Level V: Become aware and neutralize unconscious causes of aggression.
Avoid put-down games. Transactional Analysis describes several common interactions that either degrade and hurt others or build one's ego at the expense of someone else. For example, a person might unconsciously place others in a position to fail (e.g. a parent criticizing the housecleaning of a child or a teacher assigning very hard problems to students) and thereby make themselves look super competent. Much of our gossip is an "Ain't it awful!" game in which we get support from each other by putting down others. Read more about games in chapter 9.
Disliking others is costly. Research confirms that hot headed, hostile people prone to cynical, antagonistic interactions (compared to less angry people) are, as you might expect, less open-minded, less tolerant, less understanding, less socially responsible, and more likely to have chronic heart disease. There are many good reasons to get serious about reducing our anger and critical intolerance. Becoming aware of unconscious processes, like games, is not easy, however.
Look for unconscious payoffs. Conscious payoffs were discussed above, including using the threat of anger to manipulate others. At the semi-conscious or unconscious levels there are more hidden rewards, such as a boss blustering around implying some people may be fired to build his/her own ego. Other examples: fighting to avoid intimacy and dependency (see family conflicts section above), getting mad to justify breaking up, building a resentment of another group or race to justify discrimination, getting mad at parents about assigned chores to justify "forgetting" to do them, etc.
Vicious anger is usually just another way of laying on a guilt trip.
A common "game" used by us as children involves making a parent mad so that he/she feels guilty, then the parent will give us--as a "poor little victim"--what we want. So your anger may be part of some one else's scheme to manipulate you, i.e. another person is profiting from your loss of emotional control. Another example: There is considerable sick satisfaction in being able to drive someone else "up the wall." Kids do it but it isn't just a kids' game.
Watch for guilt, self-hatred, self-defeating and I-don't-deserve-it attitudes. Do you harshly blame yourself? Guilt can add to the stress that creates anger towards others or which sets overly demanding standards expected of ourselves or others. It is not uncommon for a formerly poor person to feel they do not deserve the advantages and material gains that come with success. Read Rubin's (1975), Compassion and Self-hate, cited above, Karen Horney's (1942), Self-analysis, Karl Menninger's (1956), Man Against Himself, or Martha Friedman's (1980), Overcoming the Fear of Success.
Guard against displaced aggression. This was discussed under "Frustration and Aggression" and "Prejudice" above. Displacement may occur person to person (boss to spouse), group to group (as in prejudice), or situation to general irritability (as when miserable job or a life filled with broken promises results in chronic grouchiness). Awareness of the displacement may reduce the anger or make solutions easier to see.
Avoid hostility-generating groups and sub-cultures. Group membership provides ready made hostility and/or aggressive attitudes towards other groups. There are more and less violent-prone subcultures and religions. The Old Testament "Jehovah" and Allah of Islam are angry gods, encouraging aggression against our enemies and the wicked. In contrast, Eastern philosophies of Buddhism and Taoism teach that everything is predestined, so frustration and anger are foolish. Christianity is middle-of-the-road regarding anger: God is loving but angry aggression may be used to right wrongs. And, many millions of lives have been gallantly sacrificed to supposedly settle religious differences.
As Tavris (1989) points out, in the secular part of the Christian world "the meek did indeed inherit the earth, (not to own it but) to plow, to plant, and to harvest for their masters." It took a horrendous war to abolish slavery, and we aren't over the racial prejudices 130 years later (see Black Rage by Grier & Cobbs, 1968, and D'Souza, 1995). There are class (rich-poor) and ethnic hostilities around the world.
Americans are the world's greatest killers! In 1980, handguns killed 8 people in Britain, 4 in Australia, 24 in Switzerland, 77 in Japan, and 11, 522 in the good old US of A.
In the U.S., one out of 20 black males is killed before he reaches age 25.
The attitudes of our friends and family are powerful determinants of our feelings towards others. If they are hateful, we are likely to be the same, unless we can escape. Of course, it is a contribution to the group and to yourself if you can reduce the animosity within your group. But this is a difficult task; finding new friends is probably easier.
Gain insight by reading, exploring your history, and using awareness techniques. Look for unconscious motives behind your anger. Were you neglected, over-controlled, mistreated, or hurt as a child? Is there "unfinished business" inside you that spills out into other relationships? Is it possible, if you see other people as being inconsiderate, unfair, and mean, that you are projecting your own negative feelings and hostile tendencies onto others? Explore your thoughts and feelings that lie below the surface. Reading about the sources of anger in others will help you find the origin of your own anger.
Maslin (1994) illustrates how anger can destroy a marriage. Her view is that the dynamics are often unconscious, e.g. two people may fight all the time because they both need excessive attention or need to be taken care of. Other couples may constantly battle about jealous feelings or excessive attention to others of the opposite sex, which may reflect underlying unconscious fears of loss or total commitment. What you are angry about is often not the real problem. Reading can help you find the secret causes.
Chapter 15 provides guided fantasies, dream analysis, focusing, Gestalt exercises and other methods for increasing self-understanding of our anger. An encounter group or self-help group can be especially helpful in uncovering who we like and dislike--and why. It also helps us cope if we understand who likes and dislikes us--and why.
