Anger Management: Barking up the Wrong Tree

Barking up the Wrong treePeople commonly come to battering intervention programs thinking they needed help with managing their anger.  Many have taken anger management classes in the past, but the problem continued.  I normally listen as they explain many of the ways their anger has disrupted their lives.  They believe that if they could get a handle on their anger, life would get better.  Eventually, I explain that I have some good news and some bad news for them. The good news is that while I have met many who believe they have anger issues, I have never met anyone who actually did have an anger problem.  The bad news is that the real problem is much more difficult than addressing “anger”.  I offer that If we are going to address this problem, we are going to have to talk about what the anger is protecting. We are going to have to talk about fear. Addressing an anger problem without addressing fear is literally like barking up the wrong tree.

Anger is commonly defined as a response to a perceived threat to either one’s self or others. Therefore, by definition, anger is a response to fear.  Battering behavior is never a result of an anger problem.  Battering behavior is a pattern of behavior desigend to  dominate and control another. There are plenty of other tactics that serve the purpose of dominating and controlling another. Anger is just one of many. 

Interestingly, people who report having “anger problems” commonly fail to recognize their own fear. Our River of Cruelty model shows that when someone does not want to be seen as "soft" or "weak", anger is a common go to stategy. Anger can camouflage weakness with the appearance of strength and power. Commonly, people struggling with anger believe that if they are perceived as afraid, they might be taken advantage of, hurt, or they might be perceived as less than. When people hold these beliefs, they can be willing to do almost anything to avoid being seen as afraid.  The angriest person I have ever met was full of fear, and he was unaware.  He lived his life dedicated to never being weak again like he was in the presence of his father when he was a child.  He was not conscious of it, but fear drove his anger.  He protected himself by passing his fear on to those around him by acting really angry.

The angriest person I have ever met was full of fear, and he was unaware.

For those who facilitate groups for those who batter, fear is an essential topic of conversation.  Here is a brief dialogue to illustrate how this can be done in a way that is respectful but also intentional in moving past anger.

Participant:  “I hate it when my partner tells me what to do.  She is always harping on me to get things done.  It makes me angry when she bosses me around.”

Facilitator:  “When your partner is bossing you around like that, what does it feel like she is saying about you?”  

Participant: “It is like she is telling me that I am worthless or something”.  I hate it when people tell me that I am worthless.”

Facilitator:  “So, it sounds like you have received this message before.  Do you remember getting this message from someone before you ever met your partner?”

Participant:  “Funny that you asked that.  My step-father always called me a worthless piece of *@%!!.  I hated that.  I would get so angry at him, but there was nothing I could do because he would beat my ass.”

Facilitator: So, when you get angry at someone after getting this message, what is the message that you are trying to send to them through your anger”

Participant:  “I want them to feel worthless too…exactly how I feel and maybe more”

Facilitator:  So, if you knew without a doubt that you were not worthless…if that was simply a belief that was adopted during a period of time when your step-dad was being cruel to you…what would be more true about you?”

Participant:  “Oh, I would have value…I would be someone of worth. I wouldn’t have to prove myself all the time.  I am always afraid of never being good enough.”

Facilitator:  If you knew without a doubt that you did have worth…what would you do when you felt like your partner was telling you what to do?”

Participant:  “I would not snap off at her, that is for sure.  She has a full plate and usually she is just wanting help with the kids or with the household chores.  I would probably just help her with what needed to be done.

Facilitator:  “So what you are telling me is that if you weren’t afraid of being worthless, you would not have to be angry at your partner and make her feel unworthy when she is asking for help?”

Participant:  “Yea. I had never thought about that before.”

 "...the less afraid our participants are of themselves, the safer those around them will be."

When people are angry, they are afraid. As people grow in their ablility to recognize and sit with fear, the less often they are angry. Many times, when people batter their partners and children, they are trying to give the fear away so that they do not have to sit with the uncomfortable feeling themselves.  As facilitators, the more we can illustrate this dynamic in our participants lives, the safer their partners and family members will be.  Or, as we say at the Family Peace Initiative, the less afraid our participants are of themselves, the safer those around them will be. If we are going to address the anger that exists in relationships, we are going to have to stop barking up the wrong tree. We are going to have to talk about fear.

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