Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Temper temper!

A while ago I undertook a training in anger management.  As a therapist I take my continuing professional development very seriously and as someone with a particular interest in working with individuals for whom addiction is an issue, I work with individuals for whom anger is very often (if not always) an underlying and yet rarely acknowledged issue.

There are imploders and exploders.  Know which category you fall into?  Some people can be both - depending on the situation which is often determined by a power dynamic.  Jung referred to our shadows, as sides of ourselves that can either be split off, neglected and unknown, buried deep and prone to being inflamed and unleashed or as those parts of ourselves we courageously acknowledge, and befriend, in order that we come to know ourselves as best we can, as unified whole beings rather than pressure cookers likely to boil over, if the flame gets hot enough.  Anger, if left unrecognised, can get messy.  We all have a responsibility to own our anger, and we then have the potential to channel it and convert it into something more constructive.  Anger can be transformed into creativity, but there are certain steps that precede this conversion. 

"Sloth, apathy and despair are the enemy, anger is not.  Anger is our friend.  Not a nice friend, not a gentle friend but a very loyal friend.  It will always tell you when you have been betrayed.  It will always tell you when we have betrayed ourselves.  It will always tell us that it is time to act in our own best interests.  Anger is not the action itself, it is action's invitation." 
Elspeth Weymann

For many of us, identifying what gets our blood boiling is the first step...  Thinking about a situation in which you perhaps began to get a little hot under the collar, cast your mind back to the specifics and ask yourself:  what were my judgements of the situation?  It is all too easy to have two sets of rules, and be guilty of double standards:  one for ourselves, and another for others.  We may be too quick to judge. 

Jung insisted that 85% of our shadow is pure gold.  If we remain too afraid to look at ourselves, hiding, denying or suppressing parts of ourselves we not only risk missing out, but we are far more vulnerable when we stumble across situations in which we feel angry. 

Whilst anger might be the feeling we identify as emanating from the circumstances we find ourselves in, most of the time there are underlying feelings - perhaps we're feeling hurt, or fearful, or powerless, helpless or obsolete.  Shame attacks its victims and has an uncanny habit of bubbling up and coming out as anger.  Unless we become aware of the process, we remain psychologically impotent.  And that's not an attractive place to find ourselves. 

Shame may be differentiated from guilt.  Guilt is what we feel when we recognise we've made a mistake.  Shame is what we feel when we believe we are the mistake.  It has a toxic quality about it which silences the soul.  Feelings that remain unexpressed are turned inward where they crystallise into shame.  Shame has been defined as frozen rage, and hatred as frozen anger.

To release our shame, we need firstly to melt the frozen rage.  This is where therapy can prove beneficial providing the opportunity to identify where it was that the shame arose, and who it was that caused us to feel it before doing some work specifically around this, to unlock it, and expose it to the light. 

Healthy shame is that which we experience when we feel remorseful.  This reminds us of our limitations, and gives us permission to make mistakes.  Toxic shame by contrast has a brutally self destructive aspect to it.

Anger serves an important purpose, acting as a psychological saviour in the face of unbearable feeling of obsoleteness.  We use anger to assert ourselves and to eradicate this awful feeling but in doing so, short change ourselves as by short circuiting, we never get to know what it is that has triggered our reflex like reaction, fuelling the feeling that we are out of control, and further driving the sense that we are powerless, or helpless.  This is where it gets really sticky. 

Most of the time, underneath a sense of overwhelming powerlessness is a primal fear that we may not get our needs met.  We all have needs.  When we detect that our primary needs may not get met, we can experience a surge of anger but have no clue as to where this emotion has come from.  As members of the human race we share the same primary needs for love, nurturing, compassion, safety, validation, understanding, security, being appreciated, heard and cared for.  In addition to these, we have practical needs that Maslow quantified as a hierarchy, in his 1943 paper 'A Theory of Human Motivation'.  If we lack awareness of our needs, our anger is apt to be triggered easily. 

At exactly the moment that we take responsibility for getting our own needs met our self esteem and confidence increase.  We return to being in our adult state, capable and truly independent - free from expectations.  It is only from this place can we expect to be assertive in situations where our buttons are visible, and likely to be pressed.   

Anyone can benefit from introspection.  Some of us find this process easier than others.  Therapy can be very useful to those for whom anger has become a problem, breaking the shame and allowing them a chance to come out of hiding and into a place of safety from where it is possible to emerge and become familiar with their shadows. 

Anger is itself a feeling.  Whilst it may not be appropriate or legitimate, as a feeling it demands respect.  Only when we acknowledge all of our emotions can we move to the more sophisticated work of deciding how to express or articulate them. 

Mike Fisher's book 'Beating Anger: The Eight Point Plan for Coping with Rage' has appeared on my bookshelf for some time.  Together with the training workshop I attended, it has proved an invaluable resource that regularly accompanies me into the therapy room, and has been lent to countless clients.  The book may be used as a reference point and a personal development tool and throughout its pages, Fisher highlights the following anger management strategies:
  • Stop, think, take a look at the bigger picture
  • It's OK to have a different opinion.  It's alright to disagree
  • Listen actively and attentively - if someone else is angry, the challenge is not to regress with them but to instead hear their anger and indentify their needs in the situation
  • Get and then use a support network 
  • Keep a journal in which you write down thoughts, feelings and situations in which you've struggled - preferably in the moment, or shortly afterward
  • Don't take things personally - as invariably they're not - remember, everyone is acting from their shadow
  • Let go of expectations and the 'shoulds' we impose on ourselves and others
  • 'Anger by appointment only' - Have anger visit when you're ready, when you've had a chance to cool down, and regain your composure, as an adult able to respond rather than obliged to react


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