There is no such thing as an “anger problem”.
Following a recent college class I teach in which I discuss what emotions are and how mastering them is a key element of critical thinking, a student came up to me and volunteered, “I have an anger problem.”
When I asked him to explain, he noted, “When I get angry (emphasis added), I tend to (do inappropriate things).”
The things he does, when angry, get him in trouble, ruin relationships, or result in other issues he has to apologize for, and so forth.
You might think you have an “an anger problem” or that someone you know has an “anger problem”.
As I’ve written in many different places, the statement “I (or you) have an anger problem.” seems to make sense and to convey a statement of fact.
At its best, what my student said tells me little about what may be going on with him.
At its worst, his statement is misleading and, potentially, harmful.
I see TWO problematic issues with his claim that he has an “anger problem”.
First of all, there are the facts about his situation and his anger.
His statement clearly identifies the emotion of anger as the issue that needs to be resolved. In other words, the anger, per se, is the cause of the challenges facing my student and it is the anger that needs to be fixed.
Other then noting that he has the “problem”, my student’s statement seems to eliminate himself as an issue. It is the same as if he said, “I have a cold.”
“I have an anger problem.” does not focus any attention on himself as part of the “problem”. Nor does it acknowledge the real “problems” facing my student.
These “problems” include, but are not limited to:
- his tendency to inappropriately react when he gets angry,
- his tendency to perceive another person, their actions, or their words as a threat when no threat may exist,
- his low levels of emotional intelligence, and
- his failure to assess the nature of the threat he perceives so that he can choose an appropriate response to what is going on.
In other words, he experiences complications with others because of:
- his thinking about the situation he faces,
- his tendency to react rather than respond to what is going on, and
- the actions he takes when angry.
These are the factors that are at the heart of the consequences he elicits when angry and not his anger, per se.
His statement is misleading because, my student, his thoughts, his decisions, and the actions he takes are the “problem”.
Anger is never the problem.
Secondly, there are the psychological implications.
By “blaming” the anger as the problem, my student can avoid taking responsibility for his actions. You see a similar situation with the celebrity who abuses his significant other and says “My anger made me do it.”or “If I wasn’t angry, I would not have done it.” While it is most likely true that he would not have done it if he weren’t angry, his anger did not force him to do what he did.
If someone says that he ate too much because he was hungry, we don’t let him off the hook for violating his diet.
We say, “You are right, you were hungry so you ate. But, it was your choice to take that extra piece of pie.”
What my student “sees” in a given interaction is that something happens (point Alpha), he gets angry and does something he later regrets. He concludes that he has an “anger problem (point Omega).
Here is the process of getting from Alpha to Omega…
- Someone does something. (Alpha)
- He interprets their actions as a threat to his goals, values, basic beliefs, or opinion about the way things should be and he believes that he is more powerful than they are.
- His Amydala picks up the interpretation and prepares his body for war.
- He does not evaluate the situation but react as if the threat is real.
- He takes action to eliminate it.
- He does not get the result he expected.
- He blames the anger. (Omega)
His statement is potentially harmful because it directs his attention away from himself and his need for help to learn new skill.
Here is the solution to my student’s “problem”.
Anger management classes will teach him to calm himself down and prevent himself from taking action.
This is good as far as it goes but is often ineffective because it does not alter the problematic issue which is his thinking.
In my opinion, he needs to learn to master his anger.
The Anger mastery approach teaches that we need to start by taking a breath and a physical step away from the “threat” (anger management). Then we need to engage in the V.E.M.A process.
The V in VEMA stands for validate. We validate our anger by acknowledging that we are angry. By itself, this makes the anger a conscious response rather than an unconscious reaction.
The E in VEMA stands for examine. The next step is to examine the threat and decide whether it is valid and, indeed, a threat. Perhapts, we have misunderstood what is going on and no threat exists. We may have to ask some questions here to gain more knowledge about the person with whom we are interacting and their motivations.
The M in VEMA stands for motivation. Based on our examination, we can decide what action we want to take and use the energy of our anger to push us forward. This action can involve anything from a conversation to an apology or to aggression depending on the nature and urgency of the threat.
The A in VEMA stands for taking the action we have chosen.
Once we acknowledge that our thinking and not our anger is the “cause” of our actions, we no longer have an “anger problem”. We are then empowered to initiate the VEMA process whenever we get angry.
While this is difficult to do, it is doable with practice.
You can download the first two chapters of my recent Amazon best selling book: Beyond Anger Management Master Your Anger as a Strategic Tool by scrolling up to the “Welcome” post above.
I welcome your comments.