METHODS FOR HANDLING OUR OWN AGGRESSION/ANGER

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Level II: Methods for reducing or controlling anger

 Use stress-inoculation. The cognitive-behavioral therapists have developed an elaborate method, called stress-inoculation, for coping with anger. It involves self-awareness of the irrational ideas we tell ourselves which increase anger, learning better self-statements to encourage and guide ourselves, and rehearsing over and over how to be more calm and controlled in specific situations. See method #7 in chapter 12 for details. This is probably the best researched method, showing this technique allays anger but does not increase assertiveness.

 Use desensitization. This method was originally designed to break the connection between non-dangerous situations and fear. But presumably the method would work just as well to disconnect anger from overly frustrating situations. Usually there are specific people, behaviors, or situations that prompt your aggression. These could be used in a hierarchy for desensitization; indeed, that is essentially what is happening in the rehearsal stage of the last method, stress-inoculation. A recently married woman was extremely resentful and jealous when her handsome husband talked with any other woman, even if she knew they had some business to discuss. By using desensitization, she was able to reduce these resentments and fears. (Yes, you're right, if you are wondering if her self-confidence or his fidelity might not also be problems.) See method #6 in chapter 12.

 Evaluations of desensitization have only found moderate effectiveness with anger (Warren & McLellarn, 1982). It has not worked with some people with violent tempers. Leventhal (1984) speculates that physiological arousal (which is what desensitization reduces) is not a critical part of becoming angry (e.g. people who are almost totally paralyzed get mad). Emotions are partly mental. Relaxation may not counter anger as well as it does fear. Still it has some effect.

 Consider frustration tolerance training. Just as one can learn to avoid hot fudge sundaes, one can learn to control his/her fists and tongue and even gut responses to some extent. The procedure is to expose yourself to the irritation over and over until you can handle it. This can be done in fantasy (basically desensitization) or in role-play (a friend could play your pushy boss or critical father) or in reality (the jealous woman above seeks out the experience rather than trying to stop it--which becomes paradoxical intention--see method #12 in chapter 11).

 Meditation and relaxation. Meditation or yoga and relaxation can be used to allay anger as well as anxiety (Carrington, 1977). Suinn (1990) and his students developed a training procedure involving the arousal of anxiety or anger (by imagining an irritating scene) and then practicing avoiding or reducing the anger response by relaxing. This procedure--relaxing, arousal of anger, attention to anger signs, replacing anger with relaxation--is repeated over and over for 4 to 8 sessions. The advantage of this procedure is that the relaxation techniques, such as a pleasant scene, deep muscle relaxation, or deep breathing, can be immediately used anytime unwanted anger occurs. This is similar to method #10. Also see chapter 12 and #11 above.

 Use catharsis. Privately vent your feelings, get them off your chest. There are three skills involved: (a) realizing your feelings, (b) learning to express feelings, and (c) learning to drain or discharge your feelings. Some of the hotly debated pros and cons about this method have already been reviewed under "Frustration and Aggression" above. The pro-catharsis side is made up of dynamic and psychoanalytic therapists and popular folklore (Lincoln recommended writing down your feelings, then tearing up the paper). The anti-catharsis side is made up of personality researchers who believe that venting anger is just one more trial of learning to be aggressive. Certainly, one has to be on guard against this happening. Recall that under "Internal Dynamics" we discussed that one way for anger to build was via anger-generating fantasies, i.e. reliving an irritating experience over and over and getting madder and madder in the process (actually if you remained calm, it would be desensitization!). Thus, current theories make all kinds of predictions: anger is thought to grow if it is fully expressed or unexpressed or imagined or totally denied. In other words, psychologists don't agree, strongly indicating we don't understand anger very well yet.

 The practical distinctions between a "swallower" and an "exploder" are especially clear when applying this method. An inhibited, suppressed person must first learn to accept all of his/herself, including the scary boiling rage. The "swallower" has had years of socialization: "Don't get so mad." "Stop acting like a little baby." "Wipe that smirk off your face before I knock it off." So one of his/her first tasks is to recognize his/her anger and learn to express it when alone. Part of method #8 in chapter 12 deals with the "swallower's" difficulties with expression. On the other hand, the "exploder" should have no difficulty venting his/her anger, it comes naturally, except now he/she has to learn to do it alone so it won't hurt anyone.

 Healthy, effective venting will probably involve (a) exhaustion, i.e. vigorously expressing the feelings (punching a pillow, crying about the hurts) until you are drained, (b) an intention and belief (or self-suggestion) that venting will rid you of the accumulated anger forever, and (c) an open-mindedness to new insights as the angry feelings are expressed physically, verbally, and in your thoughts. See method # 10 in chapter 12 for a full description. Observe the consequences of your venting carefully, if it isn't working, try some other approach.

 Even a major anti-catharsis writer like Tavris (1984) cites Scheff (1979) and says, "ventilating anger directly can be cathartic, but only if it restores your sense of control, reducing both the rush of adrenaline...and reducing your belief that you are helpless or powerless." In other words, expressing anger right in the other person's face feels good and gets the venom out of your system if it works for you, i.e. rights some wrong or gets the other person to change, and, at the same time, avoids creating more conflict and stress. She admits that it is risky business when directly confronting the person you are mad at. I agree and I'm not recommending direct, explosive, face-to-face attacks. Tavris never seems to consider private catharsis.

 Catharsis occurs quite often in therapy where it is almost universally considered therapeutic. But there is very little research into the effectiveness of self-generated fantasy and exercises (like beating a pillow) for venting and reducing anger. There is some evidence that expressing anger at the time you are upset reduces aggression later (Konecni, 1975). So, in spite of having little relevant scientific information to guide us, I'd rely on extensive therapeutic experience (Messina, 1989) that says it helps to "get angry feelings out of our system." Namka's (1995) book specifically helps a family express their anger constructively. We need more and better research.

