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How to Stop Losing Your Life to Anger

ADDICTED TO ANGER

 

by Newton Hightower

Are you addicted to anger?

In the mid-1980s John Bradshaw, author of Healing the Shame That Binds You, wrote about "rageaholics," those of us who are addicted to anger and rage. The model made sense to me. I worked with rageful drug addicts and I began to think of anger as if it were a drug. As I did more reading, I found that there actually are biochemical changes in our bodies when we rage, use profanity or pound things. Those of us who rage a lot have more health problems than people who practice containing their anger. The popular psychological theories that suggested a need to express anger for mental and physical health reasons have been proven false when put under the microscope of scientific research. The more we scream and yell, the worse our health gets, the more prone we are to heart attacks and the worse our rage problem becomes.

"Sure I get angry. Doesn't everybody?" This article is certainly not for all men. Some men may need to learn to express their anger, but others have become addicted to the expression of anger just like the alcoholic has become addicted to alcohol. As with the alcoholic, solemn oaths to use willpower to "control ourselves" have failed repeatedly. Still, we continue trying to do more of what has not worked.

If you have unsuccessfully tried willpower, solemn oaths, stopping drinking, marital therapy, getting all the anger out once and for all, exploring anger at your father, learning the appropriate expression of anger, meditation and some medication, you may be convinced that there is no way to stop the destructive power of anger. You may be beginning to lose your marriage, children, jobs and friends. You may be caught in the grip of an addiction even stronger than you realized. You may be a rageaholic.       

"I thought it was healthy to express my anger." For the last 50 years the world has been saying, "Express yourself." "Let it out." "It's good for you to express your feelings." "It's bad for you to repress your feelings."

Seymour Feshbach, an early pioneer in anger research, explored hostility and aggressiveness by taking a group of young boys who were not especially aggressive or destructive and encouraging them to kick furniture and play with violent toys. They did so enthusiastically. Instead of draining these boys of aggression, the aggressive "play" actually increased it. The boys became more rather than less hostile and destructive. As opposed to letting off steam, expressing hostility toward another person may increase rather than decrease hostile feelings.

My work agrees with Feshbach, and it has led to this radical principle: Abstain from the expression of anger. As background for this alternative approach to dealing with anger, let me first develop in more detail the two theories of anger that have dominated the past century.

Two Theories on Anger Resolution: "Build-up/Blow-up" and "Expressive Anger"

One way to consider anger is what I call the "Build-up/Blow-up Theory of Anger." At the turn of the century Freud relied on the popular scientific theory of his day, hydraulic theory, to explain how psychic energy worked. In hydraulic theory, a pressure or force is either released or it causes pressure in some other part of the system. Let me use the example of a pressure cooker to link anger and hydraulic theory. Imagine a pressure cooker with a flame underneath and the pressure building up. The steam inside the cooker is equivalent to anger and one of the ways to release the steam is to take the lid off the pressure cooker. As a child, I used to ask my mother when she cooked chicken and vegetables in the pressure cooker to please take off the lid so we could eat our lunch. She said it was dangerous to take off the lid too soon. She ran cold water on it and I begged her again. Finally, out of frustration, she took the lid off, steam rushed out, and she got burned.

"Maybe if I get it all out, I will be okay?" Those of us with anger problems may be encouraged to express our anger. We may be told that it is good to get it out. We might be told that anger can even harm us physically if we don't express it. Many who believe in the hydraulic theory of anger even suggest a big release (catharsis) for anger.

Expressive therapy, often associated with encounter groups and psychodrama, encourages the pounding of pillows, yelling and screaming or psychodrama with players representing people in your past that you are angry at. In psychodrama, you are encouraged to yell and tell these people how you really feel. The cathartic model in psychotherapy was the first path I chose in my attempt to get the destructive aspects of my anger under control. In Los Angeles in the late 1960s and early 1970s, proponents of this model believed that our culture had been too restrictive about anger. We needed to "let it out" and "express ourselves." "Let those feelings out!" the facilitators would cheer me on as I screamed my rage.

This approach was believed to be a good antidote to the leftover repression of the Victorian era. The idea was that we could heal and become whole if we just let ourselves go and trusted our impulses.

There was value in this model for me and there still is value for many men in cathartic expression-pounding pillows and screaming profanity until exhaustion. The value can be to become less afraid of our anger, to experience the underlying feelings of grief. Often, tender yearnings hide beneath the rage. Sobbing comes after the screaming. The guilt about anger, hatred and rage dissolves to some extent when the rage outburst is accepted and welcomed by a therapy group. Crying in the arms of loving people and being held afterward can be a very satisfying experience. However, the research evidence does not support that using this model in any way reduces rage outbursts during the rest of our lives.

