5 Ways NOT to Deal with Anger

Anger management advice is a little like dieting advice: There’s a lot of it out there; it’s frequently confusing; and much of it is rubbish. Even Anger Management for Dummies, the benchmark for simplicity, is just short of 350 pages long. Recommendations seem to contradict one another: One person tells you to punch a pillow, another to take a deep breath… One therapist says to forgive, another to stand up for yourself… I’ve offered my own, positive, contribution to the literature, in the form of a book (The Anger Fallacy), and a mandatory collection of tips (10 Tips for Reducing Anger). But this time round, rather than further clutter your mental desktop with additional tricks, tips and techniques, I’m proposing to subtract a few oldies-but-not-goodies instead.

The following are five of the most commonly prescribed anger management tips that I believe you needn’t bother with. This is the fat you can trim, the chaff, the fluff, the aromatherapy, the shiny stuff that is not gold, the sine qua si of anger management techniques.

1. “Relax”

When you’re angry, you can try relaxing if you like—it can’t hurt; but I wouldn’t bother. As I’ve argued in a former post (Feeling Angry? Relax, or Don’t), if you’re angry you’re angry, and taking slow breaths will do little if anything to change matters. You can be in a very relaxed state, soaking in a hot tub, yet simmering with resentment at your sister’s patronising suggestions about the way you should raise your child. Inversely, you can be running about in a park with your dog, heart rate through the roof, and yet perfectly relaxed and contented. Physiological arousal is part of what happens when you’re angry, but it is not what’s pulling the strings.

2. “Remind yourself that you are a good person”

You may or may not need reminding of your value as a person, whatever that means; but it will have little bearing on your anger. Current evidence points to a disconnect between self-esteem and anger. Interventions that target self-esteem have no impact on anger; and successful interventions for anger have no impact on self-esteem. Narcissists, whose self-esteem is generally all too high, respond more angrily than any other group to criticism and insults; but then individuals with borderline personality disorder, notorious for low self-esteem, are typically prone to anger outbursts too. Liking yourself a little more can be a good thing; but there’s no reason in theory why it should make you judge other people’s behaviour more favourably.

3. “Talk your grievance through with a sympathetic friend”

By all means, complain if you feel the need, but don’t expect your anger to reduce as a consequence. You’ll hear a lot of phrases like, “that prick!”, “how dare he”, “you deserve better,” “you can’t put up with that” —all of which is likely to stoke your anger not reduce it. It’s nice to hear, and validation is a soothing balm; but it only serves to reinforce your position as aggrieved victim. I know sympathetic friends mean well. They’ve got our back, they’re on our side. And sometimes, rightly or wrongly, that’s more important to us than having our views challenged. But we are none the wiser or the calmer for being told we’re always right. I would suggest that if you wish to gain perspective, talk through your grievance with a hard-headed friend, a no-nonsense friend, rather than a sympathetic one. When I complain that there’s too much ice in my drink, I’d rather my friend rolled her eyes and said, ‘first world problems, right?’ than collude in my pettiness. Often, it’s not pats on the back you need when angry; it’s a fresh and honest point of view on your situation.

4. “Hit a pillow”

Don’t hit a pillow unless your enemy is holding it—and even then you might want to hit above or below it. There’s a misguided idea going around that when you’re angry you should ‘let it out’ (in a relatively safe manner) by hitting a punching bag, breaking a plate, tearing paper into strips, or screaming into a pillow. If hitting things reduced anger, you could imagine how calm boxers and construction workers would be: they’re constantly hitting things, right? Hmm.

The thing is, venting only works if it is directed at the person you’re angry at, and only if it is effective. If your children are throwing food at the dinner table and you go quietly into your room and beat your already senseless mattress senseless, I guarantee you will not emerge feeling any differently about your children’s behaviour (though you may have successfully eclipsed your irritation by embarrassment and exhaustion). Revenge reduces anger, a little like smoking reduces cravings for cigarettes. And just as helpfully.

5. “Take responsibility for your anger”

There is a grain of wisdom to this advice. It is more useful to focus on ways you can be less angry, rather than ways others can be less annoying. But when people tell you to “take responsibility” for your anger, they often seem to be implying blame: you shouldn’t have been so angry, you could have been less angry, it’s your fault that you were angry, and it’s reprehensible that you were angry. This sounds a lot, to me, like just getting angry at angry people for being angry. And if taking responsibility for your anger means beating yourself up for it, then I’d say, just as I’ve said for the above pseudo-tips, don’t bother. You’ll still be angry, but with a second problem (shame, guilt, sadness). When a patient tells me she was angry with her husband the day before, I don’t tell her she shouldn’t have been; I say, “how interesting—tell me everything!” I don’t scold people for their emotional reactions. Anger is largely involuntary. It has a lot to do with our expectations of the world. Are we responsible for what we think is right? Are we to blame for the judgments we form? I don’t remember ‘choosing’ to judge the waitress who spoke over me as rude; I just did. And irritation followed. It’s interesting that my reaction happened. I can reflect on it, or not. But I don’t really feel responsible for it. The whole ‘responsibility’ idea—holding people accountable, blamable, for things—is part of what leads to the angry mindset in the first place. You don’t need to take responsibility for your anger, you just need to work on your anger.