It is possible to learn to relate and feel differently towards certain types of people. Even if one has felt superior and been prejudice, extensive reading about the abuse and awful conditions surrounding the American Indian, inter-city Blacks, migrant workers, people in Third World nations, etc. may arouse sympathy and a desire to help improve those conditions. Most people would say, however, that it usually takes time and meaningful interaction with individuals of the outgroup before one can truly claim to have overcome his/her prejudices (See chapter 9).
There is an enormous amount of reading material covering many aspects and types of anger. I've already tried to guide you to the best sources for handling several kinds of aggression. But insight may come from a different kind of book. Sharing the experiences of others by reading case studies should be very helpful in starting to learn the complex interpersonal dynamics of anger and jealousy. Wile (1993) describes in an enlightening way the self-talk, especially the criticism and the defensiveness, that causes and exacerbates marital fights. I strongly recommend Lerner (1985), especially for women in intimate relationships. Also, a well-written summary of current research about anger in several situations, such as in families, friendships, sports, etc., is given by Tavris (1989). Professionals rate both Lerner and Tavris very highly (Stantrock, Minnett & Campbell, 1994).
Tedeschi & Felson (1994) theorize about the social interaction aspects of aggression, e.g. power plays, intimidation, gaining status, getting even, and so on. Other books for professionals explore female rage (Valentis & Devane, 1994), emotional abuse (Loring, 1994), emotional incest (Love, 1992), verbal abuse (Evans, 1993), male violence against women (Koss, et al., 1994), and treating survivors of abuse (Walker, 1993). Freeman (1990) focuses more on the childhood origins of anger. Goldberg (1994) believes that uncovering our anger can increase our capacity for love. Stearns and Stearns (1986) have written a history of anger, showing the impact of cultural attitudes; that is another facet of the problem.
Other generally useful self-help books focusing on anger are Potter-Efron (1994, 1995), McKay, Rogers & McKay (1989), Ellis (1985), Sonkin & Durphy (1989), Bach & Wyden (1976), Bilodeau (1993), and Weisinger (1985). Elgin (1994) helps people deal with a verbal abuser and Paymar (1993) helps abusive men. Friedman (1991) has summarized the connections among hostility, coping, and health. Similarly, Williams and Williams (1993) have shown the connection between the "Hostility Syndrome" and heart disease; they tell you how to reduce your anger (much like this chapter).
Research Press in Champaign, IL offers several videos dealing with anger control: Learning to Manage Anger for teens ($200 or $55 rental), Dealing with Anger for African American youth ($495), Anger Management for Parents ($200 or $55 rental). New Harbinger Publications has two videos: Time out from Anger and Coping with an Angry Partner.
Realize that intense anger can be dangerous. If you are close to loosing control of your anger, realize this is not normal and you need to get treatment right away. Hostility can preoccupy, distort, and disable your mind; it can interfere with all other activities and may goad you into doing foolish and mean things. See Walker's (1990) description of murder by battered women. An uncontrollably angry person (both aggressor and victim) is afflicted with a terrible ailment; he/she is to be pitied; he/she needs immediate professional help. (Likewise, if someone is very angry at you, protect yourself! See discussion below.)
Note: if you continue to have a serious temper and/or are frequently irritated, even after earnestly reading and trying some self-help methods, it is very important that you consult a well trained therapist and consider getting medication (antidepressants sometimes help).
A reasonable summary is provided by the Institute of Mental Health Initiatives (202-364-7111), which tries to persuade the media (e.g. soaps) and schools to teach anger-control techniques. They use the handy little acronym of R-E-T-H-I-N-K to stand for seven skills for quieting unnecessary ire: R-recognize your emotion. Is it anger or threat or shame...? E-empathize with the other person. Try to understand their viewpoint and feelings? Express your feeling with "I" messages. T-think about your thinking. Am I being unreasonable? Am I awfulizing or musturbating? Look at the situation rationally, will it harm me a year from now? H-hear the other person and check out your perception by empathizing. I-integrate respect for every human into your feelings. "I mad but I still love you." N-notice your physiological responses. Learn to quickly calm down before losing control. K-keep on the topic, don't dig up old grudges. Look for compromises and solutions, including how to avoid situations that trigger your anger (the same thing often sets us off over and over). Very similar to Seneca in 60 AD.
Not all anger is bad. Lastly, after all these warnings, suggestions, and methods for controlling anger, I must underscore that although anger is unpleasant and potentially dangerous, it is often a beneficial and commendable emotion. Anger (not violence) is often justified. When that is so, if properly controlled, anger is a reasonable and effective reaction to an unfair or offensive situation. Anger is often necessary to change things! Specifically, anger motivates us to do something. Anger discloses unpleasant truths to others. Anger communicates that we are upset, that we can and will express ourselves, and that we are determined to correct a bad situation. Anger can over-ride our fears that keep us withdrawn and compliant. Anger, properly utilized, gives us a sense of pride when we exert some control and improve a bad situation. Non-violent anger used to right wrongs is no vice, it is a virtue. Naturally, there is a book (Fein, 1993) about harnessing this powerful emotion for good purposes.