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The protective side of anger

By Peter Allen April 26, 2023

a person covering their face with a yellow pillow; they are squeezing it hard like they are yelling into the pillow

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Many people would probably use the well-known phrase “anger issues” to describe themselves or someone they know. As counselors, we often find utility in addressing a client’s anger in session as part of the healing process. Anger, along with anxiety, seems to be one of the few emotions we are supposed to “manage” versus enjoy, explore or simply experience. This is probably because people have done some truly horrible things while being angry, so we possess an innate, ancestral understanding that an angry human is a potentially dangerous one. So anger is deeply connected to danger in our minds.

We also understand that people get into trouble not because they feel angry but because they behave or act in unsafe ways. Even for experienced clinicians, sitting with an angry client can be frightening. We are often inherently worried not about what clients feel when they are angry but what they will do, so we tend to focus our strategies on behaviors. After all, it is the behaviors that do the damage we can see and feel.

This focus on behavior in treatment is rational, but it may also be based in part on our collective, societal anxiety about anger, which is betrayed in the English language itself. Words such as rage, livid, fury, wrath and apoplectic are evocative and bring to mind many negative connotations. I think we can all agree that being near someone in a rage sounds scary. We pay close attention to anger because it can become a threat to us. These synonyms illustrate the different qualities and textures of anger that we can feel. To be irked is quite different than to be enraged, for example.

Anger is a special emotion not only because of all the different words we have for it but also because of how afraid we are of it. People are often so scared of their own anger that they don’t act on it. They fear what they might do. Will they lose control and say hurtful things or commit a crime? They truly don’t know. So they go to great lengths not to act. Others are stuck in cycles of overreaction and harmful behaviors, which can be a terrifying experience. And for some people, being angry is the same as feeling out of control. Thus, regaining control is often an important part in helping people to navigate their anger.

Just because anger has the potential to become dangerous behavior, however, doesn’t mean that it always will. In counseling sessions, we can begin to identify ways in which our clients’ anger is protective, and then help them navigate their anger with greater skill when it shows up.

Not all anger is bad

Understanding the connection anger has to danger is important when we are trying to help clients who are struggling with this issue. Anger can also be deeply connected to the protection of ourselves and our loved ones. Anger has been used in warfare, combat and defense since the dawn of time to give people courage, energy and motivation when they need it most — in survival situations. It has been the precursor to violence for so long that they are often intertwined in our psyches.

It has also been the precursor to numerous positive and deeply consequential social movements and changes throughout history. Anger has sparked revolutions and removed despots and tyrants from power. So how do we know if our clients are experiencing the kind of anger that hobbles them or is powering them to change something for the better? We won’t, of course, unless we are actively talking about it. It is important that we try to figure it out with them. It will be difficult for our clients to recognize or let go of anger if they feel they are in danger (real or perceived) and view anger as a form of protection.

Most of the people coming into therapy for help with anger management have likely experienced numerous negative consequences because of their anger, but some have also experienced positive outcomes. I had a client who was a middle-aged man, and he was furious at his father because he had abused him terribly as a child. His anger compelled him to stay away from his father for decades, so there could not possibly be a physical threat. He feared that if he “softened up” and let go of this anger that he might let his father back into his life. His anger formed the core of his resolve to not have any contact with his father.

In his case, the anger had served an incredibly valuable purpose: It protected him from receiving any more abuse from his father. But the following things were also true. First, he had been physically safe for many years now. He lived hundreds of miles away from his father, and he was much stronger and in better physical condition than his father. Second, he was getting tired of being angry so often.

It is challenging when we encounter people who have greatly benefited from their anger. This client’s anger was almost like a transitional object — it had brought him some comfort but now was starting to feel restrictive. For him to be able to move on, he first had to realize that he didn’t need to be angry to maintain a healthy boundary with his father. He figured out he could maintain this distance with equanimity. He hadn’t seen his father in years and didn’t plan or expect to. We used cognitive behavior therapy to help critically examine his beliefs around his anger being protective. Was he really in danger or was he safe now? This helped him realized that he was in a good position and could relax a bit.

