As a psychotherapist working in the mental health field for over 30 years, I have often been called upon to provide anger management to clients. These referrals are seldom self-diagnosed and usually result when a person has “lost it” around a select person, or persons, and the consequences outweigh the normal resistance to seeking counseling.
Anger, both overt and deeply repressed, presents unique challenges in the world of psychotherapy.
In my early work with angry adolescents, I would often have to literally dodge the incoming artifacts of that anger in the form of whatever piece of furniture, or other item was close at hand. In later years, with older clients, anger darts often arrived in the form of thinly disguised insults, resistance or the early termination of sessions.
The anger management movement arose due to the concern that anger, while a normal emotion, was also one of the most destructive. This power was even evident in the very “let it out” techniques prescribed by well-meaning clinicians who realized that the supposed cathartic release of pent up agitation only made matters worse. The boomerang effect led to the corrective mantra of “anger out, anger in.” As a result, therapists who grew weary of the tirades, rants and threats switched to a less hazardous approach of teaching calming and self-soothing techniques while they plumbed the depths of the psyche in search of the underlying issues that fan the anger flames.
Currently anger seems to be making a comeback and, particularly in the political arena, is all the rage. We have become an indig-nation where discourse is replaced by discord and debating one’s rivals turns to debasing them, all backed by a self-righteous tone, punctuated by reddened faces and bulging veins of irritation.
Years of witnessing the destructive power of unchecked anger has left me with the clear sense that the current mood in our country is in need of a giant intervention before we collectively break something beyond repair — our democracy. My professional opinion is that we have moved past the need for a social “chill pill” and are now in the area of major tranquilizers so we can step back, count to ten, take a deep breath and use the rational part of our brains. Parents will recognize this process as the go-to method for interrupting their children’s melt-downs.
The current risk is not that anger has become a political tool — we are a nation that was born out of a state of irritation that led to open rebellion — but in the fact that when anger arises from the unchecked burden of psychological wounds, the revenge factor can escalate to catastrophic proportions. While it remains a truism that “sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me” it is also true that today’s pen, in the form of social media tweets, is mightier than the sword. In the case of our current commander and chief agitator, the risk is that of a self-inflicted wound from wielding a weapon without understanding its power.
Since the roots of anger are often deeply buried, twisted and entangled with a multitude of other emotions, those who attempt to soothe the savage beasts in others often find themselves responding in kind. This race to the bottom of our better selves — tapping into the undercurrent of frustration and feelings of powerlessness — turns finger-pointing into an all-out war in which the cause is not only lost, it is no longer relevant. As the moral imperative dims, the voice of reason is lost amidst a cacophony of self-righteous hypocrisy.
Benjamin Franklin wrote that “Anger is never without a reason, but seldom with a good one” and added “Whatever is begun in anger ends in shame.” It is unlikely that the current state of affairs in the politics of anger will bring about the end of civility for all time. It will, however, be a shame if it becomes the fine print added to our Declaration of Independence where all men and women are created equal and have the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of pettiness.