Managing vs Mastering Anger: Let’s clear up a misunderstanding.

And the judge said:

“Guilty! You are sentenced to 30 days in county jail and anger management classes!”

You see it in movies, on TV and in the newspapers.

Someone (usually a public figure or a celebrity) acts out inappropriately, goes to court, and gets sentenced to, among other punishments, Anger Management (emphasis added) classes.

This is one way that many people get introduced to the misuse of anger. The other way is by observing their own behavior. Observing the misuse of anger is responsible for maintaining belief in the anger myths. One myth says that anger is a dangerous emotion which should be eliminated. A second myth says that one should not get angry because there is always a negative outcome.

All the myths are false.

So, what is wrong with this scenario?

There are two implied assumptions behind anger management classes that are rarely acknowledged.

Two implied assumptions.

  1. The first implied assumption is that anger is like a wild animal that must be tamed, caged, controlled, and managed or it will turn a person into a wild robot who has no choice but to act out and hurt others.
  2. The second implied assumption is that this person’s behavior is caused by his out of control anger and that he needs to go to classes to learn how to regain control of his anger.

Both are incorrect and misleading.

The basic (misunderstood) facts.

Anger is just an emotion, the function of which is to prepare your body to fight off a perceived threat.  Anger is a motivator of action but does not cause any specific behavior

Each person is always responsible for the actions they take based on the decisions they make.  There are always options.

Those people who act out and get in trouble when they get angry represent only a small minority of people who get angry.  For the vast majority of people who get angry but who do not break the law, anger management as a general approach to dealing with anger falls short.  For these folks, anger mastery is a more fulfilling option.

The facts explained.

Anger is one of 6 primary emotions.

The other 5 are sad, glad, fear, disgust, and surprise.  While some writers say there are only 3 primary emotions and some say there are more, 6 is a standard widely agreed upon number.

Emotions have existed in humans since we lived on the Savannah and/or in caves and, it can be reasonably argued, are responsible for our survival as a species.

Here is how emotions worked when we were a very young species.

Our senses constantly scanned our surroundings for threats which, if not dealt with, would kill us.  All threats were survival threats. When a threat was perceived, a subconscious process was set in motion which involved a fast track message going to the Amygdala and from there to the Thalamus.  The Thalamus prepared the body for action. This is what you would want if your life depended on your reaction.

Each primary emotion elicited a different reaction based on the nature of the perceived threat.

Anger prepared us for war as the threat was perceived to be one we could eliminate by throwing enough force at it.  By contrast, disgust prepared us to move away from a threat which could harm us and fear prepared us to run away (or freeze) from a threat that would kill us.

Today, the same primitive reactive process still exists. However, the nature of the threats we face has changed. Most of the threats we face are psychological.  In addition, we now have the ability to respond to the threat.

As our brains grew and developed over eons, the cerebral cortex gave us the ability to assess the nature of the threat and choose a response. So, while a fast track message still goes to the Amygdala for fight or flight, a slower track message goes to the cerebral cortex and gives us options.

Revisiting the original implied assumptions:

  1. While anger autonomously prepares us to take action relative to the perceive threat, it does not force us to take a specific action.  Anger is a tool we need to learn to use not a wild horse we need to break.
  2. The cerebral cortex always gives us an option to choose the actions we take relative to the perceived threat.  Consequently, we are always responsible for what we do. 

By the way, the perpetrator who hurts others and blames his (or her) anger is trying to avoid taking personal responsibility for their actions so blaming the anger is an easy out.

The statement: “If I wasn’t angry, I wouldn’t have done (xyz).” may very well be true.  The implication that the anger made him do it is always false. Unfortunately, this distinction is often not recognized.

Managing versus Mastering an emotion:

Managing anger involves lowering your level of physiological arousal by taking a breath or using relaxation techniques.

This is fine as far as it goes.

However, while the anger management folks concede that anger is a natural emotion, it is viewed as the cause of the behavior and the focus of treatment.

This is where most anger management classes often fall short.

To be fair, good anger management classes will teach you ways to develop empathy and build trust and to use good communication and conflict resolution skills.

This is excellent. But, I maintain, for many people it doesn’t go far enough.

I believe there is a place for anger management skills. But, I believe you should learn to master your anger as a tool.

In my Amazon best seller book, Beyond Anger Management: Master Your Anger as a Strategic Tool, I discuss the Anger Mastery Cycle. You can download a copy of the Anger Mastery Cycle by scrolling up to the welcome post on this blog.

The Anger Mastery Cycle does not demonize anger.  Anger is viewed only as a tool which provides information about one’s surroundings. As a tool, anger can be mastered so that it works for you. The Anger Mastery Cycle includes the assumption that you are always responsible for how you use your anger as a tool.

The Anger Mastery Cycle starts with you constantly, and subconsciously, scanning your surroundings for threat. When you perceive a threat you believe you can eliminate by throwing enough force at it, you experience anger and your body automatically goes into fight mode.

This is the fast track primitive reactive process I noted above.

Once you recognize that you are angry by knowing how your body alerts you to this emotion (your physical correlates), the Anger Mastery Cycle suggests that you create some “space” between you and the threat.

This takes us into anger management.

Creating space serves to protect you both physically and psychologically. By taking a step backwards (physical space), you protect yourself and you communicate to the person who you are angry at or who is angry at you that a moment of reflection is needed.

The skills you learned in your Anger Management classes to lower your arousal level serve to create some psychological space. Psychological space is needed to give your cerebral cortex some time to kick in so that you can decide how you want to respond rather than react.

This is where we move into anger mastery.

The anger mastery process begins with assessing, or validating the nature of the threat.

The perceived threat may be genuine in which case action to eliminate the threat is justified.

Or, the original perception of threat is not accurate and something else is precipitating your anger.

When you realize there is no threat, your anger should subside. If you are still angry and there is no threat, you are either using your anger as a secondary emotion or you are using anger instrumentally.

Anger mastery includes but goes beyond anger management in its conceptualization of anger as a tool that can be understood and utilized in different ways.  The skill sets which comprise emotional intelligence imply an anger mastery approach to this emotion.

For some people, managing their anger may be the best they can do. These folks may not be very emotionally intelligent and may not be able to move beyond a behavior-focused concrete approach to anger. And, they may not do well in anger management classes.

For others, however, mastering their anger gives them an understanding of what anger is and provides more options for dealing with their own anger and anger directed at them.

I value your comments on the above.


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