A while back, Adam Sandler starred in a movie called Anger Management. Sandler’s movie character is neither an abuser nor your typical person with an “anger management” problem. Rather, he’s one of those folks who bottles up his emotions, most especially his anger, and this causes him trouble in his relationships. He lets his boss abuse and exploit him, and in his insecurity and unsureness about how to handle himself in most situations, he’s been been waffling on making a commitment to his girlfriend. His girlfriend concocts a scheme to get him into therapy with an unconventional therapist who operates an equally unconventional anger management program. The therapist then arranges for his patient to encounter increasingly provocative and outrageous situations to the point that he can no longer restrain his pent-up anger. Once the anger he’s been suppressing comes to the surface, he is forced to take more ownership of it and gain better control over it. While some aspects of Sandler’s movie have merit, there are some misconceptions it inadvertently promotes both about the nature of most abusers and the kind of intervention they need.
Anger is perhaps our most misunderstood emotion. It’s often characterized as a bad thing, pure and simple. But it’s really one of our most basic responses and it’s been with us for eons for some important reasons. Our brains are designed in such a way that a perceived external threat can evoke either fear or anger in us and thus prepare us to “fight” or “flee.” And there are some very specific physiological processes that both precede and accompany these primal responses, all of which serve to help ensure our safety. Fear is nature’s way of mobilizing us to avoid something dangerous, and anger is one of nature’s ways of propelling us into taking assertive action to remove a genuine threat to our welfare. Both anger and fear can be problems in themselves when they’re experienced too intensely, occur too frequently, or represent an over-reaction to a given situation. Most of the time, however, neither fear nor anger are a problem in themselves. Rather, problems usually arise as a result of what a person does when they’re fearful or angry. This is especially true when it comes to abusive behavior, which is why when an abuser is referred to some kind of domestic violence, anger management, or similar program, some very important caveats need to be observed.
Most anger management programs are based on cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) principles that have been fairly well established. They are structured on the premise that how we perceive events and think about things heavily influence both the way we feel and also how we respond. Most programs focus heavily on the cognitive component, challenging participants to take a serious look at and change the ways they typically interpret events in their lives. For example, if I hold the view that someone did something deliberately to insult me, I’m likely to respond in a much different manner than I would if I believed the person did something to which I took offense was done without malevolent intent. How we think about and interpret events makes a big difference in how we handle our conflicts. And programs that employ CBT principles have a good chance of doing some good. They at least have a better chance than those programs that operate from the traditional misguided perspective that abusers are wounded, love-hungry, insecure, self-esteem-deficient individuals, out of touch with their feelings, lacking in communication skills, and who simply know no other way to cope (Such programs often do much more harm than good!). But even some of the better CBT-based programs have some disturbing weaknesses. That’s partly because they often focus too heavily on the person’s thinking patterns and attitudes and not directly or intensely enough on their typical behavior patterns. It’s also because the prevailing but erroneous perspective guiding their structure is that anger is always the main precipitant of aggressive behavior.
Having worked for years with hundreds of individuals whose uncontrolled anger and maladaptive aggression created huge problems for them and others, I came to realize that there is another side to the well-established notion that anger precipitates aggression. And I quickly became convinced how important it is to take into account this other side of things if abusive and other types of destructive interpersonal behavior is to be stemmed. My book In Sheep’s Clothing was among the first to point out that some aggression is not prompted by anger at all but rather by pure desire (For more on this see the explanations of predatory aggression on pages 80-82 of In Sheep’s Clothing, pages 98-101 of Character Disturbance, and the article Understanding Predatory Aggressors, which has a link to an excerpt from one of my webinar presentations on the subject). My book was also the first to point out that the various aggressive personalities are frequently already in the aggressive mode of functioning long before they ever become angry. In other words, not only does anger not always precipitate aggression but it’s also sometimes actually preceded by aggressive behavior.
As I point out in Character Disturbance, sometimes aggressive, abusive personalities can also brandish anger quite fiercely even when they’re not really angry. Rather, they display rage as more of a tactic to intimidate others into acceding to their demands. Such a situation can become even more dangerous when they’re indeed also genuinely angry and want to scare the living daylights out of the person standing in the way of something they want.
Many abusers, especially the aggressive personalities, don’t respond all that well to typical anger management interventions. The biggest reason for this is that it’s not their anger they really need to learn to manage most. What they mostly need to change is their overly aggressive style of dealing with life. Programs that employ “aggression replacement training” (ART) in addition to or in lieu of “anger management” recognize this. ART programs were initially fashioned for and tailored to the adolescent population, but they are rarely used with adults. I’ve found, however, that focusing on the aggressive personality’s typical aggressive modus operandi is absolutely essential to prompting any meaningful changes in them. And it’s especially important to focus on the less serious instances in which their aggressive M.O. is on display. As I mention in my books, aggressive personalities are like locomotives with defective brakes descending a steep mountain slope. If you’re ever going to stop it, the effort has to be made when the train first starts to roll. To attempt to intervene when it’s already gained momentum or running full steam is simply an invitation to be run over. So, interventions that have the best chance of doing some good focus on arresting aggressive interpersonal behavior in all the little instances and relatively innocuous circumstances in which it’s displayed, even when only a minor degree of aggression is evident, then recognizing and rewarding more adaptive behavior. An example would be challenging an abuse group participant’s earliest beginnings of a verbal tirade, inviting the person to quickly put on the breaks, take a step back, reformulate their words, and then reinforcing them for being willing to modify their behavior. In the process, they learn not only to communicate without verbal aggression but also without giving anger a chance to rise.
In early September, Character Matters will feature an interview I did with a genuine champion of abuse victims, and one of the things we’ll talk about is how traditional perspectives have often inadvertently “enabled” abusive behavior to go uncorrected. Also, this coming Sunday at 7 pm Eastern time, I’ll be discussing the tragic losses of the past week and talking about some important aspects of these events the popular media appear reluctant to address.