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Because chemical imbalance and cognitive-behavioral theories dominate my profession, any approach that addresses unconscious sources of anger receives virtually no attention. For example, I was reviewing this brochure about anger management techniques on the official website of the American Psychological Association; it repeats the familiar CBT methods for defusing anger or learning appropriate ways to express it, but says nothing about the kind of anger that might be numbered among the defense mechanisms– that is, anger whose role is to ward off some other, more threatening experience.
In an early post about disintegration anxiety, I described a client who would become enraged whenever she felt in danger of falling apart. She described herself as a drowning kitten: on an unconscious level, whenever she felt overwhelmed by her emotions, in danger of disintegrating under their pressure — quite literally, on a felt physical level — she often became explosively angry, lashing out and “clawing” at her partner in a way that held her together psychically. This is an extreme version of a process that many of us go through, where anger is secondary, a way of escaping some other emotion.
I’ve seen this process in many of my clients, but the freshest example comes from my own experience. Late last year, I wrote a post about panic attacks and my anxiety in coping with intense financial pressure. Since then, worries about my investments have slowly abated, but I’ve been working too hard — pushing myself to do too much in too many directions. I get up very early to practice piano because it’s the only time I can find to do what matters so very much to me. In addition to my practice, I’ve been developing and promoting this website since last summer, and struggling to keep up with the Movies and Mental Health blog. Now I’m writing a book under a deadline. I’m not complaining: I love doing all these things. But occasionally over this year, I’ve felt deeply weary and emotionally thin.
I’ve also been more grouchy and irritable than usual. I try very hard to keep this to myself, but occasionally, I’ve been snappish about something minor that normally wouldn’t have bothered me. More often than is usual for me, I’ve become quite angry this past year about little things other people have done — nothing deliberately hurtful or malicious on their part but more in the realm of insensitive behavior, the kind of casual slights we all have to deal with. You might say I’ve been overreacting. Mostly, I’ve managed to keep these overreactions to myself, but on a couple of occasions, I’ve spoken out and regretted it.
To me, the part of my anger that is an overreaction stems from my fatigue, my emotional thinness and my failure to take better care of myself. As a therapist, and also for my own unhealthy reasons, I tend to focus a lot on what other people need, often neglecting my own needs in the process. (I suspect that many therapists have a similar dynamic.) I also have some grandiose expectations of myself — after all, there’s that Carnegie Hall gig awaiting me, and I’d better practice as much as I can if I’m going to get there. While I’m not conscious of any disintegration anxiety, my run-down emotional state has depleted my usual coping skills and made me feel more vulnerable; looking back, I think my anger this past year has had a kind of “hardening” effect. I think you’ll know what I mean when I say that anger can make you feel strong, even powerful, when you might be feeling too thin, scared or vulnerable to bear.
In the past two weeks, as I’ve finally emerged on the other side of my long investment crisis, achieved a major life goal by selling my book, and made some other changes in commitments and relationships that were draining me, I’ve noticed that I’m not so grouchy, and much less prone to anger. I feel much more able to “roll with the punches” than I have for a while now. I’m trying hard to take rest when I need it, sleep more and give myself time off from work; as a result, I’m feeling happier and more content with my life than I have in years.
So here are my personal anger management techniques for you to consider: 1. If you’re angry and overreacting, take a look at your work load and social commitments; maybe there’s a weary part of you that needs a rest and a good cry. 2. If you feel grouchy and like pointing the finger because someone was insensitive, maybe you’re actually the responsible party and you need to take better care of yourself. 3. If you’re raging in your thoughts, make use of all those good mindfulness techniques to quiet them; but in the silence, look around for the part of you that’s scared and feeling way too vulnerable.