Anger – Usually a Destructive Emotion

Resolve Community Counseling Center receives many referrals from the Union County court system to provide “anger management” to persons involved in domestic and other disputes.  Many other clients find their way to us because of communication problems with family members or problems getting along with co-workers.  These difficulties often arise as a result of anger.

An angry display can intimidate others and can perhaps help us get our way in certain situations.  We show them “who’s boss.”  We show them we’re not afraid to fight for our rights (literally or figuratively).  We (temporarily) feel good, strong  &  powerful!  Certainly in the animal kingdom teeth bared and a menacing growl let potential enemies know that there would be a steep price to pay for any unwelcome advances.  But in today’s society, much more often than not, anger and aggression have undesirable consequences.

Anger held in eats at you.  Anger directed outward hurts others and there may well be repercussions.  The great majority of the time, it’s just not a good emotion to hold on to, to give in to.  We have all experienced it, some more often than others, some more intensely than others.  Some quietly boiling inside, others cursing, hitting, punishing others for their perceived bad behaviors.  Yet many others, often with help from a therapist, learn to change their thinking in a way that allows them to diminish and even get rid of their anger.  They no longer have to live with this unhealthy emotion, and they no longer have to worry about lashing out and suffering negative consequences.

Emotions don’t just happen, and events and people don’t exactly make us angry.  We make ourselves angry.  To a very great extent, emotions, including anger, derive from our perception and assessment of our environment and those around us.  The same event can make us angry or not, depending on how we interpret it.  For example if we get bumped by another person’s arm and we perceive this as an accident we’ll be annoyed, but not angry. Yet if we perceive the very same physical contact as a purposeful act of aggression, we will likely feel angry.

The first step towards emotional control is learning not to jump to negative conclusions about others’ intent and the meaning of events occurring around us.  An accurate interpretation of our environment is important.  However, it may not be enough, if someone does in fact hit us on purpose, aggressively.  Or if someone does say something to or about us that we didn’t like or approve of.  How do we handle real negative events, negative interactions, negative outcomes?

The second step towards having appropriate emotions and not giving in to anger is properly assessing the meaning of the event we are faced with.  Before getting angry or upset, we mentally assess the situation.  We decide how bad it is, what it means to us.   A lot of split-second thoughts, beliefs and evaluations go into the final determination of “I am angry,” the accompanying feeling of anger and possibly aggressive behaviors.  We have beliefs about how bad something is.  We have beliefs about how much we can or should tolerate.  We have beliefs about how others should act.  We have beliefs about the world having to be fair.  We have beliefs that tell us how we should react in order to feel good about ourselves.

Thinking that something is awful and terrible will lead to more anger and distress than thinking that it’s a disappointment, but not the end of the world.  Thinking that we shouldn’t have to deal with frustration, that the world should be fair and people should necessarily be considerate and act appropriately will likely leave us frustrated and angry.

Bringing our expectations down a notch does wonders for our emotional well-being.  Yes, less frustration would be better, things going our way and people behaving as they ideally should would be wonderful.  But even if people and events fall short of our preferences, it’s in fact not awful and terrible, just disappointing and maybe a setback.  Short of being physically tortured, nothing is truly awful, to the point where we cannot be expected to be able to control our responses.  People disappoint us – live and learn.  Maybe forgive them, maybe move on to other friends.  Things don’t go our way – we learn from what we could have done better, move on and try something else.  Do we absolutely Need for everything to go our way?  Not in the least.  What we do need is to develop self-understanding and acceptance of the world as it is, and to move through life’s ups and downs creatively and with a positive outlook.

There are many techniques that can be used to help control one’s anger.  Deep breathing, counting back by fives from 100, listening to music, exercising.  And many more behavioral techniques can be tailored to the individual, often with help of a psychologist or counselor.  But to achieve deep, long-lasting changes in one’s approach to anger, one must learn to pay attention to the irrational, overly demanding and ultimately self-defeating thoughts that cause the feelings of anger and behavioral dyscontrol.

Learning to properly assess oneself and one’s environment, without cognitive distortions, is a primary goal of Aaron Beck’s Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT).  Learning to accept negative events with equanimity frees us to focus on what is positive and what can be achieved, without rigid, unrealistic demands that hold us down.  The latter is the philosophical approach used in Albert Ellis’s Rational-Emotional Behavioral Therapy (REBT).  Both CBT and REBT use behavioral techniques along with cognitive ones.  Both are effective, evidence-based forms of treatment used by counselors at Resolve Community Counseling Center in Scotch Plains.  For more information visit www.ResolveNJ.com, email ResolveCCC@aol.com, or call us at 908 322-9180.

By Lidia D. Abrams, PhD

Licensed psychologist
Executive Director,
Resolve Community Counseling Center
1830 Front Street
Scotch Plains, NJ 07076