Amy Lashway, MA, LPC, NCC
When I started as a mental health counselor at a residential treatment center for adolescents, I worked with a lot of gang members, kids who had been dealing drugs and were either in their last placement before juvenile detention or just released. Combining that with the fact that I am 5’2”, began working in the field when I was 19 years old and that I look much younger than I actually am, I learned very early on not to be intimidated by the client’s I work with (or if I was, not to let them see it). The anger and rage these kids spewed all over the place was something I faced on a daily basis.
In that first job one of my clinical supervisors taught me something that has always stuck with me. He said that “all anger comes from fear or pain”. This was a simple sentence that had a profound impact on my ability to be present with my clients even in their anger and rage. If you add the word shame to this theory, after 16 years I can honestly say that I have never worked with a client with chronic anger issues for which this was not true. I have learned how important it is to look at what is underneath the anger and to have compassion for the individual for what created that state of being in the first place.
The book Anger Alcoholism and Addiction, by Ronald and Patricia Potter-Efron, lists some of the most common ways that chronic anger serves the individual. Your clients may be aware of some of these points as a way of dealing with the world while having no understanding of others. Some of those reasons for holding on to chronic anger are as follows:
- Serves as a signal to the self and others that something is seriously wrong:For instance, anger may be the manifestation of something going wrong inside the individual such as hunger, anxiety, fatigue, fear or depression.
- An attempted solution for problems in living: Although as therapists we know that anger is not a good solution for our problems, many chronically angry clients attempt to solve their problems with anger. They have come to believe that ventilation of their frustrations will make them feel better. They misinterpret what it means to express your feelings by convincing themselves it is ok to yell and rage at others to get their feelings out. In the short term this may alleviate their problems, especially if they have succeeded in the past by intimidating others. However in the long run, this exacerbates their problems rather than solving them.
- A Long Term Habit: There is a good chance that in the past anger has served the individual in some way. Now in the present it impedes growth. However, acting in anger has become such an ingrained reaction it has become habit. Many chronically angry clients will cling to this defense as it feels normal and is part of their daily routine. It may be difficult for them to conceive of living life without feeling angry all the time.
- An Attempt to Gain Power over Others: Very few people like to confront a visibly angry person whether it is a family member, stranger or co-worker. Chronically angry persons tend to be very much aware of this and use their anger to gain and keep control of a situation. Especially if they are feeling out of control at the time. Using this defense frequently gets them what they want, and rather immediately as well. This type of anger can escalate to violence if not treated appropriately.
- An Attempt o Gain Status: This may not have been the original intent of an anger outburst but produced the secondary gain of elevating ones status in the community. An example is an adolescent who is typically quiet or reserved who gains new status amongst his peer group after a school yard fight. If this by-product does occur, that individual becomes more likely to react in anger the next time.
- A Way to Maintain Physical and or Emotional Distance: Giving the message “keep away”. Anger often drives people out of ones life. Often times this may be the result of the chronically angry person getting too close or intimate with another individual for their comfort zone. Explosive anger as well as general unfriendliness and grumpiness can both lead to this end.
- A Means to Hold Relationships Together Through Intense Interaction: From the outside these relationships may look like disaster zones however, the constant conflict and passion can actually hold families and couples together. These people may be “adrenaline junkies” and often can only connect with one another through anger. These families suffer from serious problems and mutual pain. Intense anger becomes their way of demonstrating love and a calm relationship is considered boring, lacking passion and loveless.
- A Defense against Shame and Threats to Self-Concept: Shame is at the core of the individual’s self-concept. They feel deficient, inferior and worthless. They fear and yet expect abandonment as they do not believe they are worth keeping. Anger and rage are the reaction to any perceived attack on their core identity. Deeply shamed clients may use their anger to protect themselves from being hurt by pushing others away before allowing themselves to be exposed. This no one can see who they really are and thus can not reject the “real self”.
- A Defense against Other Feelings: Can be used to mask other feelings such as fear, sadness, shame, grief and love. This may be a conscious or unconscious behavior however the goal is the same. To keep themselves from experiencing those feelings that may render them vulnerable.
- A Claim to a Position of Righteous Superiority: When individuals get angry they may take the position of the moral high ground. They justify their anger as a result of all the injustices of the world. They tend to hold others in contempt and feel it is their responsibility to fight for what is good and fair. Rarely is their dedication to defending the defenseless altruistic, however, but an attempt to rationalize their deep seeded anger and rage.
- A Mood Altering Experience: One can get “high” from the excitement created by an anger or raging outburst. It may feel good and energizing to feel angry rather than apathetic or dull. Many chronically angry individuals report that they feel alive when angry and raging and that feeling angry is better than feeling nothing at all.
If you recognize any of these patterns in your clients I suggest you try to look underneath the outward presentation. Some questions you may want to explore with your client are: What is driving their anger? What underlying hurts, fears or pain are at the root? What are some of the original experiences that led to a pattern of using anger as a primary reaction? Keeping these things in mind may help you to stay present with your client in his or her anger and to develop compassion and understanding for them rather than meeting their anger with fear. By helping your client understand what is at the root of their own anger and not reacting to their intimidation tactics you provide a container for them in which a trusting relationship can develop thus you can help set the tone for long term recovery.