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Reflections on Anger

» Mental Health Library » Disorders & Conditions » Stress » Featured Article

By Peter Suski, Ph.D., MAC, CASAC

Peter Suski, Ph.D., MAC, CASAC

Any person at any moment on any given day can be found at different stages of their struggle with anger. More than any other emotion, anger is at the root of a person’s anxiety, stress, dysfunction, and general misery. Because of the invasive quality of this emotion and its impact on treatment issues, counselors must seek a clear understanding of the precipitating expectations that lead to anger, an expression of these feelings, and an acceptance that anger is a “normal” emotion.

Anger is a basic human emotion. It is frequently first manifest at birth. From the safe, warm environment of mother’s womb to a brightly lit and chillier room, surrounded by strange faces wearing masks, the first response to breathing air is typically a loud wail. This display of emotion is traceable to the most immediate needs for survival being denied (Gelinas, 1988).

Barring those cases where organic brain damage is present, anger’s causes can be summed up in two simple words: unfulfilled expectations. Why does the newborn cry? Because an unconscious expectation of continued warmth and security is violated through the birth process. Why does the seemingly happy business executive become a road warrior on the way home from work? Because the expectations that everyone drives as perfectly as he does and that everyone will respect his space on the highway have been violated.

Events do not cause feelings; it is the individual’s interpretation of the events that lead to feelings. Therefore, anger is the result of the importance and meaning placed on an event (Burns, 1999). It has meaning only in terms of the social relationship existing between the participants (Tavris, 1989). When an expectation is unmet, that becomes part of the individual’s new reality, even if the expectation may have been unrealistic or otherwise faulty (Burns, 1999).

Whenever anger is presented in therapy, the first step is for the counselor to help the client look for the expectations that were violated. Only then can efforts at resolution be successful. The problem lies in the accurate identification of anger, which often is hidden behind many masks.

Individuals bury their anger because of a great fear of losing control and becoming the “bad guy” in a given situation (Doty and Rooney, 1990). This stifling of anger, which has been learned for survival’s sake, may stem from childhood lessons that anger is a parental right, not a child’s right. Another childhood lesson could be based on parental mood wherein the child learns to “walk on eggshells.” For example, if Mary is angry because her best friend broke a secret, she may not be allowed to show her anger at home if mom or dad is in a particular mood themselves. Mary must learn to stifle her anger, just like many children in alcoholic and otherwise dysfunctional homes, When anger is repressed, people may punish themselves for being “bad.” This internalization of anger frequently leads to depression (Schaefer and Millman, 1994).

Perverted anger provides a reservoir of emotional slush that poisons one’s system and leads to all kinds of emotional infections (Rubin, 1998). When individuals pervert their anger, they are defending themselves through one of four techniques: denial, postponement, re-direction, or dilution. These are the responses counselors need to look for in helping clients identify their anger.

In the denial response, clients may make such statements as “Me? I never get angry” or “I got rid of my anger.” These individuals are so terrified of their anger that they have buried it as far down as they possibly can. When a person makes such a statement as the latter, what they probably mean is that they do not display their anger in fits of wild rage. It must be remembered that this is not the same as being devoid of anger. With addictions, the problems become more complicated when the source of relief is a drink or a line of cocaine. What the client is doing is presenting a great fear of their anger through denial of its existence. In counseling, a person in denial of anger needs to be shown that feeling angry and acting angry are entirely different.

In the postponement technique, clients may say things such as, “If so-and-so was here now I’d certainly have something to say.” In attempting to make their anger go away by putting it off for a while, this client is demonstrating an inability to deal with the anger in a rational and mature way. The eventual display of anger will typically be stifled and artificial. Counselors need to practice spontaneous and healthy responses with these clients. Group counseling sessions lend themselves well to this, since they provide an opportunity for both role-playing and a variety of ideas for healthy responses. The ultimate goal for these clients is to learn to confront their anger ion the earliest stages, before they become incapacitated by it (Gardner, 1989).

In terms of re-direction, when the source of anger is too overwhelming to be confronted directly, clients feel powerless in the face of forces more in control of the situation than they are. In reaction to the inherent loss of self-esteem, these clients will blame others for their discontent which only serves to reinforce the victimization and enable the displacement to continue (Temoshok and Dreher, 1992). Clients must be directed toward ownership of their anger and trained to identify and appropriately respond to those threatening feelings of losing control.

Clients who pervert their anger through dilution will say things such as, “How can you say I’m angry when I haven’t even raised my voice?” or “I’m not really angry, just annoyed.” This person is so concerned about flying into an uncontrollable state that they will not allow anything beyond mild annoyance to be recognized. These individuals do not know the full spectrum of the emotion and think only in terms of annoyance and rage. Counselors with such clients need to introduce them to the wide range of levels in anger.

As the stifling occurs and the perversions of response develop, the end result is an unhealthy set of expressions. These are the greatest clues available to detect someone’s repressed anger, although the connection between twisted expressions and anger is not always obvious (Rubin, 1998).

