Not Your Usual Anger Management Techniques

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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.

By Joseph Burgo

Joe is the author and the owner of, one of the leading online mental health resources on the internet. Be sure to connect with him on Google+ and Linkedin.


  1. Nice. With me it’s not anger as often as it is attacks of what I call “overwhelm” and my partner calls “meltdowns.” But the principle is the same. In almost every single case, it’s a result of your #1. I’m learning to head off the meltdown before I actually get to that point — the signs of one coming on are as obvious as road signs on the highway.

    1. To me, your learning to head-off meltdowns perfectly describes the kind of psychological change that’s possible. Recognizing our patterns, danger areas and defenses allows us to make better choices when they inevitably come up. It’s not that you’ll never have that experience again, but knowing yourself well, you can see it coming and choose to do something different. And I’ll bet that, every now and then, you won’t make the best choice. And that’s okay, too. Thanks, Renee.

  2. Very well said Joe! I used to work with domestic abusers who were court ordered. They were dealing with poverty, job insecurity, relationship betrayal and all sort of other stresses. I would leave my work day and thinkg “no wonder they are angry”. I think that anger management is really about self care as you state so nicely. That said, I also think that sometimes anger has a bad reputation, especially for white women. I think that anger is a healthy response to feeling violated in some way. It doesn’t matter who is doing the violating, it can be a self violation as you mention so well by overworking. As always your blog is right on. Renee

    1. I agree about the value of anger, Renee, and especially for women. Anger, like hatred and envy, is one of those socially-unacceptable feelings we’re not supposed to have, and women are supposed to have even less of it.

  3. Hello Joseph

    Thankyou for your post on the many shades of anger. What I appreciated the most about your post was the reminder that when I feel anger within myself I am not a passive participant but it is a sign that ‘I’ need to make adjustments in my life. I feel the truth in that as I am writing this and grateful for that reminder.

    I would like to add to your list of things that I find useful within myself:
    1. Remove myself from a situation to limit the damage.
    2. Physically express the anger (I find hitting golf balls helps reduce the anger)
    3. Address the source of my anger. In addition to the list you have generously provided I sometimes find this is because I need to adjust my boundaries with the other person. Not always but sometimes.

    Thankyou for your blog an continuing to share your passion with us.

  4. Dr Burgo. Have you ever become angry in session with a client. I have had this from my own therapist and feel so hated right now. I feel i caused it. I pushed at boundary’s etc. Would pushing boundaries and testing the therapist cause such anger and continued negative, personal comments. Feel desperate right now.

    1. Yes, I have felt angry in session but my job is to understand WHY I feel that way, not to express it. Sometimes, clients DO push boundaries and test me, but that’s part of the psychotherapy relationship … at least the way I work. It’s grist for the mill, something that offers insights into the way client feels and thinks. For example, I’ve had clients who have called me names, abused and insulted me, even screamed at me, and it’s often because they feel some deep shame that can’t bear, or because I (unintentionally) wounded them by something that I said. I talked about the issue of using your feelings (as a therapist) as a tool for understanding your clients in this post about countertransference.

  5. I like your suggestions on how to deal with anger. I wish I could do that when I get angry! Usually, my anger comes on quickly and gets very intense very fast. I feel like I have emotional pain running through my veins, and the only way to stop it is to hurt myself by not breathing, having a panic attack or pulling out my hair. I have tried so many times to control it or to let it go and it just doesn’t work! I’ve heard about the “feel your feelings” technique, and I’ve tried to incorporate that in when I get upset. It hasn’t really worked either, but I guess practice makes it easier.

    1. You might want to try to get in touch with your anger earlier. Just because it comes on quickly and intensely doesn’t mean it’s not there before. Take a look at the ways in which you’re denying your anger, or finding ways to avoid experiencing it … until you can’t any longer and you blow up.

      1. It actually is there before. A lot of times I cover it up by eating or getting really busy all of a sudden. I’ve realized that I’m scared of being angry, so that’s why I hold it in so much. Because when I let it out, it blows up!!! Do you have any suggestions on how to make it a little less intense?

        1. I’d say that if eating and getting busy are your defenses against feeling anger, then in order to learn to bear that anger, you need to choose — little by little, over time — not to engage those defenses but stick with the feeling instead. You can’t learn to bear the feelings if you keep going with your defenses in order to evade those feelings.

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