No matter how good and nurturing the cathartic experience was, my anger outbursts only got worse during this time.

"I've been told that I need to learn to express my anger appropriately." Again, let's imagine a pressure cooker, but instead of taking off the lid, let's set the pressure valve to slowly release the steam when it reaches a certain intensity. For example, we might say to our spouse, "I have some feelings of resentment toward you" or "Your behavior in the last few days has created some growing feelings of resentment" or "I would just like to let you know that I am feeling angry toward you because of your behavior last night at the party."

The idea is that we can express anger in a contained, appropriate way, and let the steam out gradually. Many of those who rage have been to therapists who think we haven't been taught how to express our anger appropriately; the therapy begins by attempting to teach us the appropriate expression of anger. If the "appropriate expression of anger" is used around resentment issues in a structured way, some of us can use it beneficially.

Following my experience with expressive therapies, I thought learning this appropriate expression approach was the answer for me, so I began learning, then teaching, the appropriate expression of anger. My wife said I was an excellent teacher and could do well in role plays, but even though I knew it in my head, when the adrenaline rush hit, I was gone. Typically I would start by saying, "Sweetheart, I would like to sit down and share with you after dinner." (That's called making an appointment-which is good.) Then, when we got comfortable, I would say, "I have been feeling angry and resentful about some things."

She would say, "What?"

I would reply, "What? You don't even know what?" and then I would go into a rage. She said I did well for up to 30 seconds but could never get past that.

A Different Theory of Anger: Rage as an Addiction

An alternative theory from the first two theories of anger is the "abstain," "dissolve" or "containment theory of anger." It suggests we leave the lid on the pressure cooker, keep the valve closed, and turn off the fire underneath it. Now, what happens if the pressure cooker just stays there? If we let the pressure cooker stand there long enough and we take the lid off, there is no steam. Steam equals anger in this image, so if you just let the pressure cooker (us) sit there, the steam turns into something else-cool water.

"When angry, I don't say anything?" It will take some work and practice to keep the lid on; it is hard not to let a little steam seep out of the pressure valve and not to take the lid off. The idea is to keep the lid on tight, and to let the anger turn back into peace.

In the 1970s some authors suggested that we have a "Vesuvius Hour." Vesuvius is a volcano in Italy that erupted and buried the thriving city of Pompeii. The idea was that when we got home, rather than having a cocktail hour, we would erupt like a volcano, scream and yell, and call our spouse and children ugly names. Our children and spouse, in turn, would call us names, yell and scream. Everybody would get their aggression out for the day and have a peaceful, wonderful evening. But we know now that this practice actually aggravates the feelings and intensity of anger. The research that documents how anger makes our health and relationship problems worse is reviewed in Anger Kills by Redford and Virginia Williams.

Carol Tavris in her comprehensive study, Anger: The Misunderstood Emotion corrects some common misconceptions about expressing anger:

Myth #1:         "Aggression is the instinctive catharsis for anger."

Reality:           Aggression is an acquired cathartic habit, a learned reaction practiced by people who think they can get away with behaving this way.

Myth #2:         "Talking out anger gets rid of it-or at least makes you feel less angry."

Reality:           A series of studies indicates that the overt expression of anger can increase it. Tavris suggests that before speaking out, evaluate whether you want to stay angry or not.

Myth #3:         "Tantrums and other childhood rages are healthy expressions of anger that forestall neuroses."

Reality:           As Tavris states, "The emotions are as subject to the laws of learning as any other behavior."

What are the signs that rage has turned into an addiction?

All addictions have symptoms, which allow us to recognize these problems as addictive diseases. The signs of addictive diseases are self-stimulation, compulsion, obsession, denial, withdrawal and craving syndrome, and unpredictable behavior. Like alcoholism or drug use, anger meets many of the criteria.

Self-Stimulation. For those of us who are rageaholics, expressing our anger is self-stimulating. It triggers our compulsion for more anger. For example, let's pretend that we are going to provide treatment for alcoholics. On the way to the treatment center we stop and buy a case of beer. When we get there, we tell the alcoholics in therapy that they just need to do a lot of drinking to get it out of their system once and for all. This, I believe, is similar to when therapists tell men with rage problems, "You just need to express yourself and get it out of your system." It is just as absurd.

The more alcoholics drink, the more they want. The more we ragers rage, the more we want to rage. One way to define alcoholism is that when the alcoholic ingests alcohol, it sets up a self-stimulating system in which he craves more alcohol. The more alcohol a person drinks, the more alcohol that person wants. It is the same way with rageaholics.