If we accept that anger is the result of unfulfilled expectations and that difficulties in identifying and appropriately expressing anger have been plaguing humanity for generations, the final question is: What do we do now? The goal is not to get rid of anger, since it is a human emotion that can be used as a barometer for our behaviors and can properly serve our conscience in our decision-making. Rather, the goal should be to accept anger as a part of the human experience and to learn ways of untwisting the emotion so our responses are healthy and positive instead of perverse and self-destructive. So, discovering which of our expectations were violated would be the first step. Was it an expectation we didn’t know existed? Was it one that others did not know existed? Was it unrealistic or unfair? Perhaps it was a well-known and reasonable expectation, but it was nonetheless violated. Once we have established whatever the case might be, the counselor needs then to assist the client toward an understanding of the expectation and perhaps toward adjustment or refining of that expectation for the future (Alberti and Emmons, 2001). If clients can be shown the means by which they create and catalogue their expectations, they can be shown how to adjust for any faulty perceptions or observations that led to their anger (Doty and Rooney, 1990).

Dr. Theodore Rubin in his classic work The Angry Book, offers some suggestions for clients who seek to change their perceptions:

  • Avoid Black-and-White Thinking: This kind of thinking has the paralyzing effect of removing all choices and therefore forces people to act according to “old tapes”;
  • Accept Feelings: Individuals must remember that feeling angry does not make a person “bad” or “unlovable” and that feeling angry does not mean one needs to act angry:
  • Express Anger with Someone Who Cares: This needs to be a person who can hear the anger without becoming offended or judgmental;
  • Remember that Anger is Temporary: Like most things in life, “This too, shall pass”;
  • Forgive and Forget: Clients need to accept what is, regardless of whether they like it or approve of it. And they need to be fair about it, so it doesn’t become ammunition to be used against someone at a later date;
  • Do Something Physical: The healthy release of energy through exercise can go a long way in helping to promote positive change.

There are many creative ways of untwisting one’s anger (e.g., music, dance, art, etc.). Relaxation exercises as a regular part of life can help by providing a sort of inoculation against anger build-up (Alberti and Emmons, 2001). Anger control training and management is another promising approach, especially when dealing with children diagnosed with a conduct disorder (McMahon and Wells, 1998).

In Step Three of the Twelve Steps, the Serenity Prayer is offered for “… all times of emotional disturbance or indecision.” Step Eleven provides a further reflection of what each of us could “… see, feel, and wish to become” in the prayer of St. Francis. Both these meditations give individuals the formula for the acceptance of reality, the courage to change and grow, and the ability to go outside of themselves. These are the very steps needed to understand and live with all emotions, especially anger.

Counselors need to remember that resolution does not necessarily mean victory and that taking action to the benefit of others may be the greatest form of resolution. In so doing, a person takes a courageous step in the direction of peace.


Alberti, Robert E. and Michael L. Emmons. (2001) Your Perfect Right: A Guide to Assertive Living. San Luis Obispo, CA: Impact Publishers.

Azar, Sandra T. and David A. Wolfe. (1998) “Child Physical Abuse and Neglect” in Treatment of Childhood Disorders, Eric J. Mash and Russell A. Barkley, eds. NY: Guilford Press.

Burns, David D. (1999) Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy Revised and Updated. NY: Avon Books.

Doty, Betty and Pat Rooney. (1990) Shake the Anger Habit. Redding, CA: The Bookery.

Gardner, Richard A. (1989) Understanding Children. Creeskill, NJ: Creative Therapeutics.

Gelinas, Paul J. (1988) Coping with Anger. NY: Rosen Publishing.

Goodsitt, Alan. (1985) “Self Psychology and the Treatment of Anorexia Nervosa” in Handbook of Psychotherapy for Anorexia Nervosa and Bulimia, David M. Garner and Paul E. Garfinkel, eds. NY: Guilford Press.

McMahon, Robert J. and Karen C. Wells. (1998) “Conduct Disorders” in Treatment of Childhood Disorders, Eric J. Mash and Russell A. Barkley, eds. NY: Guilford Press.

Richard S. (1985) Releasing Anger. Center City, MN: Hazelden.

Rubin, Theodore Isaac. (1998) The Angry Book. NY: Touchstone.

Schaefer, Charles E. and Howard L. Millman. (1994) How to Help Children with Common Problems. NY: Aronson.

Tavris, Carol. (1989) Anger: The Misunderstood Emotion. NY: Touchstone Books.

Temoshok, Lydia and Henry Dreher. (1992) The Type C Connection: The Behavioral Links to Cancer and Your Health. NY: Random House.

Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions. (2004) NY: Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc.

About the Author...

Dr. Peter Suski is mental health counselor and addictions specialist in a private independent practice in Stony Brook, NY. He holds a doctorate in counseling psychology and is certified as both a Master Addictions Counselor by the National Association of Alcohol and Drug Abuse Counselors and a Credentialed Alcohol and Substance Abuse Counselor by New York State. He is on the faculty of the Counselor Training Program at Molloy College on Long Island, is a frequent speaker for counselor training groups, and has published several papers on addictions and clinical issues in counseling.

Last Update: 9/9/2008

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