 Deal with anxiety, guilt, and low self-esteem. All environmental stresses and internal tensions seem to intensify our aggressive responses. Karen Horney thought chronic anger was a defense against emotional insecurity. Perhaps a sagging self-concept is particularly prone to prompt a hostile reaction to even minor offenses. Stress inoculation methods have been shown to reduce anger and increase self-esteem (Meichenbaum, 1985; Hains & Szyjakowski, 1990). Chapters 5, 6, 12, and 14 help change the emotions that may increase aggression.

 Deal with depression and helplessness. Our first response to frustration is often anger--a quick vigorous (but often unwise) reaction to "straighten out" the situation. If we are unable to escape or overcome the frustration, however, we eventually lose hope and become apathetic. See chapter 6.

 Make constructive use of the energy from anger. In contrast to the lethargy of depression, when we are angry, adrenaline flows and increases our blood pressure, we have lots of energy. Instead of using this "natural high" to hurt others, we can use it in constructive ways. Examples: if a smart student in your class annoys you, use your anger-energy to study more and be a better competitor. If it irritates you that you are out of shape and can't play some sport as well as others (or as well as you used to), use the resulting energy to get in shape, don't just eat or drink more and criticize others. I am not proposing you become a more competitive Type A personality; I'm not suggesting more anger but rather a more beneficial use of the anger already present. For instance, try starting your own self-help group for angry people; try helping others, such as by joining a local MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving).

Level III: Skills involved in avoiding or reducing anger

 It may be reasonable to assume that aggression and violence occurs when we do not have a better way of responding to the situation. In other words, we lack problem-solving and interpersonal skills. Isaac Asimov said, "Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent."

If the only tool you have is a hammer, you tend to treat everything as if it were a nail.

 Learn to be assertive with others. Assertiveness is tactful but firm; it is reasonable. Aggressiveness is inconsiderate, unreasonable, abrasive, and often an unfair angry over-reaction. Obviously, there will be less anger if you can be assertive rather than aggressive. Again the distinction between "swallowers" and "exploders" is useful. Swallowers need to learn to express their feelings, to stand up for their rights, to state their preferences and opinions, to immediately negotiate minor inconveniences or irritants. This is assertiveness. Quick effective action avoids the build up of anger, ulcers, and explosions. Exploders need to reduce their impulsive, hurtful anger, find better tactics for reducing conflicts, and, perhaps, learn ways to be more positive and empathic. Both swallowers and exploders need to be assertive. See method #3 in chapter 13.

Anyone can become angry. That is easy. But to be angry with the right person, to the right degree, at the right time, for the right purpose and in the right way--that is not easy.
-Aristotle

 Be empathic. See the Longfellow quote at the beginning of this chapter. The least angry people are the most able to understand others, able to put themselves "in the other person's shoes" and realize their motives and pain. It is a life-long, unending task to know or intuit the inner workings of others and to view every human life as a kindred spirit, in the sense of "but for the grace of God, I would be that person." See method #2 in chapter 13 for empathy responding and method #4 in chapter 14 for tolerance through determinism. The most soothing reaction to hostility (your own or someone else's) is genuine empathy.

 Practice emotional control by role-playing. There is no better way to learn new and better ways of interacting in difficult situations than to practice over and over with a friend. Watch how others handle the situation. Try out different approaches, get feedback, and practice until you are ready for real life. See method #1 in chapter 13.

 Learn to "fight" fairly. When you find our someone has been lying to you, you may feel like yelling at them or even hitting them. That isn't very smart. A reasonable solution is unlikely to come out of a big nasty verbal or physical fight. So, chill out. Some therapists recommend fighting "fairly." To fight fairly, first of all, you need to know why you are mad. For example, if you are over-reacting because you have had a bad day or because you are displacing anger from another person, that isn't fair. Then you and the other person (who lied) need to talk about how to fix the situation; you can even cry and shout about how upset or hurt you are, but no name-calling, no nasty put downs, no terrible threats, etc. Find out his/her viewpoint; get the facts. Stick with the current problem, don't dig up old grudges. Finally, state your views, hurts, fears, and preferences clearly; arrive at an "understanding," if possible, and an acceptable arrangement for the future.

 Some therapists (Bach & Wyden, 1968) believe that frustrations especially in an intimate relationship are better expressed--fully and dramatically-than suppressed. Yet, few relationships could survive frequent, uncontrolled, all-out expressions of raw, negative, permanently hurtful emotions. So, there are guidelines for verbally fighting in such a way that the couple can vent their feelings, resolve their conflicts, and continue liking each other. See method #5 in chapter 13.

I was angry with my friend:
I told my wrath, my wrath did end.
I was angry with my foe:
I told it not, my wrath did grow.

 Hold back your anger. Act like a mature, responsible adult. Like the debate about catharsis, therapists disagree about the best way to handle anger towards a loved one. Mace & Mace (1974) and Charny (1972) point out that anger is the greatest destroyer of marriages. Thus, instead of "fighting," as just suggested, they recommend that you (a) admit your anger, (b) moderate or control it, and (c) ask your partner for help in figuring out what two committed, caring people can do about the situation. Then work out an agreement. This is not a total suppression of anger, i.e. the conflict is resolved, but the intense emotions are never expressed as they are in fair fighting.

 "I" statements express anger constructively. There is great skill in knowing when, where, and how to resolve conflicts. Here are some steps to consider when planning how to handle a situation that upsets you:


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