You have had a few bad arguments…and those arguments went too far. On occasion, you have gotten yourself too worked up. Perhaps you have said and done things you regret. That’s probably true of most of us. But looking forward, are you at risk of anger management problems in relationships?
Red Flags For Anger Management Problems in Relationships
In 1998 I began working to help women and men learn key anger management skills. In my anger management counseling practice, I’ve worked with couples, individuals, and I have taught mindfulness based anger skills groups. Over the years, I have had literally thousands of male and female participants.
During that time, I have identified some common patterns. These patterns are indicators of current and future anger management problems in relationships. They describe habitual ways of thinking that tend to keep people stuck in what I call “relapse mode”.
What do I mean by that? Well, over 20 years ago, I worked in a substance abuse treatment program. I saw that there were predictable ways of thinking and acting that were red flags. I call them red flags because they are such good barometers for when a patient was at risk of using.
Similarly, there are anger management red flags that tell me when a patient is at risk for anger management problems in relationships.
Anger Management Relationship Red Flag # 1
Denial. This is word that is bandied about so frequently in our society, that it’s almost meaningless. Usually it’s hurled at someone as an attack. But the word does mean something. It describes a way of thinking and perceiving that truly handicaps us.
What is denial? Here is how I describe it. Denial is the lack of ability to perceive that there is a problem. It’s the refusal, or the inability to acknowledge that there is a problem- despite how much evidence the person is given. Denial serves to help us avoid facing uncomfortable realities about ourselves, relationships and the world.
Denial’s operating capacity is stunning. Over the years, I have literally received thousands of inquiries in my counseling practice that are examples of denial. Usually it goes something like this; a person calls to set up an appointment. When I talk with him or her on the phone, they tell me that they want to schedule an initial consultation with me for anger management counseling.
They describe high frequency, high intensity and high cost angry incidents with their loved one.
Then despite having described a crystal clear pattern of anger management problems in their relationships, they go on to tell me they don’t have a problem with anger. It’s just that someone else thinks they do. Doesn’t this sound just like the standard person with a drug addiction or alcohol dependence?
Anger Management Relationship Red Flag # 2
But the next red flag is an important one too. Let’s say that you are clear that you have a problem with anger management in relationships. What is the next biggest obstacle you are likely to face? It’s blame.
Over the last 20 years I’ve seen thousand of women and men break free of their anger management problems in relationships. But sadly, I’ve also seen a lot fail. There is one trait that those who fail have in common; their blaming.
Blame is a deeply engrained habit for many people. The world seems almost saturated in blame. But what exactly is blame? Blaming is a way of deflecting and shifting the focus. The blame saturated story is one that focuses exclusively on others and overlooks you. It’s also an expression of our deeply held, and often inaccurate beliefs about power and responsibility. When you blame someone else you are saying. “The problem is not that I have a weak ability to manage reactions. It’s not that I don’t know how to cope. The problem has nothing to do with me.You are the problem”. Blame is the belief that something outside of yourself can cause you to think, feel and behave a certain way…like you are a non entity; a passive, programmed robot.
If you are prone to having an anger problem in relationships, you are likely what I call “a black belt blamer”.
And remember, we can find blame anywhere. Over the years, I’ve been impressed by how many people have told me their anger is caused by their ethnicity, their gender, their genetics, their “chemical imbalance”, and even the weather.
And here is the important take away. I have worked with literally thousands of women and men around anger problems in relationships. Those who succeed in breaking their anger habit have one thing in common; they are ruthless in deactivating their own tendency to blame. They put the focus on themselves and hold themselves responsible.
Likewise, the opposite is true. The women and men who do not break their anger habit continue to indulge blame.
Anger Management Problems in Relationships Red Flag #3
Moving forward, where is the next most common place that women and men get derailed? People who have what I call “an anger habit” stymie themselves in very predictable ways. We call something a habit when it is automatic and repetitive; when it doesn’t feel like a conscious choice. People who have anger management problems in relationships tend to minimize their anger.
They minimize their anger in 3 different ways. First, they minimize the impact. They tell themselves that there is no cost, or a very low cost, to their anger. Then, they downplay the hurt and fear they inflict on their loved ones. Additionally, they overlook the stress and anxiety they cause.
Next, they minimize the frequency of their anger. Because they tend to over- normalize anger, they tell themselves that they are angry much less often then they are. Over the years, many clients have expressed their shock at discovering how much they distorted their anger frequency. Again, this is very similar to how a drug user may think they have an occasional join, when in actuality they are doing a daily wake and bake.
In my groups for clients with anger management problems in relationships, I tell a story about how when I was 17 years old, for one month, I wrote down every penny of I spent. At the end of the month, I was genuinely shocked to see that I had spent 130.00 on soda. My spending habits changed forever when I multiplied that number by 12. Let’s not even talk about compound interest and how much money that would be now!