Compulsion. Anger addiction or "rageaholism" is the compulsive pursuit of a mood change by repeatedly engaging in episodes of rage despite adverse consequences. Rageaholics are individuals who continue to rage compulsively without regard to the negative consequences. It is the compulsion that signals the disease of addiction. Despite all judgment, reason, insight or consequence, we continue to use "the substance" compulsively.

When we can no longer control how much or when we rage, we have crossed the line into addiction. Brief periods of abstinence from rage may occur because of guilt or concern about the loss of a mate or of a job, but eventually, despite the best of intentions to control our tongue and hands, the rageaholic will be off again on another tantrum.

When control is lost, we ragers have entered into a crucial phase of addiction and may never again be able to return to the controlled expression of anger. Once this point is reached, we cannot predict what will set us off or how far we will go with our behavior. Our behavior is often as puzzling to us as it is to those around us.

Addicts will try anything to solve the problem except to stay away from the substance or behavior that triggers the addiction. Once the compulsion is triggered, all efforts at control fail.

In all forms of addiction, the control over thoughts and behavior is lost. As addiction progresses, our losses become increasingly profound and our life is no longer under our control. We are at the mercy of anyone who provokes us. Our thought processes become dominated by the addiction and we look for opportunities to indulge our addiction. Anger, revenge and rage take over. Our life becomes a booby trap, baited with pride and vengefulness as we wait for someone to offend us in some real or imagined way. As one client said, "I used to have trouble going to sleep at night because it would take me two or three hours to imagine killing everybody who had ever pissed me off, so I could fall asleep."

Obsession. Rageaholics are frequently preoccupied with resentment and fantasies of revenge. Those thoughts sometimes rise powerfully and allow no other thoughts to enter. No matter how hard we try to stop them, ideas of outrage and revenge predominate. The force of anger is sometimes irresistible and followed by action. Therefore, the preoccupation with the "wrongs" of others and revenge continually leads to rage. Progressively, these thoughts crowd out all others until our life becomes chronically revenge oriented. At that point, anger controls our thoughts.

Denial. Denial keeps anger addicts trapped. It is the mental process by which we conclude that the addiction is not the problem-it's them. Ignorance of addiction and the inability to examine ourselves work together to keep anger addicts stuck. Knowing no other way to live, we deny that there is anything wrong with us. This system of denial ensures that the process of rage and righteous indignation will continue. It is the speck-and-log-in-the-eye confusion problem. "Take the log out of your own eye before trying to take the speck out of your neighbor's eye," Jesus admonished. Yes, we ragers are right; there may be a speck in our wife's eye, the other driver may indeed be wrong. But our focus should be on the log in our eye-that rage.

Withdrawal and Craving. As with any addiction, anger has a detoxification period. This is a very vulnerable time when addicts often feel unreal, like we have given up "who we are." Craving is high during this time. Those who abstain from name-calling, profanity and yelling during this period report more depression than usual for the first three months. Afterward, however, if we have achieved complete abstinence and maintained it for 90 days, we find we no longer think in profane or disparaging terms. It may even become shocking when we hear others do it.

Often in an anger hangover, we feel that we can probably do what it takes to live the rest of our lives without expressing anger-and without violence, verbal or physical. Typically, during the first 90 days of abstinence, ragers feel vulnerable and spend a lot of time thinking and hoping for a situation that will allow us to use violence for some heroic purpose. These heroic rescue fantasies are a symptom of our craving for anger like the heroin addict craves a fix. We are restless soldiers hoping for what Teddy Roosevelt called a "nice little war."

It may be time for us to "beat our spears into plowshares." Many of us were trained to be soldiers by our culture through physical contact sports and the military. It got into our blood and hasn't yet gotten out. It is interesting to ask ourselves when we last needed physical violence or the threat of physical violence to prevent injury to ourselves or someone else. For me, the answer is something like 45 years. All those chivalrous violent fantasies we think we need to protect us and our families from robbers and murderers need to go. In fact, our family is actually in much greater danger from us than some external threat. Constantly rehearsing break-ins and car jackings will not help us in our recovery.

Unpredictable Behavior. Another definition of alcoholism is that when an alcoholic drinks, there is no way to predict his or her behavior. He may drink appropriately from time to time, just as the rageaholic may express anger appropriately from time to time. However, when the alcoholic starts to drink alcohol, all bets are off. No one knows what is going to happen. He or she may drink appropriately or may disappear for days. When rageaholics start to express anger, no one knows where it is going to go. The most likely thing is that we are going to explode, rant and rave. How can we then relate to "the appropriate expression" of anger?

