantrums, inarticulate screaming, and physical expression of their anger is normal. We as parents begin to shape that expression by teaching our children how to regulate themselves. Not by forcing them to supress the emotions, but rather, to teach them how to accept and deal with that inside feeling in a way that doesn't injure self or others. (Children who are really excited can also hurt themselves or others) Emotional dysregulation in school age children is a sign they need help. The techniques for adult emotional management are a little different than for children, and care should be exercised when asking for help for your children.
So no general recommendation today - help is available if you struggle with anger, or you love someone who has trouble with anger. The Soor Center has several professionals who specialize in anger management, conflict mediation, and relationship therapy, the most common components of help for an individual with anger issues. Additionally, the Center has professionals whose particular expertise is working with children. If your child struggles with emotions in general, get help before their coping strategies become the dysfunctional behaviour of adulthood.