In my many years as a couples therapist, I have been contacted by individuals (mostly men) who say they want anger management classes. The scenario for this initial phone call usually plays out in one of two different ways:
-They may recognize they are angry, and that this is interfering with their ability to maintain a satisfying relationship with their partner.
-They have received feedback from their partner that they have a problem with anger and that they should seek help.
I have great respect for people who take the risk to reach out and ask for help. This is not an easy step and takes a tremendous amount of courage.
The Problem With Anger Management
The problem with anger management though, is that it provides a top down or purely cognitive approach to anger, without acknowledging the underlying function of anger.
What are we actually doing when we manage anger? Oftentimes we try to stop being angry or suppress our anger so that it doesn’t cause harm in our relationship.
Trying to stop or suppress your anger usually only forces it to emerge in unhealthy ways, such as use of drugs/alcohol, gambling, risk-taking, pornography, or a plethora of other self-destructive practices.
The best way to deal with anger is to understand the function of anger and the underlying need.
The Function of Anger
Anger serves two functions: protection or protest.
Anger as protection is usually used to protect a more vulnerable emotion.
Anger as protection shows up as a secondary emotion – which is a reactive emotion, not a primary emotion that allows for a calm response.
By using anger as protection, it can help the person feel less helpless in the face of more vulnerable emotions such as sadness, fear, or shame.
Anger as protest is usually used to signal a lack of connection between partners.
Anger as protest shows up as criticism, blame, or attack – which is the individual’s way of trying to get their needs for a stronger connection met. By using anger as protest, the individual feels motivated to ‘stir things up’ or ‘turn up the heat’ on their partner to get them to notice what they are lacking in the relationship.
Understanding Your Anger
Stop trying to manage your anger. Instead, start understanding the function of your anger. Are you lacking something in your relationship that is not going away?
Your anger may be serving as a signal that you need to focus more on communicating unmet needs, such as a lack of emotional safety, validation, or closeness.
Anger that serves the function of protest can be a signal to communicate what is missing in your relationship and what you need from your partner.
Stop trying to manage your anger. Instead, realize that there may be more vulnerable emotions underlying your anger that are hard for you to access. Sadness, fear, or shame may be harder to hold onto, so instead you quickly move to anger.
Try accessing your more underlying vulnerable emotion and communicating from those feelings rather than from the emotion of anger. You may be surprised that your partner can hear and respond much more compassionately when they see the softer emotions, than when they get a wall of angry criticism, blame or attack.
Getting To The Root Of The Problem
Anger management has limited effects when we try to stop or suppress our anger.
Without getting to the ‘root of the problem’ by acknowledging the function the anger serves, we often spin our wheels on myriad techniques only to end up back where we started — which is being angry.
When working on addressing your anger, always ask yourself:
1) Is my anger functioning as a protection against other feelings that may be more vulnerable for me to experience?
2) Is my anger serving to protest against something that I am not getting in this relationship?
Answering these questions can help you move forward in addressing the root causes of your anger and in learning how to express your needs.
- Tom Philp, LPC & CEO Stonebridge Couples