We rageaholics would like to learn how to express our anger appropriately just like alcoholics would like to learn how to drink appropriately. But can we be taught to do this? Yes, you can be taught, but when the adrenaline hits, it's an excuse to blow up. We keep arguing that we are expressing ourselves appropriately. While there are some exceptions, I encourage those with rage problems to abstain from the expression of anger for one year.

Remember, this plan is only for that small percent of the population who have rage or violence problems. (The approach described here is not for everyone.) For those addicted to anger, it won't work to express our anger. We have tried it and know it has never worked. Many of us have been to therapy for years and have worked very hard at learning to express our anger appropriately. However, we often feel frustrated and don't know why we can't learn it. In fact, we may feel relieved when we decide it is all right to give up trying to express our anger appropriately and begin to learn how to abstain from the expression of anger altogether.

Do you have an anger problem? A Self-Assessment Test

Answer true or false to the following questions. Please be honest, not a "lip-service honest," but fearlessly and searchingly honest. There is much to gain and you don't have to share the results with anyone but yourself.

Anger Self-Assessment Test

T    F   1.    I've had trouble on the job because of my temper.

T    F   2.    People say that I fly off the handle easily.

T    F   3.    I don't always show my anger, but when I do, look out.

T    F   4.    I still get angry when I think of the bad things people did to me in the past.

T    F   5.    I hate lines, and I especially hate waiting in line.

T    F   6.    I often find myself engaged in heated arguments with the people who are close to me.

T    F   7.    At times I've felt angry enough to kill.

T    F   8.    When someone says or does something that upsets me, I don't usually say anything at the time, but later I spend a lot of time thinking of cutting replies I could and should have made.

T    F   9.    I find it very hard to forgive someone who has done me wrong.

T    F   10.  I get angry with myself when I lose control of my emotions.

T    F   11.  I get aggravated when people don't behave the way they should.

T    F   12.  If I get really upset about something, I have a tendency to feel sick later (frequently experiencing weak spells, headaches, upset stomach or diarrhea).

T    F   13.  When things don't go my way, I "lose it."

T    F   14.  I am apt to take frustration so badly that I cannot put it out of my mind.

T    F   15.  I've been so angry at times I couldn't remember what I said or did.

T    F   16.  Sometimes I feel so hurt and alone that I've thought about killing myself.

T    F   17.  After arguing with someone, I despise myself.

T    F   18.  When riled, I often blurt out things I later regret saying.

T    F   19.  Some people are afraid of my bad temper.

T    F   20.  When I get angry, frustrated or hurt, I comfort myself by eating or using alcohol or other drugs.

T    F   21.  When someone hurts me, I want to get even.

T    F   22.  I've gotten so angry at times that I've become physically violent, hitting other people or breaking things.

T    F   23.  I sometimes lie awake at night thinking about the things that upset me during the day.

T    F   24.  People I've trusted have often let me down, leaving me feeling angry or betrayed.

T    F   25.  I'm an angry person. My temper has already caused lots of problems, and I need help changing it.

Scoring the Anger Self-Assessment Test. If you answered true to 10 or more of these questions, you are prone to anger problems. It's time for a change. If you answered true to 5 questions, you are about average in your angry feelings, but learning some anger management techniques can make you happier.

A Recovering Rager's Creed

1.   I will practice self-restraint as a top priority today.

2.   When angry, I will act the opposite of how I feel.

3.   If I am feeling like my anger is about to erupt, I will QUIETLY leave the situation.

4.   I will find truth in all criticisms directed toward me today, especially from my partner.

5.   I will say, "You are right," in a sincere, meaningful way when criticized.

6.   I will give an example of how the person who criticized me is right.

7.   I will repeat this silently to myself: "I am better off being wrong, because when I am right, I am dangerous."

8.   I will avoid explaining myself in any way by saying, "I have no idea why I did that... it doesn't make any sense to me either."

9.   I will listen sympathetically to my partner when she tells me about her day. I will make eye contact and turn off the TV.

10. I will give no unsolicited advice to my wife or children. I will also avoid asking, "Do you know what you should do?" or "Do you know why that happened?"

11. I will avoid blaming family members for anything today, especially if it was their fault.

12. I will avoid trying to make any family member "understand."

13. I will avoid trying to convince my child or spouse that I am being fair.

14. I will look for an opportunity to sincerely praise everyone I live with, even the cat I don't like.

15. I will humbly commit myself to removing my angry behaviors today as my contribution toward a more peaceful world.

 

From Anger Busting 101 by Newton Hightower. Copyright 2002 by Newton Hightower. Excerpted by arrangement with Bayou Publishing. $14.95. Available in local bookstores or call 800-340-2034 or click here.


 


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