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Exploring Anger in Psychotherapy

An existential approach

· Psychotherapy

You will not be punished for your anger,
You will be punished by your anger

- Buddha

Managing anger is something we can all learn to do better. This article introduces the basis of a better understanding of anger through an existential lens.

There are different aspects to this that I usually want to explore with my clients - I usually begins to look at what is already there: what helps and what doesn’t?


The historical dimension
 

How we manage our negative feelings is usually learned. I believe that whatever is learned can be unlearned even later in life. It is never ‘too late’ to reformulate our core beliefs.

It is useful for this purpose to think about what was taught to us about anger when we were growing up.
How was anger displayed?
How did your parents managed anger?
Was anger something that was encouraged or suppressed?

After the exploration of this historical dimension, we can move to understand what we can do with anger now.

Feelings and behaviours

The crucial point to improve the management of anger is to differentiate between our feeling and our behaviour.

The feeling is the felt sense we experience in our body. There are a lot of different variations and forms for it: we might feel frustrated, annoyed, envious, mad, irritated, jealous, resentful, upset or aggravated. All those words refer back to the same primal feeling of anger.
The behaviour is what we do, both physically and mentally with this emotions. What we commonly associate with anger is aggressive behaviour, lashing out at people, saying things we regret, being snappy and so on.
The main approaches to anger management focus on this basic distinction between feeling and behaviour. Once the client is able to differentiate the two, the next step is to validate the feeling and challenging the behaviour.
It is very important to understand that we cannot change what we feel. We can only change what we do in response to the feeling. For instance we can learn to think about our anger in a different way or we can learn to respond to anger in a less harmful manner. The problem with anger is never the feeling, it’s the behaviour.


If we feel something we need to allow ourselves to feel it, but we want to change how we act in response to it - In most cases, when I work on anger management, I find that the client finds it difficult to put a reflective space between the feeling and the action.
For the purpose of self-development we want to introduce a lapse of time between when we feel the feeling and when we respond to it. We want to move away from the dynamic of feeling-reaction. We want to promote actions we have been thinking about, not simple impulse responses.

Reframing

Very often when we are angry, we are in touch with something that is really important for us. I often ask my client to think about anger as a passion.
If instead of using the word anger, you would use the word passion, what would you be passionate for?

This usually leads the therapy away from the simple behaviour management and into a more complex and meaningful reframing of priorities and choices.

Anger is a complex and meaningful feeling we all experience at time. As much as we don't like to be angry we all need to face it sometimes.

What matters is to create a narrative in which anger, like any other feeling can be used as an information. The more we learn to listen to our feelings, the better we can manage them.

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