Of course, he still felt angry at times about the past abuse, but he no longer had to constantly exist in that state. He didn’t have to achieve complete ease with everything that had happened to him; he just needed not to be consumed by his anger over it anymore.  And when he felt his anger returning, he used his own self-directed internal dialogue to calmly remind himself that he was safe.

Be curious about anger

Because there is a lot going on beneath the surface when people get angry, counselors can help clients explore these underlying reasons in session. For example, anger can stem from a long history of being abused, and that type of anger will look and feel different from the anger that comes when someone is experiencing institutionalized racism or sexism. Someone else might feel angry because their spouse is having an affair, and sometimes people feel angry without knowing why. Thus, the texture and history of one’s anger is critical to our understanding and approach to it.

Anger arises from an infinite number of situations, but we can zero in on two main conditions that often make people angry:

  • Something is happening that they think should not be happening.
  • Something is not happening that they think should be happening.

It’s also important to note that not all anger is based on our cognitions. The anger that arises in survival situations is not really based on any conscious beliefs; it is a way to access instantaneous energy for attack or defense. Our expectations are not really coming into play because there is no time for that. It is our survival system activating, just like it’s supposed to. This does help us to survive but becomes problematic when deployed too broadly.

As counselors, we need to be curious about clients’ anger. For example, a person who has anger management issues may perceive numerous threats in their environment. These threats need to be identified. Is it a person? A place? A memory? It may take some digging, but if we bear in mind that a client is keeping a huge reserve of energy and resolve ready to go whenever they think about that person or situation, then they must see the person or situation as meriting that level of response. That’s significant. They are signaling to us that their anger is necessary for something in their environment. Clients will sometimes identify threats and, in the process of identifying them, quickly realize that this particular thing is no longer a threat. Many perceived threats have been carried into adulthood from childhood, but adults are often no longer afraid of the things that scared them as a child.

Counselors can ask clients, “How do you know when you are angry?” or “What would I see in you if you were to get angry?” I often ask clients how often they get angry, how long it lasts and what patterns they have noticed with their anger. The goal is to get them to self-evaluate and search for the sensations and movements that accompany the anger. It can also be helpful to have clients rank the intensity of their anger on a scale from 1 to 10, with 1 being not angry and 10 being very angry. Counselors could ask, for example, “At what number would you say you lose control?” This exercise prompts further self-evaluation, provides a feedback mechanism and delivers an opportunity to establish a window of tolerance.

In addition, counselor must consider the diagnosis and presentation of the anger. For example, anger resulting from posttraumatic stress disorder could require a different approach than anger stemming from a relationship conflict or a social injustice.

Creating a sense of safety

I believe that the establishment of safety — real physical, emotional and spiritual safety — is the primary task of counselors working with clients who are angry. When anger is protective, we cannot expect people to remove their armor if the arrows are still flying. People are often living in chronically unsafe situations, and they do not always feel safe enough to let go of their protective anger. It is important to note that we cannot always help clients achieve full safety in their homes or work; people live in an endless variety of complicated situations, most of which are beyond our reach in the hour we get with the client each week.

So what kind of safety can we reliably provide? We can certainly ensure the safety of the therapeutic space itself, in both the physical and virtual spaces in which we meet with them. The therapeutic alliance also plays a central role in creating a sense of safety. If we can achieve even an hour of physical, emotional and spiritual safety, then we have done a great service in helping clients work on the anger issue. It’s difficult to feel angry when we feel safe, and this calm state also makes it easier to access underlying factors of the anger.

I am a huge proponent of facilitating calming and relaxation exercises for clients struggling with anger. I use these exercises in nearly every session, including the initial ones. Early on, I like to incorporate deep breathing or box breathing, mindfulness and/or meditation, depending on the client. The goal is to try to reduce the intensity of the anger, and clients often respond well to repeated, focused attempts to calm themselves down. Focused breathing gives us an immediate and familiar task that not only provides our bodies with plenty of oxygen but also helps stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system, which reduces anxiety and slows our heart rate. As the mind and the body start to calm down, and our attention is diverted from our thoughts to our direct sensory experience, our awareness rises. Tuning into our senses is our best shot at perceiving and responding to our actual reality, at least what we perceive as a reality. This is a great position from which to assess and make good decisions.

