This approach may surprise you, but it’s effective.
Tanya didn’t exactly seem like a stereotypical anger management client: she was polished, polite, and successful. Not the sort of person you’d imagine losing their temper or having a wild outburst. To her credit, Tanya actually didn’t have wild outbursts of anger. She was more prone to sardonic snipes, passive aggression, and fits of quiet, seething contempt that she didn’t know how to process.
“I try to tell myself to just forget things, take a deep breath, and not get so upset,” she said, “But sometimes it just doesn’t work.”
What Tanya needed to learn is that one of the surprising-yet-helpful things to know about anger management is that it is often aided by expressing anger rather than stifling it. Many people with anger management problems have a strategy of trying to avoid giving in to feelings of anger because they’d like to break their pattern of angry outbursts. They don’t realize that oftentimes, the best way to break a pattern of angry outbursts is actually to learn how to express frustration or irritation at lower levels rather than letting those irritations build silently they turn into something more intense.
Anger’s productive function is often to help us defend our boundaries, so trying to ignore it unless it feels super urgent or intense is often a mistake. To help yourself learn how to express when you’re upset at lower levels rather than waiting until you’re so upset all you can do is make nasty snipes or feel totally shut down, it can be helpful to journal or vent to a friend to help you find the words to express why you’re feeling upset, or what limits you’d like to set; and then consider the most productive way to address the source of your anger rather than just ignoring it. Remember, the best answer is not always silence or learning to “just deal with it.” Sometimes, learning to express yourself before you reach a boiling point is actually the best answer.
Many people with anger issues have such an automatic habit of trying to stifle their anger that they actually lose touch with what’s bothering them until they’re suddenly seeing red. To help yourself get in touch with anger before it reaches a boiling point, try the counter-intuitive step of congratulating yourself when you realize you’re getting irritable. You’re not congratulating yourself for becoming upset, you’re congratulating yourself for realizing it and choosing to pay attention to your feelings at a lower level; many people don’t fully realize they’re upset or feel willing to do much to address their upset until they’re at a boiling point.
Congratulating yourself for realizing and paying attention to the situation early helps normalize the experience of getting frustrated and sets the stage for you to address the source of the problem when it’s at a manageable level. Sometimes the answer is peaceful meditations or finding ways to increase your frustration tolerance, but oftentimes the answer is actually to express yourself directly in a rational, empathetic manner, which is much easier if you address the issue before it becomes overwhelmingly frustrating.
Over time, Tanya was able to change her habit of trying to “just not get so upset.” By learning to recognize and express when she was upset at lower levels, she was more successful at creating change in whatever dynamic was causing distress. Please remember that the approach described here is just one of many potential ways to deal with anger, and of course, the best way is going to depend on the person and the situation.
If you have issues with thoughts of harm to yourself or others then, by all means, call 911 or go to your nearest emergency room; the mild, communication-oriented approach here is reflective of what has worked with my clients. Learning to recognize and act upon frustrations at a smaller, more manageable level is better and more effective than trying to ignore the stressors leading to an outburst.