When your partner, or someone else you know, has a tendency to explode with anger, your first thought might be that they really need to learn some anger management skills. After all, their anger can be so destructive. And, it would seem, if only they could contain their anger better, everyone would feel safer and be happier. While that is a logical line of thinking, it’s not exactly right. There is much more to helping someone with anger issues than teaching them to manage their rage.
It’s true that first and foremost, people must be safe in their relationships. So, someone who responds violently (either physically or verbally) needs to change their behavior. They can do this by identifying signs of lower levels of anger so that they can address it long before the explosions – at a time when the feeling is more manageable. Or if their anger overwhelms them too quickly, they can learn to walk away, count to 10, or engage in some other distraction until the intensity lessens. All of these skills can be helpful, but they still leave the person with unexpressed painful feelings, which will very likely continue to build.
Contrary to popular belief, research tells us that venting anger does not get it out of your system. Instead, it tends to increase the feeling. Behaviors such as punching a pillow, laying on your car horn, or shouting obscenities often make people angrier. Although people sometimes report feeling better after venting, they have also stirred and inflamed their anger. I suspect that any relief they feel is due to the physical exertion of energy. If they went for a run or lifted weights, they might notice that they could lessen the buildup of emotional energy while giving their anger a chance to cool down. Yet, even then, the angry feelings would still be there and need to be dealt with.
It can help to think of anger as an emotional reaction to a perception of what’s being communicated – which runs deeper than the feeling itself. For instance, if an abusive husband learns to curb his violent outbursts, he may still struggle with the belief that his wife sees him as weak or insignificant, and with his fear that she might leave him. Maybe his wife is communicating these messages or maybe his understanding has more to do with his inner struggles. Either way, by learning to tolerate vulnerable feelings well enough to reflect on the experience, he will be better able to find healthier ways of coping. For instance, he might talk with her about his concerns and give her a chance to explain what she really meant.
So, while managing or controlling anger can be helpful, it does not resolve “anger issues.” People who struggle with such issues must also learn to tolerate their many emotions. They must face the sense of vulnerability with courage, perhaps with the help of therapy. By processing their thoughts and feelings, they can release themselves from the grips of their out-of-control anger. Rather than exerting a violent, reactive “strength” pumped up to overpower their sense of vulnerability, they can express a more secure strength – without aggression – that is rooted deep within.