Counselors cannot control the external factors in the clients’ lives, but we can demonstrate to them that with practice, they can gain control of their responses. Since anger is often about protecting oneself or about summoning a great amount of energy and determination all at once, we want them to have a distinct feeling of what it is to be calm and relaxed as a counterbalance to that anger. Some clients are not used to feeling this sense of calm or they do not experience it often, so it can be helpful to have them practice entering this calm state during session. Counselors can help them become familiar with what their resting heart and breathing rates feel like. The more time clients spend in that safe, calm state, the easier it will be for them to return to it when they feel themselves becoming angry. This knowledge allows them to be proactive in their response to those changes.

Regaining control

Counselors should encourage clients to express their anger in safe and healthy ways within the therapeutic space. Learning about what makes them angry provides counselors with an opportunity to normalize and validate it. Counselors can also teach clients alternative ways to express their anger without the typical behavior of yelling or hitting, for instance. Counseling provides them with a space to talk about their anger and give voice to their experience. They get to feel the anger but this time without any negative consequences or judgment.

Some clients feel relief simply by expressing their anger. Allowing clients to explore their anger in this way helps them gradually untangle it from danger or their past experiences a little bit more. Counselors can also help clients discern when there is an active threat that warrants anger. This can help them realize that being angry at common annoyances, such as when someone cuts them off in traffic or when a co-worker doesn’t return their email, may not be worth it. There is no strategic or adaptive advantage to becoming angered by those situations. In fact, there is a decisive disadvantage because for many people, anger reduces functioning in daily life.

People who are overwhelmed by their own anger often experience unintended negative consequences in their relationships and careers. They know better than most that there is a heavy burden and cost associated with this anger.

It is also important for counselors to help clients understand that anger itself is not a bad thing and there are safe, nonharmful ways to express their anger. Feeling freer to explore their anger enables them to safely address it more often in their lives, which results in fewer negative consequences. Eventually, this feedback loop creates its own momentum. They will want to practice the calming skills the more they see the tangible benefits of the methods. This means counselors can’t let them slack off in this regard. Probably the time I am most directive in session is when I am trying to get clients with anger management issues to practice mindfulness and relaxation exercises. I usually tell them that if they are resistant to taking three deep breaths a few times throughout the day, then they owe themselves five. When a client is resistant to doing even basic anger management work, even though they have come in for that, I become more interested in the secondary gains they get from being angry, which can be difficult to identify but they will be there.

Clients also benefit from functional alternatives to being overwhelmed by anger. Now instead of “flying into a rage,” the client is beginning to take some deep breaths, listening to their own heartbeat, assessing the level and intensity of their anger, reviewing their own expectations and beliefs about the encounter, and determining if it’s a threat in the present moment or if they are responding to something from the past. These techniques help slow them down, engage their prefrontal cortex, and give them something positive and constructive to focus on instead of simply allowing them to be flooded and overwhelmed by their anger.

Mastering the moment

When we believe that we or others are being wronged in small or large ways, our anger can be incredibly effective at giving us the energy to make a change. A client who is angry about a social justice issue may not need to “manage” the anger as much as channel it. Understanding the context of the anger as clients see it will greatly inform counselors’ course of action in session.

And we can also decide how upset we want to be when our friends, families, and co-workers offend or anger us. We can use the energy to do whatever is necessary, which may include reasserting boundaries. We can also choose sometimes to let it go because we know that we have wronged people as well and we all make mistakes. That is a learned skill — one that requires empathy and a desire to understand another person’s context before rushing to judgment. We don’t have to be swept away by the other myriad interpersonal situations we encounter that can cause our anger to arise.

Sometimes helping clients regain control of their anger boils down to helping them master a small but very difficult moment. Some of our worst impulses in moments of anger last for mere seconds before they pass. To act on them may be to court calamity, and so to not act on them is a very great power. There are lots of people who will have a much higher quality of life if we help them pause and process the situation before determining if and how they want to respond to their feelings of anger. For this reason, mindfulness and emotional regulation techniques from dialectical behavior therapy can be effective because they lend themselves quite naturally to this specific endeavor.

