November 22, 2019
I was stuck in the rush hour traffic last week and I was fuming. This might be a normal day for most of you but since working for myself I have planned my day around missing the traffic. On this particular day, a client had cancelled at short notice and I decided to brave the rush – BIG mistake! 30 minutes later I hadn’t moved. To be honest, I was pretty pissed off, and mainly at myself for being stupid enough to brave the traffic when I could be sitting in Starbucks sipping a Macchiato and waiting for the traffic to subside.
Eventually, the traffic moved and a couple of miles down the road I saw a young woman being loaded into an ambulance, her car half crushed after seemingly hitting a lorry. As I drove past this scene of devastation my anger subsided as quickly as it had arisen. Much better to be stuck in the traffic jam that to be the body in the ambulance.
It was a great learning point for me – it reinforced the core thing I teach all the clients that come for anger management. How we feel about the situation is defined by the thought processes that surround it. So when the traffic jam was perceived as the result of my stupidity I was angry. When I understood the cause was an accident my emotion changed to one of sadness. Same situation, but a different thought leads to a different emotion. This understanding of the link between our thoughts and our feelings is at the heart of a psychotherapeutic approach to anger
There are many paths to anger management delivered by many types of professionals from coaches to counsellors and psychotherapists. Despite the different emphasis, most short term programmes will deliver a similar package of skills around emotional literacy, self-awareness and assertiveness.
As a minimum standard you should expect to learn these basic skills:
In my own 6 step programme, I also introduce two wonderful models from Transactional Analysis that help clients to understand their relationships with others. This will also help them to avoid anger situations by being appropriately assertive and problem-solving; and for many people, this is enough.
So why do some people not respond to anger management? Let me explore this by using a small case vignette, Graham*
Graham came to therapy after recently splitting up with his wife. He cited his explosive anger as one of the main reasons they had split up. As we discussed his marriage I began to see a picture of a self-sacrificing man who put his wife and children’s needs first. Graham appeared to be doing the vast majority of the domestic chores. A similar pattern would play out at work where Graham was one for the hardest working lads on the shop floor, often staying late and covering for other people’s shortcomings. His anger was triggered by a sense of injustice or unfairness if the standards of his work, were criticised, whether at home or at work. Whilst I had sympathy with Graham’s point of view his resulting anger seemed out of proportion with the situation at hand.
Exploration of Graham’s background showed a typical blue-collar upbringing with both parents working hard to support the family. Despite a seemingly supportive and stable upbringing Graham’s parents were emotionally unavailable and did not supply emotional nurturing. Graham does not remember being hugged by his parents. In particular, Graham craved his Dad’s attention but rarely got it. Graham loved to fish with his friends and their Dads, but his own Dad would never join them. Graham even saved up to buy his Dad a rod which did lead to a handful of trips together but this didn’t last long.
Graham grew up feeling that his needs were not important. In fact, he would get the most appreciation from his parents when he looked after his younger sister. Overtime Graham developed a role for himself as a helper. This became a way for him to fit into groups and feel special. Graham was the “good guy” who would do anything for anyone. This role allowed him to develop a wide social circle and be reasonably popular. Graham’s need to Please Others is what Transactional Analysts call a Driver behaviour. It is the way in which Graham has learnt to behave to get a sense of conditional okayness. When Graham is helping others he feels proud and happy. Without the Driver behaviour, Graham feels worthless and fears that people won’t like him.
The real problem occurs when people criticise Graham for not doing enough or for getting things wrong. When Graham’s sense of being the good guy is stripped away he is left feeling vulnerable and empty. To cope with theses feelings he gets angry and aggressive and blames others for his perceived shortcomings.. Once Graham calms down he feels guilty and tries twice as hard to please the others in his life and the cycle starts again. As a result, Graham spends much of his time feeling tired, unappreciated and resentful.
I think it is clear that the real problem here is not Graham’s anger but the cycle of behaviour in which he does not account for his own needs. Graham initially felt great resistance to changing his behaviour despite becoming aware of its shortcomings. Since Pleasing Others was Graham’s way of feeling ok about himself he has a lot to lose by changing his behaviour. This type of internal contradiction is the work of most of my psychotherapy
In long term psychotherapy, Graham learnt to find the intrinsic human value in himself which became the starting point for a change in his outward behaviour,
“And then I learned the spiritual journey had nothing to do with being nice. It was about being real, authentic. Having boundaries. Honouring my space first, others second. And in this space of self-care being nice just happened. It flowed not motivated by fear but by love.” Michelle Olak
*To protect confidentiality Graham is a composite of a number of anger clients.
I was stuck in the rush hour traffic last week and I was fuming. This might be a normal day for most of you but since working for myself I have planned my day around missing the traffic. On this particular day, a client had cancelled at short notice and I decided to brave the rush - BIG mistake! 30 minutes later I hadn’t moved. To be honest, I was pretty pissed off, and mainly at myself for being stupid enough to brave the traffic when I could be sitting in Starbucks sipping a Macchiato and waiting for the traffic to subside.