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Deconstructing Anger: Managing your Perceptions

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A topic that I have been passionate about for many years, has been addressing anger. For many men, anger can feel like it has absorbed every corner of their life, and has become a part of who they are as a person. In the book ‘The Macho Paradox,’ author Jackson Katz describes the idea that in our society, and from a young age, men are taught to be tough, and to never show any emotion that might be considered “weak.” One might ask, what emotions does that leave us? For many, the only thing we as men are culturally allowed to feel is anger. It is perceived as the “manly” way to deal with our problems. Yet in contrast, anger is commonly viewed as toxic and harmful to those around us, often causing unwanted and sometimes severe consequences. This leads to difficulty for men in managing their emotions in a healthy way. So, if I’m not supposed to cry and be emotional, and being angry is also bad, what should I feel!?

Over my years of working with men on the topic of anger, I have adapted my own method of helping men break down their anger, and regain control of their broader scope of emotions. I typically start with a simple question: What is anger? When I ask the question in a group, many people describe it as “feeling rage” or “it’s the feeling when your blood boils.” For many, it’s easy to think about what anger feels like, but much harder to describe what it really is. The tool I help clients utilize to deal with anger isn’t reacting to already being angry, it is managing our perceptions before we became angry in the first place. 

Perceptions of Anger:

I like to start by asking clients about their perception of anger. Often we perceive anger as this portion of ourselves that we wish did not exist in the world. People often express “I hate being angry,” naturally associating it with something negative or bad that we are feeling. Is anger good or bad? Well, it is neither. While anger sometimes earns us negative consequences, it is still an emotion; why should feeling something be bad? Anger is sometimes necessary to identify problems in our environment. It helps us know when we are being threatened, or potentially harmed, or when we need to take action to protect others. It is also a part of how we sense injustice in the world around us, and how we determine when change needs to happen. So while it may feel negative to be angry, it can also serve a vital purpose in eliciting necessary change.

Anger as a Secondary Emotion:

The first tool in our toolbox is changing the way we look at anger. I start by demonstrating to clients that anger is a secondary emotion. We cannot feel anger itself without first having experienced an antecedent emotion. I like to use being stuck in traffic as an event that everyone can associate with as being an anger-inducing experience. You are stuck in traffic, you are running late for work, and the highway is a parking lot. Many people can picture themselves getting angry in this situation, but what else are we feeling? If anger is the secondary emotion, what came first? Other things might also be apparent; I was feeling frustrated, I was feeling annoyed, I was feeling a little guilty for being late, I was feeling a little powerless over my situation. When we get to the point of feeling angry, it is hard to manage. When I ask clients if they have ever been told to calm down before, they reply “Yes!” I then ask if it has ever worked to make them less angry, and they answer with a resounding “No!” The trick to managing anger is not to stop anger, it is to cope effectively with the primary emotions we were feeling first: powerless, frustrated, guilty, or annoyed. 

Challenging Expectations:

So now that we have identified our primary emotions in our traffic scenario, I ask a new question, “What did you expect to happen instead?” When we are stuck in traffic, most of us expect that there would not be any traffic in the first place, and we would get to work on time. This is a fairly rational thing to expect to happen, but unfortunately for us on this day, it did not happen. Now think back to a time when you were driving, and your navigation app told you that there was an accident and traffic was going to create major delays that morning long before you had to leave. How did your expectations change? It suddenly feels different. When we expect the possibility of being stuck in traffic, we know how we will feel.

I once had a client come to me to work on his anger; his children had been throwing their garbage into the large garbage can out on the street, but not putting it in a garbage bag. He identified that he was feeling frustrated, annoyed, and irritated (primary emotions). I asked, “What did you expect them to do?” to which he replied “Well, to put their garbage in a bag, so it doesn’t get gross in the bottom of the can!” I then asked why he expected that? He looked at me with a sheepish grin “Good question… I don’t really know! I guess that’s just the way I thought it needed to be done.”

Challenging Beliefs:

Many people set expectations for the behavior of others around us. Laws are often a good example of these expectations. I expect people not to walk into my house and steal my television; when that expectation is not met, you can best believe I would be angry! Besides laws, we have simple expectations for the people close to us. Who should be doing the dishes? Who should be doing the cooking? Or, (here is one that really gets clients thinking) how do I think I should be treated? The next thing I challenge clients on, is why? Why does it need to be done that way? Who decided? Based on what information or belief?

Many people get stuck in their belief that there is a right and wrong answer for the behavior of others. It’s my way or the highway! Consider though, is there a right answer to who should be doing the dishes? Or, who should be doing the cooking? No, there really is no “right” answer, only the one we decide to want and expect. I cannot always change my emotions, but what I do have control over is my ability to change and alter my perceptions and expectations about a situation. If I challenge and question my beliefs about why I expect something to happen, I may find that my rigid beliefs are dictating how I react each time. Why does it need to be done THAT way? Why is THAT my belief about what needs to happen?

Recognizing inward anger:

When I talk with clients about anger and expectations, I often like to address the times in which we get angry at ourselves. Not only do we hold expectations for others, but we often hold expectations for ourselves. “I should really work on the yard” or “I should have done a better job.” These “should” statements we call “shoulding yourself,” a play on words that makes it easy to remember. These are expectations that we place on ourselves on how we think we “should” act. Unfortunately, we do not always meet our own expectations, which, as we learned before, makes us feel frustrated or disappointed, which often makes us angry. However, who are we angry at? Ourselves!

I like to ask the questions of clients “What makes a good mother?” or “What is it to be a good father,” or son, or daughter, or spouse, or employee. Many people will feed me answers describing some of the values and traits that they think those things should look like. I then ask “Is there such a thing as the perfect version of a mother, or father, or employee?” Most clients will unanimously answer no. Which I then ask “So, who is setting the standard that we are trying to live up to?” In groups they look at each other quizzically then back at me and reply “ourselves.”

It is easy to feel angry and frustrated with ourselves when we feel that we are not meeting our own expectations. Unfortunately, we often set a bar for ourselves that is higher than we are capable of, or is even outside of what we want for ourselves to begin with. When we do not meet this standard we set, we are often made to feel frustrated, discouraged, and even annoyed with ourselves, which can lead to feeling angry at life in general.

If I’m feeling angry all the time, I likely define success as 100% and failure as 99% or lower. This is not to say, lower your expectations across the board and never expect anything from anyone or yourself! It is to say, give the people around you some room to be human, and make mistakes, yourself included. Defining and managing anger takes time.  Through therapy, we can learn and practice using the tools that make deconstructing anger easier.  Work on changing your perspective.  Prepare for the unexpected and acknowledge your feelings.  Give yourself and others the space to feel each emotion.  Take these steps in therapy by contacting Counseling Works today!

Written By: Daniel Pruss, LSW

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