Cognitive behavior therapy has also been known to be effective in helping clients manage their anger. So much of anger starts as a cognitive process. If someone is driving and another person cuts them off, for instance, they have two choices: Get angry and yell, “Hey, that jerk cut me off!” or shrug and say, “He must be in a hurry.” These two ways of processing this situation are diametrically opposed. In the first instance, the person may become enraged and behave impulsively. In the second, this event is just an ordinary occurrence that is hardly worth mentioning.

Our self-talk makes an astonishing difference. And when the client’s defenses are down even a little, we can help them examine their thoughts and make changes where appropriate. We help them choose the self-talk that gets them the desired emotional and behavioral result they are seeking. Cognitive behavior therapy also allows the counselor and client to work backward and consider what the client needs to think or do to stay calm in situations that make them angry. In the previous example, the counselor could ask the client, “If you were to feel calm when someone cuts you off in traffic, what would you need to be thinking?

Most of the cognitive work has to come after the establishment of safety. Clients need to have a clear road map of the place they are trying to get to. They will still get angry and sometimes do impulsive things that create unpleasant consequences for themselves and others, but we can compassionately help them deconstruct the event and its precipitating factors and gently remind them there are other healthy options for expressing anger.

When safety is present, the client’s protective armor of anger can be removed. With the armor gone, we as clinicians may see the injury more clearly, and in turn, the client will be free to walk through the world less encumbered.

 


Peter Allen is a practicing therapist in Richmond, Virginia. Contact him at peterallenlpc@gmail.com.

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15 Comments

  1. Thomas Brown

    There is a bit if good information in this article, but I say that in relation to the social habit of demonizing the feeling and sensation of anger. But this is an overly simplistic article full of the misunderstandings of the field of psychology and psychiatry in general. Anger is a powerfully healing sensation/feeling when it is not confused by recommendations like those proffered in this article (deep breathing and mindfulness-type ‘approaches’). Anger must be felt. It is the counselor’s work to help remove obstacles to feeling that emotion, and to provide a safe space for that work to happen. Helping the man who was brutalized by his father would mean not making up superficial and mostly false explanations about how that anger has made him feel safe by facilitating a safe distance. Instead, help would look like supporting the client, through feeling his rage, learn how violent his father was, how dangerous and life-threatening he was, so that that level of danger and utter absence of safety can be healed. That level of terror will always be carried with one until it is felt, no matter how far away the target of violence travels. Feeling the pure sensation of anger leads to feeling safe. It is not the therapist’s job to add further misunderstandings and manipulations to this righteous feeling/sensation.

    Reply
    1. Peter Allen

      Thomas, thank you for reading the article. Perhaps I was unclear, but this client had no trouble feeling his anger whatsoever. He was actually feeling it way too much, and it was beginning to interfere with his life. Our work was about helping him move through it, instead of staying stuck in it. This was his stated desire. Also, your comment about “superficial and mostly false explanations” confused me, because this explanation came from the client himself, not from me. I do not believe his story was any more or less “made up“ than any other story we tell ourselves about ourselves. In his case, his anger had been adaptive in his younger years (it kept him distant and therefore safe), and had become maladaptive in his middle age (it was interfering with what he wanted for himself). I hope this helps to clarify. He drove that process way more than I did. Thank you for reading, and thank you for your comments.

  2. Monique Gufgey, LPC

    Really loved Peter Allen’s article that includes practical steps to owning and being curious about our anger to facilitate a different response. Most clients come in with the notion that “there is something wrong with me”. Here the author posts there is something right about you when you lean into the thoughts and feelings, connect the dots to their origins and take meaningful action steps to influence change.

    Reply
  3. PJ

    Excellent information that is very helpful for working on anger. Thank you and I hope to read more articles by this therapist/author.

