The term “Anger Management” means different things to different people. I want to be clear about how I define this term in this article. Let’s make sure we are all dealing with the same concept – rather than having different meanings for, and understandings what “anger management” is. We will have less confusion and more clarity as a result.
In my view, when people say that someone has an anger management problem, it usually implies that the individual in question has a serious personal problem, or a serious deficiency in their personality and interpersonal relationships. It implies that the person is inclined, at times, (more or less frequently), to lose control of their feelings and burst out – suddenly, unpredictably, and explosively – with unproductive, or even destructive consequences.
The individual who periodically has angry outbursts may or may not have regrets about this behavior afterwards. Often, the person who loses such control feels justified in their behavior. They frequently believe that the recipient of their anger is at fault for triggering them off. People who “blow up” from time to time accept different levels of responsibility for their actions. They may not think of interactional problems of this type as usually involving contributions from both individuals involved. They may either take too much, or too little, responsibility for the stressful consequences of their actions.
I have professionally worked with many people who have so-called anger management problems. Sometimes they come to work with me in individual therapy — but more frequently they come in to work with me in couple therapy. Some have deeper and more serious underlying issues, while others are in need of some specific skills training. More often than not, these individuals have longstanding problems in this area, but have never gotten to the roots of their problems. They may have read some self-help books on this topic, and/or may have had short-term counseling/ therapy for their repeated emotional outbursts, but, nevertheless, the problem keeps popping back up from time to time. The problem doesn’t seem to get resolved or go away. This can cause havoc and distress in their closest and most important relationships.
Not infrequently, both people involved with these angry outbursts often experience them as “coming out of the blue” – without warning that such intense expressions of criticisms, resentments, and other negativity are about to enter into the interpersonal dialog. They often “don’t see it coming,” and are confused, puzzled, or even “shell-shocked” by such unexpectedly intense expressions and reactions. They may ask themselves, or the other, such questions as: “How can I account for and understand what just happened between us? What did I miss leading up to this? How can we prevent such an interchange from happening again (or again and again)?
Most of the time, people are not aware of the warning signs, within or between them, that immediately precede these “volcanic eruptions.” Complicating this matter is that there is a wide range of reactions people have after such outbursts. Sometimes people catch themselves after saying just one overly intense word, phrase, or sentence, while other times people are much slower to self-observe and become self-aware of how they are reacting. In other words, the duration (the length of time) of emotional (often out-of-character) “outbursts” varies considerably.
There is often, as well, great variability (differences) in the responses the listener has to the person expressing his/her anger. Some “take the bait” and get sucked into reacting in kind (as in the listener automatically and reflexively [without thinking] striking back, retaliating, “defending” themselves, taking “the low road”), while others are able to keep their cool and use constructive and more psychologically mature ways of responding. How people respond to this kind of challenging interaction depends, in part, upon context. Is the person exhausted from a hard day at work, caring all day for demanding children, or feeling sleep deprived, for example? Or are the conflict-involved participants in a relatively relaxed and self-confident state of mind?
Two other related and relevant issues are: 1. How long it takes those who have been upset by unpleasant and disturbing interchanges to “recover” from these episodes, and 2. How do they view what needs to happen to achieve “recovery” from these incidents. People have different styles in this regard. For example, some people are quick to anger, but also quick to want to put the troubling interchange into the past. They don’t see the value of “dredging up” or “overanalyzing” what just occurred between them. They would rather “move on” without talking or thinking much about it. They are focused on restoring the (seeming) peace between them, and pushing troubling thoughts and concerns out of their (conscious) minds.
However, their partner (parent, friend, etc.) may have a very different style when it comes to the more ideal, perceived manner of “processing” the upsetting event after it has happened. They have a distinct preference for understanding better what just happened between the two of them, and talking things out, with the hope that they can prevent such disturbances from happening again. Thus, their preferred styles of how to handle conflict situations may not match. This lack of “fit” between the two of them, in my view, calls for effective therapeutic intervention.