Finally, people with anger management problems in their relationships minimize the intensity of their anger. In my work with clients we begin a process of studying their anger and rating it’s intensity. Universally, every anger management client remarks on this process. After doing it for several months, they typically say something like “I used to think I was a level 3 on a scale of 1 to 10. But now I realize I’m never at a 3” . These clients usually have a life long habit of minimizing the arousal level in their sympathetic nervous system. Sadly, these are usually folks who grew up in what I call “high threat households”.
In their childhood homes, mom and/or dad was highly anxious, angry, or frightening in some way.
In a home like that, minimizing the distress you feel is a useful habit to have. There are number of physiological reasons for this, but I won’t go into them now.
So how can you tell if you are relying on the habit of minimization? There are two main clues you should be on the look out for. These clues can show up as actual words you say, or thoughts you think silently. The first clue is your tendency to use phrases like “I just________” or “I only_______”. Over the years, I’ve heard many women and men fill in those blanks with words like the following:
“I only yelled”
“You just slammed the door, you didn’t break it”
“I just lost my cool”
Anger Management Problems in Relationships Red Flag #4
It’s a common thing to justify your anger. Almost everyone does it. But the more you justify your anger, the more angry you will be. It’s a pretty good sign that you have a difficulty with chronic anger if you justify or rationalize your anger. What does it sound like if you do that? You have the feeling of anger and then you instantly follow the feeling with a thought like “It’s o.k.because______”.
Anger Management Problems in Relationships Red Flag #5
What happened the last time you were really, really steamed up about something? Did you keep it to yourself? Or did you turn to your friend and vent to them? If so, I would bet that the friend you turned to was not someone who held you accountable with your anger. What’s likely is you turned to the person who you knew would take your side. You reached out to the person who would tell you that you are right- and the other person is a jerk who deserves your anger.
This I call collusion. We reach out to those who are going to turn a blind eye to our anger. And if you have a tendency to have anger management problems in relationships, it’s very likely that you someone who colludes with you. That person might be well intentioned. But you are using them to keep your anger habit alive and well. Beware, that person who colludes with you might be a therapist who unknowingly reinforces your identity as a victim.
Sometimes it’s difficult to see how collusion can be a problem. Collusion sneaks into relationships. So I would like share an example that I often share in my anger management and relationship problems groups and workshops.
Over 20 years ago, I worked with a client I will refer to as Ed. (Not his real name). Ed tried very hard to get his drinking under control and he worked diligently with me in an outpatient substance abuse treatment program. His devotion to recovery was strong and we met twice per week for over 6 months. But despite his high motivation, he just kept relapsing. Finally, he gathered his courage and decided to enroll in a 30 day inpatient program.
After he made his decision we met for a session. I asked him if he had told his boss and made arrangement to leave on temporary disability. He then told me something shocking, but all too common. “I told my boss and he was very supportive. In fact, he closed the company and made and announcement that we were going to shut down the company for the rest of the afternoon and head to a bar.The company picked up the tab for everyone and gave me a great sendoff.”
Imagine taking your employee to a bar to celebrate his upcoming trip to rehab! That is the power of collusion to undermine growth and transformation. It might be a bit harder to see how collusion could be a problem if you have anger management problems in relationships, but hopefully this example will get you thinking.
Anger Management Problems in Relationships Red Flag #6
Sometimes, we try to make a change and don’t progress in a straight line. In fact, that is usually the case. Sometimes we improve a little and then slip backwards. This is where we can give up and give in to hopelessness. Many times in my anger skills groups and workshops, clients would be overtaken by their hopelessness. After making some initial progress with their anger, they would relapse. Then a certain number of people would give up. “See I can’t change. Therapy doesn’t work. It’s just the way I am. There is no point in trying”.
Don’t let a feeling of hopelessness come between you and your goal.
Anger Management Problems in Relationships Red Flag #7
How long do you think it should take for you to break your anger habit? If you have had anger problems in relationships for years or decades, it’s probably going require some time and effort to change.
Over the years some people that I met with were too impatient to do the work that change requires. They thought they should be able to transform in a few weeks. Often they said that they were looking for “a few little tips and tricks”.Their lack of patience prevented them from doing foundational work on themselves and their anger. Some of these people would make sporadic attempts at getting their anger under control, only to quickly become distracted and move on to something else. Impatience got in their way.
Anger Management Problems in Relationships Red Flag #8
Finally, there was one more red flag that I saw when a woman or man was in anger relapse mode; they gave in to their desire for punishment and revenge. They took delight in making someone else feel bad. Sometimes they would view their role as one of “the enforcer of rules” and would become focused on getting even.
So if you are a person who tends to have anger problems in relationships, beware your desire to punish other people. Beware your tendency to make a goal of making other people suffer. One way to do this to begin to reflect on who you would like to be. Question yourself; do you want to be a force for good? Do you want to add to peoples lives? Or do you just want to add to the amount of human suffering?
Remember, setting limits is not the same thing as punishing. Instituting consequences does not mean punishing. You can surrender your goal of punishing without becoming a doormat. Refusing to punish someone does not mean you condone their behavior. It does mean that you wish them well, even if you feel angry.
To learn more about my work with anger management, please visit this page