    Reply
  4. Monique Guffey

    I could not disagree with Thomas Brown (comment above) more. Our influence as therapist is to bring about awareness to obstacles not “remove them” per se. Linehan’s (DBT) modules of emotional regulation, distress tolerance, mindfulness and interpersonal effectiveness skills help facilitate this in exponential and self-empowering ways. There is a growing acceptance DBT is one of the better therapies for facilitating clinically significant outcomes in the treatment of anger management and myriad other disorders. Mindfulness programs are even gaining momentum in medical school curriculums. These techniques you discount, Thomas, assist the client to not only tap into, feel and process their own feelings (you posit as so important) but help to build compassion around the memory itself. With these tools, the client now has an arsenal of internal human resources stunningly designed for self healing and control to call upon in the moment when those emotions inevitably rise again and we are not there to provide that safe space and direction. Relief is ultimately an inside job.

    Reply
  5. Dottie Higgins Klein

    I found myself appreciating your article, Peter, for addressing the topic of anger that I find is having an identity crisis since mindfulness has taken a focus in our culture. I realize that your article addresses people who come to therapy seeking anger management skills.
    I am particularly concerned about normal healthy feelings and expressions of anger in parents raising children. Perhaps your insight that the fear of loss of control holds people back from expression of anger, may be impacting healthy anger in the normal events of everyday life with children.
    You say that not all anger is bad. You also say, “that people get into trouble not because they feel angry but because they behave or act in unsafe ways.” I think of our human emotions including anger as healthy and that it is our actions around anger that can be healthy or unhealthy. You say, “It has also been the precursor to numerous positive and deeply consequential social movements and changes throughout history.” Yes, the feelings can lead to valuable actions. It is important to sort out the feelings of anger from the behaviors.
    I appreciate and use a lot of the examples that you give for encouraging healthy expression of anger: Breath awareness, calming and relaxation exercises, noting intensity #1-10 etc.
    I also agree with Thomas Brown’s comment above that deeper therapy would include helping the client to feel the anger and terror in the safety of the therapy relationship as essential to healing. I greatly appreciate the work of Allan Schore on the topic of Affect Dysregulation. He directly encouraged therapists to go beyond a cognitive behavioral approach. Also, what family therapy work could the man who was cut off from his father do – whether his father is dead or alive? Contextual Family Therapy (Ivan Boszofmenyi-Nagy) offers options of profound healing of past trauma. Many find it valuable to use multiple approaches.
    Finally, my own concern is that there are numerous books written today about mindfulness in parenting, conscious parenting, books expecting children to not have tantrums etc. They offer a lot of very valuable ideas for raising healthy children, but, interestingly most of these books do not use the word anger or help parents to model using healthy anger with their children. Parents are encouraged to use all kinds of behaviors that avoid anger. Common examples include distracting, overdoing rewards, more logic when logic isn’t working, and saying “ I am upset”. (which is not the same as saying, “I am frustrated”, I am angry at an 8” -of 10, I am angry like a boulder) A common request for therapy that I get is children who are out of control hitting, kicking, and calling names to their parents and siblings, saying “I don’t have to listen to you”, and sometimes it spills into the school behavior. Note that I am referring to very conscientious parents who come to me because the word Mindfulness is in the title of my book. However, the “cure”, after reflecting the child’s concerns, is for parents to begin to model healthy anger on the normal frustrations of everyday living with children. The children then gain the skills because the parent demonstrates how to express healthy anger. “ I am frustrated like a pebble” “I am angry like a rock. I am angry like a boulder” as they put their arms to form a boulder. When parents communicate this way firmly, as needed, children learn the skill of expressing healthy anger. When parents are not modeling this, children use more primitive expressions. Children need to feel that the parent who loves them can also be angry and still love them. I recommend The Angry Book by Rubin. It is a small, old book and a jewel for adults and includes somatic awareness. Thank you, Peter for shining well needed attention to topic of anger! Appreciatively, Dottie Higgins Klein

    Reply
    1. Peter Allen

      Hello Dottie – thank you for this thoughtful and well articulated reply. I agree with the vast majority of what you have stated here. The one thing I would say is in response is similar to how I just replied to Thomas, which is that my sense was that the client was feeling his anger way too much, and it was really interfering with his life. He did not have any trouble feeling it, or accessing it. If anything, it was intruding into his life repeatedly. Perhaps I was unclear in my writing, but no part of our work was about suppressing or ignoring that anger in any way. The focus of the work was about honoring it, acknowledging it, and moving through it. Thank you so much for your thought-provoking reply and wisdom!

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