Anger Management Failures: Problem Anger vs. Ordinary Anger

Tommaso Meli (CC BY 2.0)

Tommaso Meli (CC BY 2.0)

The problem anger formula: Anger (frustration, irritability, attitude, etc.)  + Lowered self-value + Blame.

Steven Stosny writes at Psychology Today:

Angermanagement works fine for managing ordinary anger, but it’s not so successful when it comes to the self-defeating behaviors of problem anger.

Ordinary anger arises from impediments to:

  • Task performance (The screw repeatedly drops out of the picture hanger before you can tighten it.)
  • Interest or relaxation (Someone is talking while you’re trying to read or a lawn mower wakes you up too early.)
  • Enjoyment (Someone is reading when you would like to talk.)
  • Status maintenance (You feel insulted.)
  • Territorial integrity (Someone takes something from you or violates a boundary.)
  • Protection (of valued others or valued objects).

In contrast, problem anger makes you act against your long term best interest or keeps you from acting in your long term best interest.

Examples of the former: You bang the picture with the screw driver or shout at the talker to shut up and thereby make it harder to concentrate on reading, or you make someone irritable by interrupting, which lowers the likelihood that you will enjoy your talk or, when insulted you insult back, i.e., react to a jerk like a jerk, or you devalue the people you most value.

Example of the latter: You don’t try to connect with people you love.

Why Anger Management Fails with Problem Anger

Anger management neglects the more subtle influences of problem anger and sometimes even encourages them, assuming that it’s better to disconnect from loved ones than to shout at them. Putting a chilly wall between you and the people you love won’t get you arrested but will likely ruin your life.

Anger management treats less subtle problem anger as extreme or uncontrolled versions of ordinary anger. According to the American Psychological Association, anger management teaches techniques to manage the emotional feelings and physiological arousal of anger. But problem anger is not just a matter of feelings and arousal; it’s part of a highly conditioned defensive system, activated by a sudden drop in self-value. People with anger problems feel inadequate when the screw won’t turn or devalued when spouses interrupt or unlovable when loved ones don’t pay attention.

Instead of doing something that will raise self-value (being nice to someone they love, for example, or finding a better screw driver), they blame their lowered self-value on someone else, which makes them want to devalue in return:

“Look at that jerk!”

“I’m tired of telling you this…”

“What kind of person would say that?”

“I don’t have time for you.”

Due to the high contagion of anger and resentment, you don’t have to verbalize negative attributions to do damage – we communicate negativity all the time without saying a word. In addition to ruining your health, problem anger inevitably damages social relationships, whether you express it or not, unless you happen to work or live with Mother Theresa.

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