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
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
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
No matter how good and nurturing the
cathartic experience was, my anger outbursts only got worse during this
"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:
"Aggression is the instinctive catharsis for anger."
Aggression is an acquired cathartic habit, a learned reaction practiced by
people who think they can get away with behaving this way.
"Talking out anger gets rid of it-or at least makes you feel less angry."
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.
"Tantrums and other childhood rages are healthy expressions of anger that
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
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.
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
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
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"
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
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
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."
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 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.
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
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
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
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
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.